Rookies Deconstructed: Jahlil Okafor
Jahlil Okafor can already score points with the grace and force of few players in the NBA. The way he does all that calls for some very flattering comparisons.
Illustration by Elliot Gerard
This season's rookie class could be something special. There is talent and depth, size and skill, and the promise that there could be a few transcendent players in the mix. Oddly, though, some elements of each player's game and physical presentation feel familiar. Rookies Deconstructed is a series that means to take each rookie apart, identifying the building blocks we know and the natural comparisons that emerge and appreciating how they come together in ways that are radically and invigoratingly new. Because these are rookies, with just under half a season under the belts, some comparisons are necessarily forward-looking.
Jermaine O'Neal and the Two-Sided Coin
The post-up and the face-up are two sides of the same coin when it comes to scoring in the paint; the best around the basket can do both. There are different advantages to presenting either your back or your front to a defender. The post-up is slightly more mysterious, protecting as it does both the ball and the scorer's intentions. The face-up puts the cards on the table, challenging the defense to be faster, quicker, more responsive, or risk conceding two points and/or the occasional shooting foul. The most intriguing bigs send that point-scoring coin spinning on end, which manifests as a massive man whirling to the basket, front to back and back to front.
Jermaine O'Neal was one of those abnormally large men, first as a baby-faced lump of clay for the Portland Trail Blazers, then an offensive pillar and borderline MVP candidate for the Indiana Pacers. He had a pillowy mid-range touch, but more than 60 percent of his career field goal attempts came within 10 feet of the basket. A good many of those shots were earned through brute force and the liberal application of backside, but O'Neal also had a stunning face-up game. This was constructed from several elements: the threat of the mid-range jumper, a vicious jab-step, an explosive first step, and an exquisitely controlled spin move, all of which could be linked together in multidirectional sequences. It's important to remember that O'Neal was 6'11", listed at 226 points but probably a good deal thicker in his prime. That's much bigger than face-up phenoms like Amar'e Stoudemire or Blake Griffin.
It takes a special kind of quickness and agility to control the centrifugal force of sending a body that size through a series of spin moves, to move that bulk to a spot four feet away before an equally big defender can get there. O'Neal had it, and Jahlil Okafor does, too.
At this point, Okafor offers low-post scoring and not much else, but watching him earn those points in the paint is already well worth the price of admission. He often seems to be working directly from the O'Neal playbook: an almost laughably devastating first step for a man of his size, a drive and head fake that melts into a soft turnaround jumper, precise spins that never sacrifice his center of gravity and frequently leave a defender bodying up against empty space. Okafor is a little more kinetic than O'Neal. Whereas Jermaine preferred to stop and size up his man, plotting out his destruction, Okafor is constantly in motion, often setting things up with a rocking crossover dribble that's a little more reactive to the openings that appear. However the sequence is initiated, it usually ends the same way: a frustrated opponent collecting the ball as it drops through the net.
Tim Duncan and the Geometry
The glory of Tim Duncan's post game has long since faded. As his role with the Spurs became complementary and he gave way to the team's whirling contraption of screens and cuts and corner threes, the opportunities to watch him work in the post have gradually diminished. To date, he has finished just 100 post-up possessions this season, an average of slightly more than two a game. The less we see it, the harder it is to remember just how prolific he once was. Some post-scorers are artists, some puppet-masters; Duncan was a mathematician. He will, of course, be remembered for his lengthy term as Head Curator of the Museum of the Baseline Bank Shot, but that was just one example of how he played all the angles.
The arc of Duncan's spin move was malleable and responsive; rolling around the circumference somehow always brought him to empty space. His touch was light, gentle even, but it was the set-up that allowed him to finish in so many ridiculous tight spaces. Duncan's (offensive) gift was the ability to contort that seven-foot frame and all its elongations into a myriad of inorganic shapes, so that whatever angle he was shooting from was just out of reach of the defense. I would wager he might be the NBA's career leader in made field goals that were this close to being blocked. A human compass and T-square, it was all exactly as designed.
That mastery of shapes and angles is a rare gift; very few post scorers have it. Others use brute strength or length or footwork and feints, but most are always working toward a favorite spot on the floor and a pet move—a right-handed jump-hook, say, or a short turnaround. Okafor, like Duncan, seems to carry with him none of that weight of preference and tendency. He can make that 25-degree bank shot that has no business hitting the right spot on the backboard, let alone dropping in. He can take all the space you give him and drill the 15-footer. Move in a little closer and he can get you with either hand, from pretty much any spot and any angle. The defense is scrambling around him and he is, in the span of milliseconds, working in AutoCAD drafting an unstoppable scoring sequence.
Of all the things that make Okafor uniquely talented as an interior scorer, this innate sense of the moment, the ability to not just make an enormous variety of shots but to find the perfectly appropriate one for the situation, might be the most special.
DeMarcus Cousins and Physical Resilience
Strength is the universal currency of post play. You can have Jermaine O'Neal's face-up game and Tim Duncan's touch, but if you put them Keith Closs's body, it's still a fart in a hurricane. Bruising power is not the only way to get through the door, but enough strength to hold your position and finish through contact is the skeleton key that unlocks all skills. The current crucible of well-leveraged low-post physicality is one Boogie Cousins, Esquire.
Cousins complains to the referees—a lot—but he's usually got a case. The man takes an absolute pounding. He's also in an unfortunate category with Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard; like them, his strength is so viscerally striking that you can miss the degree to which he's being beaten up. He doesn't flinch. He doesn't lose his balance. He doesn't get knocked off course or off-kilter. He just powers through. That physical resiliency is a piece of Cousins' versatility. It's why he can back down a defender to a weakened position of his choosing. It's why he can't be kept away from the offensive glass and it's why defenses part before his drives. Except he doesn't pass through untouched. Defenders bounce off him.
Size and strength is what brings the whole post-scoring package together for Okafor. He is, if you believe listed heights and weights at Basketball-Reference.com, the same size as Cousins; that's 50 pounds heavier than O'Neal and 25 pounds heavier than Duncan if you're keeping score at home. He is also very close to Cousins' equal in using that size and strength anyway he needs to. Bulk can sometimes be a detriment in the post, because it is often accompanied by slow feet and laborious movement. Okafor suffers from none of those problems, and his face-up footwork and finishing ability are made elite by virtue of strength. Even when the defense can keep up with him or gets lucky jumping an angle to the basket, they are usually no match for that last factor—the pure physical force of Okafor in motion.
Okafor's post-game is as complete and as thoroughly refined as any rookie who has entered the league in at least a decade. The packaging together of these elements makes him a once-in-a-generation talent in this area. Unfortunately, it's a narrow area that is becoming increasingly marginalized as the league changes around him. What Okafor does simply isn't valued or emphasized in the way it used to be. O'Neal, Duncan, and Cousins are impressive company, but they also lived (and are living, in Cousins' case) full NBA lives, enriched with extravagances like defense, rebounding, shot-blocking, leadership, and team offense. Right now, at just barely 20 years old, Jahlil Okafor is absurdly good at one thing. There is still plenty to develop. All things considered, though, it's not a bad place to start.