Luke DeCock

Duke’s Okafor has potential to make NBA teams pay for passing

There were certainly times where Jahlil Okafor looked a little aloof, but he was also part of a team that won a national title. He was an overwhelming success in college both as an individual and on a team, something recent Duke one-and-dones like Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker couldn’t say.
There were certainly times where Jahlil Okafor looked a little aloof, but he was also part of a team that won a national title. He was an overwhelming success in college both as an individual and on a team, something recent Duke one-and-dones like Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker couldn’t say. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Bad NBA teams are getting ready to do the kind of thing that makes them bad NBA teams again.

There’s a lot of smoke around the NBA draft, but some conventional-wisdom scenarios have not only Karl-Anthony Towns but possibly D’Angelo Russell and Mario Hezonja going ahead of Duke’s Jahlil Okafor in Thursday’s first round.

This has the potential to be a classic NBA draft screw-up, the kind mocked decades later. Okafor may not be perfect, but his caliber of low-post moves haven’t been seen around the league in a generation. He’s going to be an offensive weapon in the post for years to come. But Okafor came into the season projected as the No. 1 pick, which meant everyone spent more time looking for his flaws than appreciating his abilities.

Towns’ athleticism and elite defensive ability, along with flashes of outside shooting touch, have moved him past Okafor as the consensus No. 1 pick. There’s nothing wrong with that. Both Towns and Okafor are foundation-type post players, even if each specializes on different ends of the court. Towns is probably a better fit for today’s NBA, Okafor a better fit for the ’80s and ’90s.

Bad NBA teams, the ones that miss the playoffs more often than not, annually botch the draft because they love to talk themselves into players for their potential, ignoring what they can actually do. Not only is Okafor not likely to go No. 1 to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who appear set to take Kentucky’s Towns, he could slip past the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 2, especially if they trade the pick to a team infatuated with Russell, and perhaps even beyond.

With Joel Embiid (assuming he’s ever healthy) and Nerlens Noel in the post, the 76ers could pass on Okafor if he falls to No. 3. The New York Knicks, Orlando Magic and Sacramento Kings come next. It’s hard to imagine the Knicks passing on Okafor, but it’s equally hard to imagine Isiah Thomas being put in charge of their WNBA franchise, and that actually happened.

There are legitimate concerns about Okafor’s ability to play pick-and-roll defense in what is increasingly a pick-and-roll league, as well as his motor and quickness. These weaknesses were on full display during his one season at Duke.

And yet to focus on those overlooks what he can do: Okafor has the most devastating and versatile arsenal of post scoring moves of any player to enter the draft in decades. You just don’t see that in basketball today, at any level.

His defense needs work, no question. But he taught himself post moves in high school by watching video of old NBA players. If someone wants to take the time to teach him some defense, and he’s willing to put in the same amount of work, there’s a pretty good chance he can become a passable NBA defender, at least to the point where he’s not a liability.

There were certainly times where Okafor looked a little aloof, but he was also part of a team that won a national title. He was an overwhelming success in college both as an individual and on a team, something recent Duke one-and-dones like Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker couldn’t say.

The consistently good NBA teams haven’t forgotten all of that, but they pick at the back of the first round. (The Lakers are a rare exception here, but if they trade the pick all bets are off.) Bad teams fall in love with the flavor of the month. That could be Russell, Ohio State’s freshman point guard. That could be Hezonja, a 6-foot-8 Croatian wing who played in Spain this season.

They’re both good players and potentially superstars, but they’re both perimeter players, the kind available in the top five of any NBA draft. Post players like Okafor don’t come around very often. A few perennially bad teams may forget that Thursday night, and pay the price for years to come.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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