The random rise of Jahlil Okafor, at least it seems on the surface, has come at the perfect time for the New Orleans Pelicans. As general manager Dell Demps is in the process of sussing through trade overtures for stranded superstar Anthony Davis, might the Pelicans already possess his long-term replacement?
Okafor’s numbers over the past five games, which Davis has missed with injury, certainly lend credence to that wide-eyed optimism. He’s averaging 21.2 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks while shooting a scorching 74.6 percent from the field, helping an increasingly injury-depleted New Orleans squad to a respectable 2-3 record.
Just as important to his updated career trajectory than those stellar numbers, though, is how Okafor, long considered a one-dimensional scorer with a nagging penchant for ball-stopping, has embraced the finer points of team offense with the Pelicans.
“He’s been really good in what we’re trying to do,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry told Kyle Schnitzer of The New York Post earlier this week. “It’s not like we’re just taking the ball and every time throwing it to him in the post. He’s been stepping out on the floor, screening. He’s done a great job of rolling in the pocket and catching the basketball.
“He’s done a really good job at taking his time and really kind of observing what is there for him and he’s done a really good job at reading the defense so we’re not force-feeding him or anything like that. He’s just doing a good job within the confines of what we’re trying to do, offensively, and getting himself in good situations.”
The third overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Okafor has been unable to live up to the reputation in the NBA he once established during his high school days in Chicago and during his one season at Duke, when many pegged him as the game’s next generational talent on the interior. Instead, he hasn’t just been surpassed in that exalted pecking order by former teammate Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns, the player to whom he was most often compared during the pre-draft process. But Okafor had almost found himself out of the NBA entirely.
He put up strong, yet mostly hollow, per-game numbers with the Philadelphia 76ers during his debut season, finishing fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting. That relatively sub-standard showing has proven the high point of Okafor’s career to date, as nagging injuries, questionable conditioning, and his aversion to defense – coupled with Embiid’s emergence, of course – contributed to his subsequent trade from Philadelphia to the Brooklyn Nets, with whom his stay was similarly short-lived. He signed a one-year, partially-guaranteed deal with the Pelicans in August, an indication of just how far his stock had fallen in such a short amount of time.
It remains to be seen if Okafor’s recent run of success is an aberration. Part of that equation hinges on the status of Davis, who New Orleans may not deal by the Feb. 7 trade deadline despite his stated desire to play elsewhere. It’s highly unlikely Okafor would play the same role for the Pelicans that he has of late should Davis gain a clean bill of health and return to the team this season. On the other hand, there’s also a possibility New Orleans embarks on a full-scale rebuild sooner rather than later, in which case fostering the unforeseen development of Okafor could warrant new significance, as lottery positioning takes precedence over putting a winning product on the floor.
Either way, a more thorough study of Okafor’s on-court impact, unsurprisingly, reveals it doesn’t align with his awesome box-score production. The Pelicans have been outscored by a team-worst 33 points over the last five games with him on the floor, and outscored the opposition by 36 points, also a team-high mark, when he’s on the bench. Okafor’s ridiculously-efficient offensive output and increased activity defensively, unfortunately, still hasn’t led to the type of team success that’s proved so fleeting for him over the course of his wayward career.
Will it stay that way going forward? Perhaps. Though one wonders how different Okafor’s influence on the game might be if he was playing his ideal role as a scorer off the bench, one that would more easily emphasize his strengths and mitigate his weaknesses. Any chances of him becoming much more than that, unfortunately for New Orleans, remain highly improbable – no matter how the Davis saga unfolds.