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2019-20 Player Preview: Jahlil Okafor can be key contributor for Pelicans team that is loaded on perimeter

Jah looks as decisive and effective as he ever has. That’s good news considering Zion Williamson’s injury news.

New Orleans Pelicans All Access Practice Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

A throwback.

A dinosaur.

A hybrid big man who can work the post, and handle the ball away from the basket.

How you look at the game of basketball may determine how you feel about Jahlil Okafor.

The 2015 top three lottery pick began a career reclamation of sorts last season with the Pelicans after stints with the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets. Okafor played in a career-high 59 games for New Orleans and logged more minutes than he had in the previous three seasons combined.

The 23-year-old big man from Duke started the season firmly attached to the Pelicans’ bench as he learned to compete on the defensive end; but once the Anthony Davis trade demand was made, Okafor was pushed into a larger role.

There was a period of adjustment, but over his final 38 games, which included 21 starts, Jahlil Okafor averaged 10.2 points and 6.0 rebounds while shooting 59.7 percent from the floor, in just under 20 minutes per night.

He had five double-doubles with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds, and his 30 points in last season’s finale was just a point shy of his career-high, which he set as a rookie.

Jah’s 58.6 shooting percentage was the highest of his career; and of the three seasons in which Okafor played 50 games or more, he set Per 36 career-highs in field goal percentage, offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, total rebounding, and steals.

One of the biggest factors in Okafor bringing himself back from the brink of obscurity was a renewed focus on his physical conditioning. Though he is listed at 275 pounds, he looks 20 pounds lighter.

“When you talk to him (now), what stands out is the way he rededicated himself and really worked on his body last summer,” said Pelicans GM Trajan Langdon to Jim Eichenhofer. “So in the last calendar year, he’s been able to keep his physique and keep his shape, which I think was huge in the way he performed (last) season, especially in the last couple months.”

For Okafor, it was a necessity as he continues to keep up with the evolution of the NBA frontcourt player.

“Guys are getting more athletic each and every year, so I have to try and find a way to keep up with that,” Okafor said in an interview with GQ magazine. “I realized I needed to change my body so I could become faster and stronger. It’s helped me out a lot.”

This preseason, it looked like the work has paid off. Okafor has been decisive, fluid, active, and effective.

Playing fewer than 16 minutes per game, Okafor averaged a rather impressive 10.3 points, and 4.8 rebounds, while shooting 70 percent from the floor. His true shooting percentage (72.3 TS%) was higher than that of DeAndre Jordan, Joel Embiid, and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Okafor’s Offensive Rating of 125.5 was tops among all centers who played at least 15 minutes per game during the preseason, and his 14.9 Net Rating was good for fifth; behind only Robin Lopez, Wendell Carter Jr., Myles Turner, and Jarrett Allen.

While Derrick Favors is rightfully ensconced as the starting center, Okafor can be an important contributor for a team that is loaded on the perimeter, but lacks depth among its bigs. When the Pelicans go to the bench, plays like this illustrate how Jahlil Okafor can prevent an offensive drop off.

The screen, roll, gather, and dunk are all part of one seamless sequence. With players like Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday, who are exceptional at getting to the basket, Okafor’s scoring ability forces defenses to stay honest.

Now, defensively, Okafor still has to get better. Outside of his rebounding, he doesn’t offer much as a rim protector. He’s never averaged more than 1.2 blocks per season, and he ranks 49th among all centers in Defensive Win Shares since the 2015-16 season.

More than anything else, his improvement on that end, or lack thereof, will determine how much playing time Okafor will get to see. If he can tap into the dexterity and nimble movements he displays as a scorer and utilize them as a defender, he makes the Pelicans a more dangerous team.

The motivation is there, with Okafor entering the final year of a contract that pays him $1.7 million this season. A great campaign could make him a very attractive target in next summer’s shallow free agent pool.

And, with Favors in the final year of his deal as well, Jah has the opportunity to prove to the Pelicans that he can be a part of the franchise’s core moving forward.

At the price, Jahlil Okafor is a tremendous bargain for the Pelicans. It’s in everyone’s best interest that Okafor doesn’t play like a bargain, not with Zion Williamson potentially missing 20 or more games to start the season. And not with rookies in Nicolo Melli and Jaxson Hayes the only other options up front.

Jahlil Okafor has a chance to establish a home for himself in New Orleans. The question is whether or not he’s going to take advantage.

2019-20 Player Previews:

Jrue Holiday

Didi Louzada

E’Twaun Moore

Derrick Favors

Nickeil Alexander-Walker

Frank Jackson

Kenrich Williams

Brandon Ingram

Lonzo Ball

Jaxson Hayes