Thursday, January 07, 2016

Jahlil Okafor Belongs In the ROY Conversation

The 2015 NBA draft class is shaping up to be very strong, with a number of youngsters blossoming into key role players and a few potential stars in the mix. But while some later lottery picks have cracked rotations regularly in the first half of the 2015-16 season, it's predictably a couple of top-five picks who are getting all of the early Rookie of the Year buzz: Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis.

Just this past week, the basketball section at CBS Sports took a crack at analyzing the performance of these rookies and determined that, in a way, they're on an historic pace. Specifically, Towns and Porzingis are sweeping the Rookie of the Month awards in their respective conferences thus far, and the last pair of rookies to pull off that feat over the course of an entire season was LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. The point of the article was that we could be in for the rare Rookie of the Year race that's genuinely exciting to see.

While it's exciting to pit two players against each other for this award, and particularly two players who came into the league in such different circumstances, this writer's opinion is that ROY honors might still go to neither of them. We're a little less than halfway through the NBA season, and there's one other player who's performing well enough to be projected as a future All-Star: 76ers center Jahlil Okafor.

I'll start the argument by addressing a few reasons why a lot of people are counting Okafor out. The first has nothing to do with basketball. He has gotten himself in trouble a few times already, having been busted for speeding and gotten into altercations with hecklers. It's certainly not a good look for a rookie, but as media members have acknowledged, Okafor at 19 is in an exceedingly difficult position as the most prominent member of a team that invites mockery. That doesn't excuse his behavior, but it emphasizes the reminder that he's still a "kid." How he responds and grows from the incidents will say more than the incidents themselves.

The basketball argument against Okafor is that by virtue of playing for the 76ers—by far the worst team of the three boasting ROY candidates—he ought to be able to put up the best stats among rookies. This in part is how Michael Carter-Williams rose to a fairly easy ROY win with the Sixers a few years ago. Yet looking at John Hollinger's PER rankings—believed by many to be the best metric for measuring a player's total performance—both Towns (21.68) and Porzingis (17.95) are outperforming Okafor (16.12). The thinking is that Okafor ought to be leading this category given that he's just about the only Philadelphia player who looks like a potential career pro.

These two main criticisms, regarding attitude and PER, are at the heart of the reason why Okafor remains behind in the ROY conversation. In fact, Betfair's sports section keeps a running list of the odds for prominent rookies to take home the award, and by those numbers Okafor has more than Towns to worry about. Four players have better odds to win ROY than Okafor, and Porzingis isn't even one of them (with the oddsmakers still catching up to the Latvian's surprising performance thus far). Once viewed as a favorite for the award alongside Towns, Okafor simply seems to have lost the faith of most analysts.

I've already addressed the attitude concerns. As for the basketball issues, the simplest argument in favor of Okafor is that this year's 76ers are so bad that added opportunity for individual stats is outweighed by the often inept play of the rookie's teammates.

Consider this: Okafor is scoring more than Towns and Porzingis, and is more secure with the ball, despite his team scoring less, assisting less, and turning the ball over more than Porzingis's Knicks or Towns's Timberwolves. I'll clarify that here:


  • Philadelphia: 92.9 pts., 19.6 ast., 17.5 to. per game

  • New York: 98.1 pts., 20.3 ast. 13.4 to. per game

  • Minnesota: 99.7 pts., 21.6 ast., 14.5 to. per game




  • Okafor: 17.1 pts., 5.9 AST (percentage of possessions that end in an assist, per Hollinger's PER), 11.5 TO (percentage of possessions that end in a turnover)

  • Porzingis: 13.2 pts., 7.0 AST, 11.5 TO

  • Towns: 15.9 pts., 6.6 AST, 11.9 TO



The easy takeaway from those numbers is that Okafor is not just averaging the most points among the three rookies being discussed, but he's doing it with his team scoring about seven fewer points per game than the Knicks or Timberwolves. But we can also see that while Okafor is involved on fewer possessions resulting in an assist than either of his counterparts, his team is assisting less overall. He's also responsible for fewer turnovers (relative to team performance) than either Porzingis or Towns.

Doing the math (player AST/team assist average), the totals nearly even out, with Porzingis maintaining a slight edge. Okafor is involved in 30.1% of his team's assisting plays, Porzingis 34.4%, and Towns just 30.5%. The same math for turnovers shows that Okafor is involved in only 65.7% of the Sixers' league-worst 17.5 turnovers per game, whereas Porzingis is involved in 85.8% of turnover possessions and Towns 82.1%.

Add that all up and you see that Okafor scores more and contributes more to ball security than either of his competitors. That's not to say that he should be the favorite in the race, but he belongs in the conversation. Simply put, his performance in key categories relative to his team is stronger than that of Towns or Porzingis. In this case, the Sixers aren't bad enough to give Okafor more opportunity—they're so bad they're hindering his production.

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