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Deeper Dive: Please STOP with this Jahlil Okafor Can't Play Defense Nonsense

by Photo of Tommy Dee

Why has the Blue Devils big man been branded with such an unfair label?

Deeper Dive: Please STOP with this Jahlil Okafor Can't Play Defense Nonsense

Before I start this rant I want to be clear and I want you know that I do not care who the Knicks pick this year if they in fact have the first overall pick. Let me also be clear that I am NOT a devout fan of Duke Basketball. I went to the University of Maryland and know all the Gary Williams-inspired stories that he'd shout at all of his players Duke week at Cole Field House. And they were all classic.

"Bobby Hurley, Laettner, Grant Hill. All of them have always thought they can just walk in here and own this building and push you around," Williams would tell his players. "THEY THINK THEY ARE BETTER THAN YOU!!!"

Duke week, baby. One of my best friends was the manager during those years and there is nothing like sitting around the campfire talking about those stories from College Park. But I digress. I don't like Duke, but I like bad narratives even less. 

What's troubling me is that there's a real sentiment going around the interwebs that, if I didn't know better, is driven by people who aren't fans of Duke first, and basketball analysts second. Just Google "Jahlil Okafor defense" and see what I mean. There's no arguing it's a concern, but this idea that Okafor is an inept and incapable defender that echoes around social media is laughable. If Okafor played on, say, Florida, it's hard to argue that he'd be consensus number one, which he really has been all year anyway. I've watched the kid play all year and I have no problem saying this: He can absolutely anchor a defense despite what critics like this say about him (Patternofbasketball, 4/2).

There is this notion the "modern NBA" (Bleacher Report, O'Connor, 3/31) of which somehow Okafor doesn't fit. What's the "Modern NBA" you ask? Here's O'Connor's explanation. 

"Fitting Okafor on a roster that can maximize his strengths could also be a major issue in the modern NBA that places a large emphasis on both rim protection and floor-spacing big men, two areas where the Duke freshman struggles. Since Okafor can't stretch the floor offensively or protect the rim defensively, he'll need to be paired with a power forward who can do both. There are very few players like that in the league. We're talking about Anthony Davis, Serge Ibaka and ... who else? Ask any NBA executive what they'd do to get their hands on one of these special players."

Wait, doesn't Duke play a "modern" style currently? Isn't that why they recruit the legions of NBA pros in the first place? Don't they leave Okafor to guard the rim already while they hawk the perimeter? Don't they essentially play four guards and Okafor when it's most necessary? Duke often plays fast offensively with both Jones', Cook and Winslow along side Jahlil, but when you dig deeper into the numbers it gets better.  You learn they don't foul, they don't give up second shots, and they don't let you score close to the basket. They are the very definition of "modern" college basketball to say the least so how can people question if Okafor can play the style? He's doing it now. Most all of their major minutes guys are under 6'7 (Sports-Reference.com 4/2). 

They play small and get after you and while Okafor may look plodding at times, he still manages more than just to keep up. This is a testament to the attacking style on the perimeter directly led by the faith they have in Okafor, the anchor of their defense. Duke's opponents have made only 915 field goals this year, 345th in nation) and have made just 730 two-point field goals which was 350th in the country (Sports-Reference.com 4/2). People knock Okafor's athleticism but Duke was 15th in the nation in total rebounds as a team and have only allowed 408 offensive rebounds, 323rd in the country. That's out of 351 major Division-1 schools.

Duke has been playing great team defense over the past month and a half and Okafor has been the anchor behind it. 

Of course everyone HAS to compare Okafor to Karl Anthony-Towns, who is a better rim protector at this stage and we've done so already here in video form. Towns is a better athlete, but Okafor carries the weight that Towns will need to be a 30+ MPG, franchise center who can play 82ish NBA games. As Towns matures his athleticism will regress and he'll be forced to grind a lot below the rim defensively. He'll have to use his trunk and legs to establish position against bigger post players, which Okafor does today. Also, since the NCAA tournament started Okafor has only committed SIX FOULS (Miller, Bleacher Report, 3/30) and has seen Duke's defensive efficiency rating jump from 66th pre tourney to 17th overall (KenPom, 3/30).

Conversely, Towns is having serious foul issues recently, a sure sign of fatigue. Something Frank Kaminsky would love to take advantage of Saturday.

"5.7: Fouls per 40 minutes committed by Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns this season. However, that rate has been much higher as of late. Since March 14, he has committed 23 fouls in 123 minutes for a per-40 rate of 7.5. The Wildcats need him to stay on the court in these final two games."

Again, narratives are easy to spread, but when you dive deeper you can see that Okafor has been the anchor of a very solid defense that is peaking at the right time. He's also doing it on a very tender ankle after suffering an injury against rival North Carolina several weeks back. Is he actually healthy? If he isn't 100% that shows another real impressive quality that many franchise bigs have shared and that's durability. Towns, as a franchise center will have to play 82 games and play 30 plus minutes. That's a lot of minutes to log, if he's showing signs of fatigue now I would think that would alarm some folks. 

If you're judging Okafor's defense by his ability to defend top pick and roll in a spread, pro style offense, Okafor's lack of lateral footwork definitely needs improvement. No one could argue that. But who can defend top pick and roll in 4-spread? Also, if you are addicted to the latest buzz narrative "rim protection" then he probably rubs you the wrong way. Keep in mind that Rudy Gobert leads the NBA in rim protection and his Jazz are 15th in the NBA in overall defensive rating (Basketball-Reference.com, 4/2). And Gobert wasn't taken at the top of the draft. Roy Hibbert (3rd) and his Pacers are 10th,  Serge Ibaka's (4th) Thunder are 15th, Demarcus Cousins (7th) Kings are 27th, and Anthony Davis' (10th) Pelicans are 23rd. Rim protection is only part of the solution, look at the top rated defenses in the NBA and point out the team with an athletic big guarding the hoop. Rim protection is as much about defending the paint "under" the rim as it is defending "above" the rim. 

The same can be said about pick and roll. Because the NBA doesn't just track top pick and roll to my knowledge we'll take a look at how these rim protectors defend pick and roll. Let's focus specifically on how the big defends the roll defender, because every big that guards a smaller ball handler is at an immediate disadvantage. Per NBA Stats, the Houston Rockets lead the NBA in fewest points from a roll man and who is number two on the list you ask? The Milwaukee Bucks led by their wildly athletic, super freak center Zaza Pachulia and his 0.3 blocks per game. Third? The Memphis Grizzlies with their high flying tandem of Zack Randolph and Marc Gasol. Can either of them touch the rim? The top five finishes out with Phoenix and Dallas. The point being, defending the pick and roll, particularly the roll, is a total team game that doesn't need to start with an acrobatic center. 

Here's the reality. If your team lands a top 2 pick you're going to get a heck of a player in either Towns or Okafor all butt jokes aside (Berman, NY Post, 3/29). But if you're going to take the time to study players like Okafor on top of the hill, be sure to dig a little deeper on his defense. Again, you want your defense to be as much of an isolation game as you would your offense and great team defense starts on the ball and the perimeter. Perimeter defenders can be scrappy and aggressive if they know they have an anchor in the paint. 

Duke's defense was solid during the season and now is borderline exceptional as they head into Indiana and Okafor deserves a lot of credit for it, not criticism. They've given up no easy baskets and they haven't given any free points from the line this season. That's razor-like precision led by the team's center. They force teams to beat them from the perimeter, which means long rebounds out of Okafor's range and few shot block opportunities, which easily explains his modest stats in both categories. 

Okafor is 19 with plenty of room to grow. He's been hampered by an ankle injury, but he's shown the toughness and willingness to compete on every possession you'd like. He's not Shaquille O'Neal, Patrick Ewing or Tim Duncan defensively but, let's face it in today's "modern" NBA, who is?

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