1) The ups and downs of the Jahlil Okafor Experience

Everything people loved and hated about Jahlil Okafor coming out of Duke and all of his strengths and his weaknesses were on full display on Sunday. On one side of the ledger, he had 31 points and 8 rebounds on 19 shots. On the other side, he had the worst plus/minus (-28) of anyone on the team. When Jahlil is holding the ball in the mid to high post, he’s not looking to pass and there’s no room for anyone else to cut to the rim. The odd thing is that he was a pretty good passer at Duke – has he decided to go full YOLO and just put up as many numbers as possible? As far as his defense goes, the less said about it the better. The basic problem is that he’s slow and he’s checked out on that side of the ball. You can be one or the other and survive in the NBA. You can’t be both.

None of this is to say that he can’t be a good defensive player eventually. He’s not completely immobile and I don’t think he’s any slower than someone like Marc Gasol. The problem is that playing good interior defense is one of the hardest skills to pick up at the NBA level and that’s when a guy is totally bought in and is trying his hardest to call out the opposing team’s sets and anticipate what they are going to do before they do it. Jahlil still has to decide he wants to play defense before he can even worry about that learning curve.

It’s not a real surprise and it’s not really a knock on him that he hasn’t bought in on that side of the ball. Not a lot of elite scorers come into the league trying to play defense – the problem is that you can somewhat hide a poor defender at any of the other positions on the floor. There’s nowhere you can hide a 5 who can’t defend. The whole point of playing a 5 in the modern NBA is because of the value they bring as a rim protector and a second line of defense. It’s a defensive position before it’s an offensive position.

A good way to look at it is that the center in basketball is like the catcher in baseball – the position has so many defensive requirements that it almost doesn’t matter how good they are on offense as long as they can stay out of the way. The temptation to play an offensive-minded player at that position is super high because it’s such a value add in comparison to the rest of the league, but the problem is that sacrificing defense at that position for a big bat can really hamstring a team in a lot of subtle ways.

That’s the problem with building a team around an offensive-minded 5 – you are going to be waiting a long time for their defense to catch up. The Sacramento Kings have this problem with DeMarcus Cousins and the Orlando Magic have this problem with Nik Vucevic. DeMarcus has only begun to figure it out on defense in the last 2 years and that’s still pretty hit or miss. Vucevic hasn’t figured it out at all and my suspicion is that his presence at the 5 is one of the reasons why all the talent in Orlando hasn’t coalesced into a winning basketball team. There’s just a ceiling on how good your team can be when you are playing a sieve at the front of the rim – especially when there are a lot of young players in front of him who are making mental mistakes and giving up penetration – and it doesn’t matter how many points he’s scoring on offense if he’s giving up just as many on defense.

In terms of his overall skill-set, Jahlil is basically a 6’11 Carmelo Anthony. He’s as good a pure scorer as has come in the league in a long time and he can roll out of bed and get you 20-10 without breaking a sweat. He’s going to score a ton of points over his career – the question is whether they are going to be meaningful numbers or empty stats on a bad team. Like Carmelo, how good Jahlil’s team is going to be is going to depend on how good he is as a passer and a defender. The better he is, the better his team is going to be. If Jahlil becomes a plus passer and a plus defender, he’ll be on one of the best teams in the league because he’ll be making everyone better on both sides of the ball. If he’s a minus passer and minus defender, he’ll be on one of the worst because he’ll be making everyone worse. There’s a good chance that he puts it all together and is on one of the best teams in the league when he’s 28. The problem is that he’s 20.

2) Nerlens Noel aka The Human Eraser

There’s no better example of the effect that Jahlil has on his teammates than Nerlens. When Jahlil is in, Nerlens is floating around the perimeter on offense, not doing anything all that useful and trying to take guys off the dribble and aimlessly firing bullet passes through traffic. On defense, he’s chasing perimeter 4’s around the 3-point line and he’s way out of position to grab rebounds. When Jahlil is out, Nerlens is a rim-rolling menace on offense and a high-level rim protector on defense. Just take a look at the stats:

Nerlens w/o Jahlil:

PPS – 1.16
Usage rating – 20.5
True shooting – 58.0

Nerlens w/Jahlil

PPS – 1.03
Usage rating – 17.5
True shooting – 51.4

The numbers re-inforce what common sense tells you about playing two non-shooting big man together in the modern NBA – it’s not going to work and they need to break up this pairing sooner rather than later. The real concern with Jahlil is that it’s not just Nerlens either. Pretty much every player on their roster plays worse with Jahlil. You can’t blame him for how bad they are but he’s making a bad situation much worse than it has to be. One thing I like to do with basketball-reference is go to their line-up section and look at the net ratings of their top 2 man combinations in terms of minutes played. When you go to the 76ers page, what jumps out is that pretty much all of their worst 2 man combinations have Jahlil in them. He’s in 6 of their bottom 7.

Jahlil + Jerami Grant: -20.4
Jahlil + Nerlens Noel: -19.1
Jahlil + TJ McConnell: -19.0
Jahlil + Nik Stauskas: -18.6
Jahlil + Robert Covington: -14.9
Jahlil + Isaiah Canaan: -13.3

It’s not just that the 76ers are terrible because the average net rating of their top 20 most used two-man combinations is -10.6. Jahlil is a weight whose literally dragging the rest of his team down. The closest to a positive with Jahlil is Ish Smith (-9.8). There are four guys – Ish, Grant, McConnell and Covington – who have better net ratings with Nerlens.

The thing people don’t get about the draft is that it’s not just about finding the best players and maximizing the WARP you can select from your draft position. You have to draft players with an idea of what they are good at and what type of role they can have on a good team and then put them in a position to succeed. Nerlens could be a starter on an elite team if he’s the roll man in a spread pick-and-roll outfit surrounded by shooters and playing with a high-level PG. Asking him to be the 4-man in a two-post offense that wants to play in the half-court is a recipe for disaster. I’m not sure he fits with Joel Embiid and I know for a fact that he’s not going to fit with Okafor. Philly’s going to have to do something and there’s not exactly a huge market out there to make a big for wings trade.

Also he should be called The Human Eraser because he blocks shots and his haircut and thin frame make him look like a No. 2 pencil.

3) Team building vs. asset acquisition

Coincidentally enough, I watched the 76ers play on Sunday right after reading this article from red94 on the Rockets in the wake of the Motiejunas trade and the similarities between Daryl Morey and his protege Sam Hinkie really jumped off the page. Going all-in on acquiring superstars is great but even superstars need to be put in positions to succeed and not looking at how a player is going to fit holistically into a system means you are going to build a team that’s less than the sum of its parts. It’s hustling backwards basically.

In a vacuum, it makes sense to flip Motiejunas for a late lottery pick when he’s set to be an RFA in a few months and it makes sense to not pay Chandler Parsons $15 million a year. In terms of ROI, the Rockets got the best value that anyone is ever going to get on Motiejunas and Parsons. The problem is that they ended up developing Motiejunas and Parsons for someone else and they missed out on the prime of their careers because they were more concerned with saving cap space to chase a superstar who probably isn’t going to want to come to Houston anyway. Even when they do, there’s no real plan to build a team around them except gather as many assets as possible and there’s no way to develop continuity when so much of the supporting cast is changing every season.

It’s the same thing to a more limited extent in Philly. They’ve had Nerlens for 3 years and they are no closer to fitting him into a role that makes sense for his skill-set. They are just trying to draft the player with the most upside at every spot in the draft and hoping they will be able to figure it out later. The problem is they aren’t figuring anything out and the guys they are drafting are making each other worse and not better. You can’t draft players in a vacuum – if they have 4 first-round picks in this year’s draft, who they draft with their first pick should have a huge impact on who they draft with their 2nd and their 3rd and their 4rth. That’s also why there’s a diminishing return for having too many draft picks because you can only commit to building around so many young players at a time. Whose their core and who are they trying to build around right now? Who knows?

4) Nik Stauskas and the Tools Problem

If you want to know why most scouts value physical tools over college numbers, take a look at these numbers:

Player A: 17.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists on 47/44/84 shooting
Player B: 16.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists on 46/42/81 shooting

Player A was Nik Stauskas. Player B was Rodney Hood. Stauskas was the No. 8 overall pick and Hood fell all the way to No. 23. Two years later, Hood is drawing comparisons to James Harden and Stauskas is barely hanging onto a spot in the league. There’s nothing in the NCAA stats that’s going to tell you that Player B is going to be a vastly better NBA player than Player A. You have to look beyond the numbers and see that Hood is a smooth athlete at 6’8 215 while Stauskas was going to struggle with size and physicality at the next level at 6’6 205. No matter what sport it is, there’s nothing people love bringing up more than college players who outperform their physical measurements at the next level. The reason those are interesting stories, though, is because they are the exception that proves the rule.

More often than not it ends up with guys like Stauskas getting drafted way too high because they put up inflated stats in an NCAA system designed to maximize their numbers. It’s a lot like what happened with Trey Burke – Nik Stauskas is a Texas Tech QB. He’ll stick in the league because he’s a shooter with size, some ball skills and a quick release but he’s not big like Klay and he can’t shoot like Steph. That was an illusion and that’s the reason you have scouts because they are paid to see through stuff like that. Imagine where the Kings would be right now if they had Rodney Hood penciled in as their starting SG.

5) Lightning round asset evaluation

As someone who follows the college game and the draft so closely, the 76ers are one of the most interesting teams in the league for me because they have so many guys I’ve been tracking for years and am trying to figure out what they are going to be in the NBA.

TJ McConnell – The big difference between him at Arizona and in the NBA is that he’s shooting 3’s. He has to be a plus shooter because he’s not big or athletic enough to be anything more than a guy at the next level. His ceiling is as a pretty average backup PG and I’m not sure a player with such a limited skill-set is going to survive all the purges that the 76ers are going to have to do over the next few years to get all their picks on their roster.

Hollis Thompson – He’s tall (6’8 205) and he shoots 3 so that should be enough for him to stick in the league for awhile. He doesn’t really do anything else too well but he’s functional enough to not kill you on either side of the ball. The 76ers should probably be bringing in more guys like Thompson who can shoot instead of athletes with no range.

Jerami Grant – Grant is a prototype small-ball 4 defensively – he can guard in the post, switch on the pick-and-roll and protect the rim. The problem is that he can’t shoot and I’m almost at the point where I’m like who cares with guys like that. If he can’t shoot, you might could slot him as a small-ball 5 but there’s going to be a ton of competition for the non-shooting slot in the line-up in the modern NBA.

Richaun Holmes – Case in point. Like Grant, he’s a super athlete. The difference is that he has more meat on his bones so it’s easier for him to play at the 5 despite giving up height. I’m a little behind on him because I can’t front like I watched much Bowling Green when he was in college but I’m definitely intrigued.

Robert Covington – The crown jewel of their developmental model. He’s bigger, more athletic and more fluid with the ball than Thompson. He might be a starting small-ball 4 on a good team but he’s probably going to be best as a bench shooter. That’s a problem when the crown jewel is a 7th or an 8th man on a good team.

Isaiah Canaan – He can shoot 3’s off the dribble but he’s undersized, he’s not a playmaker and he isn’t even shooting all that well in Philly. The competition to be a combo guard off the bench is even more fierce than to be a small-ball 5 and I’m not sure Canaan has enough to beat all those guys out. Just to pick a name out of a hat, I’d probably rather have Joe Young than him.

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