Nobody was buying what Jahlil Okafor and his representation were trying to sell during the previous free agency period: a physically healthy, in-a-good-place mentally and a more traditional back-to-the-basket center.
Then on August 8th the New Orleans Pelicans took the plunge by signing the 22-year-old to a very team friendly two-year contract, with only $50,000 of the money guaranteed up front and the second year a team option.
In recent days, that contract has gone from a widely assumed afterthought to possibly one of the best bargains in the NBA — this year and next.
Jahlil Okafor's last 4 games:— Oleh Kosel (@OlehKosel) January 27, 2019
24 PTS, 15 REB, 3 BLK
18 PTS, 8 REB
17 PTS, 10 REB, 6 BLK
20 PTS, 10 REB, 2 BLK
This level of production for $1,567,007 -- the 377th highest salary in the NBA.
Oh, and the Pelicans have the option to bring him back for $1,702,486 next year. #Steal https://t.co/74vyYyQtTv
After beating Emeka Okafor out for a roster spot in preseason, the Pelicans still had Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic, Julius Randle and Cheick Diallo ahead of the third overall pick from the 2015 NBA Draft on the depth chart. Moreover, with the coaching staff placing the emphasis on an ultra fast pace, playing time over the first couple of months was extremely sparse.
Following a particularly bad loss at home against the Miami Heat on December 16 though, where Mirotic was sidelined with an ankle injury, Randle had to leave the game early after rolling an ankle and Diallo was in the midst of some serious struggles, I asked Gentry in a practice a few days later about the possibility of Okafor soon finding his way into the rotation.
“I think you’ll see him soon,” said the Pelicans head coach. “Obviously, we’re in a situation now where we’re depleted from a big guy standpoint. He’s worked extremely hard, I’ll tell you that. He’s worked as hard as anybody every single day he comes in here.”
Sure enough, Okafor received 13 minutes of game action the very next day and contributed a whopping 17 points, three rebounds and two blocks in Milwaukee.
Prior to that December 19th game against the Bucks, Okafor appeared in but 12 contests; however, only three of those included any real action — averaging 10+ minutes in non-garbage time situations. Since that time, he’s appeared in 18 of 19 games and hasn’t been able to stop piling up the impressive stats, displaying fantastic effort and becoming a favorite of fans and the coaching staff.
“Well he just played – he’s been really good in what we’re trying to do,” said Alvin Gentry to postgame media following the 126-114 loss to the Spurs last night. “It’s not like we’re just taking the ball and every time throwing it to him in the post. He’s been stepping out on the floor, screening. He’s done a great job of rolling in the pocket and catching the basketball. He’s done a really good job at taking his time and really kind of observing what is there for him and he’s done a really good job at reading the defense so we’re not force feeding him or anything like that. He’s just doing a good job within the confines of what we’re trying to do, offensively, and getting himself in good situations.”
Plus teammates have taken notice.
“Jah’s an animal; he’s a monster,” said Frank Jackson after Saturday’s loss to the Spurs. “He’s a big dude. He’s so talented; he’s so skilled. He’s taken advantage of the opportunity that was given to him. Jahlil’s such a talented basketball player — he’s doing what Jahlil Okafor does.”
As Gentry and Jackson alluded to, Jahlil Okafor has been more than a one-dimensional scorer. In fact, an argument could be made that he’s met the well-rounded qualifications set by arguably the best center the game has ever seen.
“An effective center should have the ability to deny the opposition any easy points in the paint,” said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to The Atlantic in May, 2012. “Offensively, a great center will have an arsenal of shots that make him impossible for one man to guard.”
Okafor has torched opponents to a tune of a 62.7% field goal percentage since joining the rotation in the middle of December. That’s ten percentage points higher than Julius Randle and eleven more than Anthony Davis over the same time frame.
Rudy Gobert (64.3 FG%) and DeAndre Jordan (64.2 FG%) are the official leaders in field goal percentage, but it’s important to note that neither likes to shoot outside of the restricted area, average more than ten total shot attempts per 36 minutes or show a proficiency higher than 35% from three to ten feet away from the hoop. Okafor has range beyond the restricted area, averages 13.8 FGA per 36 minutes and shoots 44.2% from 3-10 feet. And everyone’s eyes should be in agreement that Okafor has by far the best footwork and dizzying array of moves on the block among the trio.
Jahlil Okafor has been, honestly, incredible offensively in New Orleans pic.twitter.com/2NSNWcB6dL— Justin Jett (@JustinJett_) January 26, 2019
The knock on Jah’s career has always been a lack of defensive awareness and aptitude, but this season he’s doing a good job of changing that trend. In addition to his 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes, Okafor is currently the Pelicans best defender at the rim as opponents have combined to shoot 47.4% at the hoop against him. That’s a much stronger figure than Gobert’s 56.7 FG% allowed at the rim as well as Jordan’s 58.9%. In fact, among all players who have appeared in a minimum of 25 games, no one has recorded a stronger field goals defended at the rim percentage through this point of the season.
However, if stats aren’t your thing, then just ask the recently departed Detroit Pistons — and Blake Griffin in particular — of what they think about Okafor’s paint presence and help defense.
Jahlil Okafor has been a revelation thus far and Basketball Reference thoroughly agrees. Among all players who have garnered more than 300 minutes this season, only eight are averaging at least 19.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes: Ivica Zubac, Boban Marjanovic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jusuf Nurkic and Jah.
Very little has gone right for the Pelicans in a season loaded with expectations, but Okafor is poised to ease some of that pain. After getting his mind, body and soul right over the summer, New Orleans landed a gem of a producer and he’s become one of the easiest players in the league to root for — a super cordial and appreciative guy who is writing one hell of a great comeback story.