There’s still plenty of time for things to change, but for the time being virtually every mock draft you’ll find has the Los Angeles Lakers taking Jahlil Okafor with the second pick in the Draft.
Thanks, but I’ll take D’Angelo Russell.
This isn’t based on hours of scouting, breaking down tape and dissecting the strengths and weaknesses of each player. Frankly, I don’t like college basketball. It’s a horrendous product, and aside from the tournament (at least until my bracket explodes), I watch as little as possible. I might have seen five games between both of them. What I can do is aggregate the opinions of people with far more expertise, and given where the Lakers are now, just about every conversation and scouting report points to Russell over Okafor.
It’s not because Okafor is untalented, or some sort exercise in the Hasheem Thabeet School of Wishful Thinking. He has incredible hands, great feet, and an understanding of post play you don’t seem much anymore, particularly with 19-year old one-and-done types. Okafor can finish at the rim, operate out of the pick and roll, pass out of a double, and shoot. He uses both sides of the paint effectively, plays with both hands, and off either shoulder. The reviews for his offense are universally glowing.
Unfortunately, there’s another side to the court.
The biggest question marks around Okafor revolve around his play on the defensive end, where he was very inconsistent this season. He has the size, strength and length to be more than adequate if he puts his mind to it, and did show some flashes on this end of the floor from time to time, particularly as a post-defender.
With that said, Okafor typically looked far too lackadaisical on this end of the floor… and looking downright lazy in stretches. He gives up deep post-position too often and isn’t aggressive enough looking to body his man when he does receive the ball, possibly out of fear of getting in foul trouble.
More concerning is how badly he struggles stepping outside of the paint in pick and roll situations, where he looks sluggish and slow-footed, showing poor awareness and being late to react on the fly. As gifted as he is offensively, he is almost just as poor on the other end of the floor…
Not being particularly explosive, he offers very little in the way of rim-protection, which is a concern in today’s NBA game where practically every team’s defensive plan revolves around having a big man in the paint who can serve as an anchor, clean up mistakes and not allow easy baskets.
From a statistical perspective, Okafor’s low block rate (4.5 percent of opponents’ 2-point attempts) is troubling. His projected NBA block rate (2.6 percent) would put him just outside the bottom 10 among centers in my college stats database, and only a handful of players with block rates so poor in college (Nikola Vucevic, Tyler Zeller, Jordan Hill, Spencer Hawes and surprisingly Andrew Bogut) have developed into NBA starting centers.
There are questions about Okafor’s work on the defensive glass, as well, and whether he’s as good a rebounder as he ought to be, rebounding being one of the stats that tends to translate from college to the pros.
It’s not hard to “yeah, but…” some of those shortcomings. Okafor is 19. How many bigs his age really understand the nuances and responsibilities of pick-and-roll defense? He’ll be in better shape at the pro level than he was in college (by all accounts, he’s moved in that direction already), which will help his quickness. Fundamentals of rebounding can be taught. Because Okafor started the year with so much hype, he had nowhere to go but down, so his flaws have been unfairly magnified. Could be. Some of this is nitpicking, but we’re talking about the second pick of the NBA Draft. An incredibly important moment for the future of the franchise. Nitpicking should be part of the process.
Dealing with Okafor’s flaws becomes a matter of fit, which brings me to the next problem.
L.A. has needs all over the roster. There’s virtually no piece they might add where redundancy is a serious risk. The one thing they do have, though, is a young power forward in Julius Randle, very talented but somewhat undersized, who didn’t leave college profiling as a high end defensive player. He’s the closest thing they have to a foundational piece. Why pair him with a guy in Okafor who (at least based on current evidence) won’t complement Randle’s perceived weaknesses? Maybe Okafor improves defensively. Maybe Randle, who arrived in the NBA with his own questions about defense and rim protection, does, too. Given the offensive skill of each, just being adequate on D could give the Lakers one of the league’s scariest frontcourts in time. But Okafor’s current defensive profile, put next to Randle, is a giant red flag.
It’s the equivalent of booking a resort hotel during hurricane season. If no storm hits, everything is hunky dory and you probably got a better rate, to boot. But if it comes, it’s hard to argue there was no way to anticipate it.
Why set yourself up for trouble when there’s a player available most consider to be on the same level. Some like Russell a little less than Okafor, some think he’s better. (The analytics, speculative as they are in terms of projecting pro prospects from college, favor Russell.) But at a position the Lakers need just as much, Russell is a great prospect. He’s got size, length, great court vision, can shoot from distance, changes speeds, gets into the paint and finishes once he’s there. He can score, and is a very strong rebounder for a guard. No, he’s not a DPOY candidate yet, either, but while I’m not minimizing the importance of solid defense from guards, it’s easier to hide someone or teach him solid principles over time than it is to paper over a frontcourt that can’t protect the paint. Save perhaps Karl-Anthony Towns, Russell has as high a floor as anyone in the draft, a huge consideration for a team like the Lakers that must come away with a viable player.
My preference for Russell isn’t about needing a point guard in a screen/roll league, or believing post players are growing obsolete in today’s 3-centric, analytically driven NBA universe. There’s less emphasis on players like Okafor now because they’re harder to find. But a team that has one can do plenty of good.
(I’m less sympathetic to calls for a classic big because the Lakers have always been built around them. The tradition of Mikan, Kareem, Shaq, Slava — just making sure you’re paying attention — and Pau has zero influence on whether the Lakers win games going forward. Draft the most appropriate player, not one fitting best into a historical theme.)
Generally speaking, the Lakers are still too early in the rebuilding process to get caught in the weeds of team composition. They should be trying to acquire as many high end players as possible, and sorting out smaller stuff later. But the potential problems matching Randle with Okafor aren’t small. They aren’t granular. They’re obvious.
Paired with the right power forward, I’m sure Okafor can make a great, well-rounded pro. If the Lakers take him, it’s hardly a calamity. The kid is, by all accounts, a very high end prospect, and maybe through the workout process he’ll be able to satisfactorily answer concerns over his defense. I’d still draft Okafor ahead of Emmanuel Mudiay, who while huge physically and incredibly athletic appears right now like more of an upside play. If Russell wasn’t as well-regarded, I’d take Okafor. But he is, and represents a better fit.
Point guard in hand, at 27 and 34 the Lakers can then look for guys with, like Liam Neeson in “Taken,” a very specific set of skills, namely rebounding and rim protection. If that guy is raw offensively, fine. He won’t be getting paid to score.[divide]