Old School Soul: Why Jahlil Okafor’s Game Will Rule the “New NBA”

After just about every NBA Championship, fans, writers, bloggers, you name it, everyone wants to look at the NBA in a different lens. We’re talking about the most progressive league in maybe professional sports, men, women, doesn’t matter. The NBA has been on the front line of forward thinking in all aspects for quite sometime now.

So when the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Championship, thanks in part to the genius move by Head Coach Steve Kerr to sit his starting center, a brick wall defender in Andrew Bogut for swing-man Andre Iguodala, many donned it as it the beginning of the “New NBA” finally arriving and making a difference on the biggest stage of them all.

So what? Who cares about the new NBA? What even is the new/future NBA? A term you will hear more than just a few times come Thursday night in Brooklyn, the new NBA is the combination of a variety of things. When I wrote about James Harden’s value over Steph Curry’s back in May, and talked about the majority of his points coming from the 3-point line and at the rim or free throw line, that’s a piece of the new NBA.

The Golden State Warriors, they are the poster team of the new NBA, although it will be difficult to replicate them, if at all possible. A team full of shooters and swingmen who can guard four positions and can switch without giving up anything. The 76ers are the new NBA, although no one knows what they are exactly doing.

The point is, the NBA is forever changing, in five years, what we are talking about now will be obsolete and a concept of the past. We can track player movement and shots taken as accurate as ever. Data is everywhere in the NBA today, and it’s here to stay for a while. All of this goes into what NBA GM’s are looking for in their next franchise player.

Let’s paint a picture of what the 2015 NBA looks like. 3-pointers are as sexy as dunks now. Thank Steph Curry and the Splash Brothers for leading that movement. A guy who can nail a mid-range shot is deemed inefficient because it’s statistically the least rewarding shot in basketball. If you’re a big man and can’t protect the rim, or run in transition, or step outside and stretch the defense with a 3-point shot, you’ll find yourself on the bench. Same goes for a guard who isn’t an athletic god like these dudes or can’t shoot the lights out of the gym from behind the arc.

All of this is what makes this upcoming NBA draft as intriguing as those in years past. The term “fit” is as important as ever, as in, “Does he fit in today’s league?”

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Welcome to Jahlil Okafor’s dilemma, or the dilemma of the top teams in the lottery that are considering his services. Look at one of the sentences from the last paragraph.

If you’re a big man and can’t protect the rim, or run in transition, or step outside and stretch the defense with a 3-point shot, you’ll find yourself on the bench.

Believe it or not, this highlights Okafor’s situation. And it also doesn’t, because why would it be that simple to begin with?

First off, I don’t think anyone in the NBA should be described as un-athletic, because that’s just plain tomfoolery. Not to brag, but I laced ’em up against big Jah, and he is the most athletic human I’ve ever played against in any sport, and that was when we were in 8th grade. 

Another fallacy I’ve heard about Okafor during the draft process that I have a hard time believing. The notion that his love for the game of basketball is not there. First, read this awesome and heart-warming (honestly the best 2 words to describe it) article by Terrence Noland crafted in 2013, “Jahlil Okafor Is On His Way Up”

In the article, Noland describes two Okafor’s, here is the first, AKA the one people like hearing about the most:

There are two Jahlil Okafors. There is the one you see on the court: all power dunks (he once broke a rim during a game), spin moves, stare downs, and various other displays of domination. “He’s a fierce competitor, with really no regard for the people in the other jersey,” says his Whitney Young coach, Tyrone Slaughter. “It’s like a war to him.”

That competitive fire isn’t limited to game time. “He wants to be first in just about everything,” says teammate Paul White, one of Jahlil’s closest friends. “First in running laps. First one out onto the court. First one done eating. And he’s one of the best trash-talkers I’ve ever been around. He gets in your head, down to your core. Even during practice. It’s like, ‘Oh, damn, man, I’m your teammate.’ ”

And here is the second one. The one folks are somehow confusing with a guy who doesn’t love basketball.

Then there is the other Jahlil, the one most fans don’t see. This is the one who intentionally keeps his booming bass voice at low volume off the court so that he won’t intimidate people. The one who would rather hole up in his room with Netflix or PlayStation than be out on the street, where he’s recognized more and more. The one who is shy around strangers but unleashes his gravelly cackle around his friends. The one who feels hurt when he’s attacked on Twitter (“I wonder if they would say negative stuff if they realized how nice I am,” he says). The one who fetched water for his AAU teammates while he was sidelined last summer with a twisted ankle. The one who tells his father he loves him every time they get off the phone.

If you grew up in the Chicago-land area, as I did, I’ve been following this guy ever since that December night when our travel basketball teams clashed for a tournament championship (take a big guess who won). What I’m trying to say is Okafor has been followed every step of the way by the people of Chicago, as Isaiah Thomas was, as Derrick Rose was and as Jabari Parker was. Almost every Saturday morning paper in the winter (during his 4 years at Whitney Young High School) had a headline in the sports section that highlighted Okafor and his dominance and where it came from.

The countless stories of him and his father Chukwudi in the gym working footwork on his already polished post-game, at an hour in the morning that most high school kids couldn’t fathom. Trust me, that post-game didn’t come out of thin air, and it wouldn’t be as highly regarded if he didn’t “love the game.”

Now that it has taken me 1,000 words to eliminate the false weaknesses of Okafor, as every prospect has, he does have considerable weaknesses. His defense is the most obvious and most noted of them all. That’s because he is being compared to Karl-Anthony Towns, who can turn into peak Dwight Howard on the defensive end. While Okafor may never reach that level on defense, if he is paired with a power forward that can serve as a rim protector, his “team defense” capabilities are potentially above-average.

And while no, I’m not going to overlook his defensive deficiencies as not being a major problem, but I’m a firm believer that what he does best will at many times, cover up his weaknesses, which is something all great players did and do.

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In the past 30 years, what are the Top-10 players in NBA where you could throw it down on the low block (either side) and know you’re getting points out of that possession. Here are my ten: Olajuwon, McHale, Duncan, Shaq, Malone, Barkley, Robinson, Garnett, Moses Malone and Kareem (although not entirely in his prime). I’m convinced that Okafor is going to join this list. Whether he turns into a Hall of Famer or not is still left up for discussion, but Jahlil already has an arsenal of post moves the majority of players of his position in the NBA will never achieve.

But here comes the future of the NBA talk. Who needs a dominant post presence in an age where shooting three’s and athletic point guards rule the NBA? For the next most used word you’ll hear Thursday night. Spacing. 

Okafor in the low paint opens up everything else for his teammates, especially when he gets going like this:

So, conventionally, defenses are going to collapse on him once he receives the entry pass, opening up the perimeter for shooters to get open looks. And in the NBA, they don’t miss open looks.

When Okafor absorbs this much attention, he can pick his poison on which  teammate is hitting the open 3 this time.
When Okafor absorbs this much attention, he can pick his poison on which teammate is hitting the open 3.

His ability to pass out of the post with great precision will be highly valued and reminds me of a guy named Shaq, who also received elite praise during his NBA career of being a great post passer, you may have heard of him.

To say his game is out-dated for the NBA today is lunacy. Just because he virtually scores all his points via owning the low block and the paint does not mean he is worthless today. If anything, Okafor’s ability to get easy points in the post will set up more open 3-point looks than other teams, even the Warriors wouldn’t be able to say that.

Wherever Okafor may land, he will have an instant impact. He’s a proven winner at every level and a humble Chicago kid with the heart the size of the Trump Tower. He may not go number one overall, but his talent certainly warrants the pick. Regardless if his game reminds you of a time in the NBA when the big man ruled (and also of a time when R&B and Soul was taking over the country) Okafor’s game will be just as devastating in today’s NBA.

-Goat

One thought on “Old School Soul: Why Jahlil Okafor’s Game Will Rule the “New NBA”

  1. Mr. Domask: I wanted to compliment you on a thoughtful, well-written blog. Like you, I have seen Mr. Okafor play “up close” and believe he will be a very good NBA player. Having said that, I’m not sure I share your optimism that Mr. Okafor’s impact will be “immediate” or “devastating.” Unlike high school or college, every night in the NBA, Mr. Okafor will be guarded by and forced to guard players of equal or greater physical stature who, in most cases, are more athletically explosive. In addition, when on offense, he will be faced with defensive schemes that he’s never previously seen. Similarly, on the defensive end, he will be the consistent target of the screen and roll game, forcing him to defend in space. While he undoubtedly will learn and adjust, that progress will take time. Personally, I think Mr. Okafor will eventually be a border-line all-star player, but that it will take his development will take a at least a few years. I guess only time will tell.

    In the meantime, I’m looking forward to reading your upcoming blogs. Thanks.

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