I’m not a big Star Trek guy, but I remember watching this old “The Next Generation” episode where Scotty ended up in some time warp and found himself on the new version Enterprise. In one of the scenes he was talking to the ship’s engineer (Geordie LaForge) who was working on a report for Captain Picard. In their conversation Geordie was telling Scotty he had no time to talk because he told the captain he’d have this report for him in an hour and he needed to get it done.
Scotty asked Geordie “how long will the report really take you to finish?” and Geordie responded “an hour.” Scotty stared at him and said, “You told him how long it would really take? How do you expect him to think of you as a miracle worker if you told him how long it would really take?!”
If you’re still reading, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with Jahlil Okafor, the big man from Duke who many think will be available when the Lakers make the 2nd pick in the upcoming draft. Well, if Scotty was talking to Okafor, he’d probably tell him something very similar to what he told Geordie — that he had a problem managing expectations and that he should work on making some of the things he does seem a bit more difficult.
The disconnect between what Okafor makes look easy and how easy they are to actually do is enormous. College players who are the focal point of every defense they face shouldn’t shoot 66% from the field. They shouldn’t handle 2nd and 3rd defenders so well. They shouldn’t be able to pick out cutters or make skip passes to weak side shooters with as much ease. They shouldn’t be able to set up primary moves and counters simply by dipping a shoulder or feinting a drop step or head faking a defender. And they definitely shouldn’t be able to these things as a 19 year old freshman.
But there Okafor was, all season, doing those things each and every game for Duke. There he was throughout the NCAA Tournament making it look easy again. And there he was at the final buzzer of the National Championship game, celebrating with his teammates as the last team standing.
So, why isn’t Okafor the consensus #1 overall pick? The answer is both simple and reflective of how the very best prospects get treated over the course of a long college season and through the draft process.
You see, for most of the season, Okafor was the consensus #1 overall pick. After being the nation’s top recruit as a highschool player, Okafor showed all the polish, poise, and production expected of him. And then, well, those things started to get taken for granted and fans/evaluators/critics started to want more. They wanted more consistent effort. They wanted to see him change ends better. They wanted higher rebound totals. And, of course, they wanted better defense.
It’s not like Okafor was loafing. Or that he was bad on the glass. Or that he was not playing any defense. These things just weren’t the best part of his game. He didn’t play with a high motor all the time partly because he was expected to be on the floor for 30 or more minutes a night and carry his team’s offense. He wasn’t always great on the glass because he was often moving into his man to box out rather than going directly after the ball. And he wasn’t always in a position to contest shots because his team’s scheme was pretty conservative and, again, he was expected to be on the floor as much as possible which made him averse to fouling and, in turn, averse to challenging every single shot.
Of course, this isn’t the entire story. The full truth involves those things and the fact that Okafor does need to improve at defense and his work on the glass. And if you listen to him talk, he’ll be the first to tell you those things. In a recent sit down with Alex Kennedy from Basketball Insiders, Okafor discussed the need to get better:
“I know I’m going to get better,” Okafor said of his defense. “I can get better at everything I do, and I always improve. I don’t think my defense was as bad as people made it out to be. We did win a national championship and all of my coaches were extremely happy with the way that I played on both ends of the floor. Also, I couldn’t get in to foul trouble and with the way our defense was set up, I wasn’t really in rim-protecting situations.
“Honestly, that is one of my flaws that I can improve on, but I can also improve on the offense end. Luckily, I’m 19 years old and I think I have a lot of time to improve my game. … I think a lot of people forget that a lot of us are still 18 or 19 years old. We’re put under the microscope and expected to be perfect, on the floor and sometimes even off the floor. Oftentimes, I do think people forget how young we actually are.”
So much of how Okafor performs defensively at the next level will come down to how smart he is and how much he wants to improve. If you listen to him talk, you get the sense that he’s a pretty smart kid who loves the game and wants to become the best version of the player he can be. Whether that translates to him doing the work required by making the extra rotation, getting into position early, and leaving his feet (more than once, too) to challenge shots remains to be seen. But to say that he’ll never be able to do those things seems a bit premature, especially when talking about a 19 year old.
One thing is clear with Okafor, however. As a 19 year old he has a skill level offensively that is rarely seen in players years older, much less a guy his age. He has a fantastic frame, great measurables (a 7’5″ wingspan and a 9’2.5″ standing reach), massive hands, and a high basketball IQ. His ability to score from the post will create easy baskets for himself and teammates. His large frame, strength, and length will help him be a force on the defensive and offensive glass. And his passing will allow him to be a focal point of the offense without being overly reliant on his scoring to be a difference maker.
This is why, should the Timberwolves select Karl Anthony Towns my disappointment in not getting the prospect I covet most would wear off pretty quickly. Because just as I expect Towns to be a fantastic pro, I expect Okafor to be one as well. And should he be available when the Lakers pick, he’d be a fantastic choice to build with and around for years to come. Of course there will be questions about fit (next to Randle) and whether his ceiling is as high as other prospects in the draft. But, if we’re being honest, those questions exist with every player. The fact is, this kid’s talent is real and if the Lakers can offer him an environment where it can be nurtured and developed, some of the concerns we have now will be viewed as silly.