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Jah Freed! Breaking Down Jahlil Okafor’s Game

Charles Maniego takes a look at Jahlil Okafor’s game, hours before he debuts with the Nets. He looks at the good, the bad and the defense.

Philadelphia 76ers Media Day Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Jahlil Okafor is now a member of the Brooklyn Nets. (Nik Stauskas is too!) While Okafor spent the 2017-2018 season riding the bench in Philadelphia, his move to Brooklyn has brought optimism for Nets fans and the basketball internet-osphere. It is the Holiday Season, after all.

We know Okafor’s pedigree. He was dominant at Duke. His dominance led him to become the third overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Okafor scored a lot in his rookie year. His minutes were cut last season with the emergence of Dario Saric and Joel Embiid – leading to his benching this season. And that leads us to today in Brooklyn.

Okafor has shown what he can do both in Philly and Duke, with noticeable strengths and weaknesses to his game. The Nets are hoping he can provide the same solid scoring he did pre–2017 – but they’re also hoping he can make some (quite literal) leaps as a player as well. While the freed Jahlil isn’t necessarily a reclamation project, he still has skill areas that need refinement. Here’s a look at what to expect from Jahlil Okafor now and what skills to monitor in development.


Okafor’s offensive game, much like in-depth film studies on blogging platforms – may be a little out of style. (The Twitter MOMENT seems to have jumped over the blog post.) Okafor’s game is a relic of a previous NBA generation. While not a completely back-to-the basket dominant player, Okafor excels (and almost exclusively plays) from 15-feet and in. He operates patiently down low, even when faced with double teams or an expiring shot clock.

Here’s one example of Okafor shooting right over two Raptors defenders last season. While Okafor doesn’t make the shot, you could see him spin past one defender and immediately get into his shot. That’s good feet and good patience in one play.

Here’s another double team from Toronto. Okafor essentially does the same move on the left block, but this time he makes the righty hook despite the contact.

In the post, Okafor is primarily right hand dominant, but he uses a variety of fakes and footwork to set up his right. One way he sets up a righty move is through a spin move. It’s not exactly a Whitehead Cyclone, but it’s enough to get his shoulders past defenders and scavenge a clear shot at the rim. He does that here against Andre Drummond.

Sometimes he can simply bully his way into position with strong legs to set up his right. As a rookie in 2015-2016, Okafor scored a decent 0.851 points per possession out of the post, per Synergy. To add some context to Okafor’s numbers his rookie year, his team finished the season 10-72. Ten of the 18 players on that team are no longer on an NBA roster. That year was also the final straw in Sam Hinkie’s reign in Philly.

But even when he finds himself out of the paint and in the midrange, Okafor has enough wiggle in his game to finesse past quicker defenders. Here, Okafor finds himself a step inside the three-point line and defended by Rudy Gobert, reigning Defensive Player of the Year. While Gobert’s length and lateral movement is a deterrent, Okafor uses a hesitation crossover (street name: HESI CROSS) to get past Gobert for an emphatic dunk.

Don’t expect plays like that every game, but that shows Okafor’s quick feet and ability to put the ball on the floor. In a Nets offense that features multiple ballhandlers attacking off the bounce, Okafor could be comfortable attacking in the midrange. I’ve seen some Okafor comparisons to (Brooklyn Nets legend, depending on who you ask) Andray Blatche. Comparisons aren’t really the greatest, but I see similarities on how comfortable the two are operating outside the post. Part of Blatche’s effectiveness came from his ability to handle the ball, possessing guard-like handles when outside of the restricted area. Okafor possesses similar ballhandling ability, albeit with a more powerful game and higher upside.

Here’s Okafor dribbling between his legs on the move leading to a righty finish over Dewayne Dedmon. While this may be only one clip, Okafor’s ballhandling ability really shines at times – he just has to be more concise with his touches.

Here’s one with a between the legs crossover – leading to a missed layup.

On the pick-and-roll heavy Nets, Okafor could be most effective as a pick-and-roll dive man. He’s big enough to set strong screens, and nimble enough to find a crevice to receive passes from ballhandlers. D’Angelo Russell primarily plays pick-and-roll ball, so the D’Angelo-Jahlil PNR combo could carry the Nets in some games (assuming the two are healthy enough to play together.) Okafor may need to be a little more physical as a screen setter, but he understands how to deter smaller defenders to get the offense brewing. Here’s a small detail about Okafor’s screen setting that isn’t seen too often. Below, Okafor sets a screen for Sergio Rodriguez. Okafor is quick enough to essentially set two screens for Rodriguez. Although Rodriguez misses the floater, Okafor rolls hard to the basket for a score.

But Okafor’s value as a player tanked for a reason. He went from value worthy of a first round pick to Philly having to give up a second rounder to rid themselves of him. And of course, Okafor’s old school game is his biggest strength but also his biggest drawback. As a shooter, Okafor is a nonfactor. Per basketball-reference, only 7.6% of all the shots Okafor has taken in his career came from beyond 16 feet, or essentially beyond the free-throw line. Even Timofey Mozgov, another interior only big, shot 13.2% of his shots past the free throw line.

Okafor could be a good shooter. Anyone can. He’s only shot six three-point attempts as an NBA pro, and shot none in his single year at Duke. Either due to his huge hands, or due to his dominance inside, his shot has been inconsistent. Here are two examples of Okafor’s shooting against the Knicks.


Both shots weren’t even close to finding the bottom of the (lowercase) net. The two shots look like completely different releases. The Nets’ development staff has started to mold non-shooters into shooters. Okafor’s jumper will definitely be a work in progress for sure. Expect Okafor to start shooting from the corner before expanding his range.

As an NBA Draft prospect, Okafor’s Basketball IQ was praised, not only as a scoring threat, but as an offensive ball mover as well. Here’s what DraftExpress had to say about his passing…

“He's also a very good passer for a 19-year old big man, looking extremely patient with his moves and having no qualms whatsoever about throwing the ball out if he faces a double-team or sees an open teammate spotting up on the perimeter. His huge hands and long arms gives him the ability to pass over the top of the defenses to anywhere on the floor, be it with a bounce pass to his fellow big man, a skip pass to a shooter in the opposite corner, or anywhere in between. His basketball IQ is so high that it isn't hard to see this part of his game developing even further.”

Here’s a simple example of that passing. Okafor finds himself in no man’s land behind the basket, but finds a cutter leading to an easy layup.

But as a pro, Okafor may have simply looked for his own offense a little too much. With Brooklyn’s balanced attack, Okafor may have to defer to his teammates. While the drive-and-kick has been a big part of Nets offense, the post-and-pass out could be a way for Okafor to get his teammates involved. He’s definitely capable of setting up his teammates – it’s essentially down to desire.

(Part of) Jahlil Okafor’s game is well developed, even at the age of 21. But his game fell off from rookie to sophomore year, again an another mark of the rise of Embiid, Saric and even Richaun Holmes. Per Synergy, Okafor was only rated as “good” in one of ten play types – playing below average or poor in multiple categories. The Ringer’s John Gonzales said the following of Okafor’s game post-trade...

“Yeah, he’s a ball-movement killer. That is one of the most frustrating things about him. Ball goes in. Ball does not come out. Many dribbles. Many moves. Toss up a shot at the hoop.”

On the motion-happy Nets, the ball has to stay moving. We’ve seen Kenny Atkinson tear into his players for selfish play in the not so distant past. Okafor could be no different.

Whether it was due to lack of focus or trying to make up for lost minutes, Okafor’s sophomore season saw a big decline in efficiency and effort. He’ll probably be the only true center for the Nets on the floor in some lineups, which could give him free rein in the paint. We know what Okafor can do on offense (you also just read 1000+ words detailing his skills). It’s time for him to not only remind people of his current game, but also to develop new skills as well.


OK. I’ll keep this relatively short and for good reason. Okafor, for the most part, did not care on defense. Despite him being relatively quick-footed and nimble on offense, he was just the opposite on defense. He was plagued with lead feet out on the perimeter guarding pick-and- rolls. He was often caught napping or ball-watching, leading to easy scores for his opponents. He isn’t a particularly strong rebounder, despite his width and length. Even with Okafor’s gifts on offense, his defense may have been the bigger factor in his obsolescence in Philly.

But Okafor could develop his defensive game as a Net. If the Nets decide to pack the paint, Okafor is a decent rim protector just by sheer size. He has a 7’5” wingspan. Defending the pick-and-roll will (probably) be a disaster for him early on, but if Atkinson decides to drop Okafor back on pick-and-rolls, he could be better at reading drives and big man dives. The Nets have employed a zone defense a few times this season. If Brooklyn decides to roll with that setup using Okafor, it could mask his deficiencies. But it’ll be a challenge to rationalize changing the entire defensive scheme because of one’s inability to play a modern NBA big role.

Sometimes the offensive benefit may not be worth the defensive cost.

Okafor’s acquisition is an injection of talent to the Nets. To acquire a 21-year-old —he turns 22 on Friday— with discernible skills and a solid pedigree is a boon – for anyone. But with #JahFreed, it’ll be completely up to him to prove he was worth the trouble (and the social media movement.)

While Okafor could easily bolt in free agency this summer, both he and the Nets could benefit with strong play. For Okafor, his time as a Net isn’t just about what he is. To save his career, his play will also have to show what he can be.