Chicago native Jahlil Okafor impressive on the floor, adjusting off it


Chicago native Jahlil Okafor impressive on the floor, adjusting off it

If there’s one bonafide pro on the pitiful roster of the Philadelphia 76ers, it’s Chicago native Jahlil Okafor, the third pick in last June’s draft.

For a half, Okafor played beyond his years, giving fits to Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah with his vast array of moves on the block and a better-than-average handle that allows him to navigate the paint and mid-range area with ease.

Gasol was complaining about a traveling violation on the rookie when Okafor drove baseline for a dunk, being left flat-footed as Okafor scored two of his 20 first-half points.

Noah got a taste of Okafor’s quickness, watching a couple step-back jumpers and quick moves for polished hook shots.

“First of all, they’re two of the better big men in the league,” Okafor said. “I was able to get a little bit of a feel on how (Gasol) plays. He’s a hall of famer and I can learn a lot from playing against him. I’ve already learned a lot just watching him as I grow up.”

[MORE: Tony Snell ignites Bulls second-half run against woeful 76ers]

A grown-man move from a player who’s nowhere near close to realizing his potential, but also dealing with the pitfalls of adulthood for the first time as he returned home to play his hometown team for the first time.

“Emotions? Excited to play here, I have a lot of family here,” Okafor said. “My high school coach and some teammates (are here).”

Okafor spent part of the day at Quest Multisport on the west side with kids from Jensen Academy, the school his aunt teaches at. He brought along a barber with him so some of the students could get free haircuts and brought along some party favors for the holidays.

“It’s an event for the kids,” Okafor said. “My aunt’s a principal at a CPS school here. Just doing something for them, we had a good time. Gave them a couple Christmas gifts for them, they sang me happy birthday, pretty much it.”

The Whitney Young graduate and one-time attendee of Duke University is dealing with losing en masse for the first time in his life. Scoring 22 points doesn’t have the same affect on a game that it usually does, and being a target off the floor has led to some skirmishes—highly scrutinized fights in the streets and incidents in nightclubs.

Since the 76ers have done this advanced version of tanking for seasons at a time, it begs the question of whether the youngest team on the league should employ veterans to help out players like Okafor, who are adjusting to the fame, attention and endless losing for the first time.

“It’s been fine. I have a lot of help, people who’ve been helping me out,” Okafor said. “Some older guys I’ve talked to around the NBA. It’s different, for sure, basketball being my main focus but having some free time as well.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

But for a man on the eve of his 20th birthday, he seemed to parrot the beliefs of a general manager now under fire for his tactics when asked if a veteran should be in the locker room as opposed to him having to reach out to vets across the league for guidance.

“No, I have everything I need,” Okafor said. “If I need help, I can just ask somebody, my coach or my GM, I have a lot of help here. Putting an older guy here in this locker room wouldn’t affect anything. I have everything I need.”

The 76ers have brought in respected executive Jerry Colangelo to hopefully turn the tide of the fruitless strategy started by Sam Hinkie, as the league actually facilitated the process of Colangelo, a Chicago native and Executive Director of USA Basketball, coming onboard.

Many believe Okafor’s incidents were a huge tipping point in the league stepping in to stop the embarrassment for the proud franchise. Okafor’s development on the court just as well as off it will be in the public eye for the near future, and it’s clear he’s trying to manage his circumstances.

“I’m living my dream, it’s been a lot of fun,” Okafor said. “I don’t look at it as starting off my season with a lot of losses, it’s my rookie campaign and I’m working on improving. Coach talks about good days adding up and that’s what I’m doing.”

Bulls select Wendell Carter Jr., find perfect frontcourt pairing for Lauri Markkanen

Bulls select Wendell Carter Jr., find perfect frontcourt pairing for Lauri Markkanen

The Bulls had the chance to make a major splash on draft night but opted to go with the safer play on Thursday, selecting Duke center Wendell Carter Jr. with the seventh overall selection.

Carter Jr. played one season at Duke, averaging 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 26.8 minutes per game. The All-ACC Freshman selection shot 56 percent from the field and made 41 percent of his 46 3-pointers, all the while doing so as a fourth or fifth option in a loaded Blue Devils offense.

Carter was a five-star recruit a year ago from Atlanta. He committed to and signed with Duke before Marvin Bagley, the second pick by the Kings, reclassified and also joined the Duke frontcourt. Carter went from the cream of the draft class crop to a second option in the frontcourt, deferring to Bagley, who averaged 21 points, 11 rebounds and won ACC Player of the Year.

But Carter finds himself in a perfect scenario in Chicago. It’s clear the Bulls valued finding a complement to stretch forward Lauri Markkanen – last year’s 7th overall pick – drafting a player in Carter who projects as an elite rim protector and also plays well around the rim, two areas where the talented Markkanen struggles.

Rumors circulated in the lead-up to Thursday night’s draft that the Bulls were looking to move up in the draft, potentially dealing with Atlanta at No. 3 or Memphis at No. 4.

But the Hawks were able to find a trade partner with the Mavericks, who gave up a haul in the No. 5 pick and a 2019 first-round pick to move up to get Slovenian point guard Luka Doncic. Then Michigan State center Jaren Jackson Jr. agreed at the 11th hour to provide medical information to the Grizzlies. That made the prospect of moving up in the draft all but impossible, keeping them at No. 7.

At No. 6 the Magic grabbed Mo Bamba, a player the Bulls were attempting to trade up for to pair with Markkanen.

The Bulls had long been linked to Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr., the enigma of the draft who wound up falling out of the top 7. Porter had been the top player in the country before undergoing back surgery in November. He played just three games for the Tigers and ultimately went 14th to the Nuggets.

Scouting report on Wendell Carter Jr.: Elite rim protection, a terror on the offensive glass, improving range


Scouting report on Wendell Carter Jr.: Elite rim protection, a terror on the offensive glass, improving range

Wendell Carter Jr. committed to Duke in November 2016, the No. 3 recruit in the country and the prized possession of the Blue Devils’ latest historic recruiting class. Nine months later, just weeks before Carter’s freshman season began, Marvin Bagley – the top prospect in 2018 – announced his decision to both commit to Duke and reclassify to 2017.

In a flash, Carter went from the top recruit on his team to second fiddle in his own backcourt. Headed for a major role following the departures of Harry Giles, Amile Jefferson and Jayson Tatum the year prior, Carter settled for a role out of the spotlight and eventually the fifth scoring option.

He still flourished. While Bagley rightfully received the accolades – ACC Player of the Year, ACC Rookie of the Year, All-American – Carter held his own and was a key cog for the Blue Devils during their 29-win, Elite Eight season. He doesn’t have the height or raw athleticism of the bigs who likely will be selected before him on June 21. He does, however, possess a skill set built for today’s game that will take him off the board somewhere in the Lottery, if not the first 10 picks.

You’ll read about comparisons to Al Horford in the coming paragraphs. Here’s why. Horford measured at the 2007 Combine at 6-foot-9.75 (Carter is 6-foot-10), weighed 246 pounds (Carter is 251), had an 8-foot-11 standing reach (Carter’s is 9-foot-1) and a 7-foot-1 wingspan (Carter’s is 7-foot-4.5). Carter’s game is a little more like the current Horford’s, but in college both players shared the frontcourt spotlight with similar bouncy power forwards: Joakim Noah for Horford and the aforementioned Bagley for Carter.

Carter was fifth on a loaded Duke team in field goal attempts (319). His ability to get to the free throw line (4.6; second to Bagley) and his passing acumen (2.0 assists) helped him finish second on the Blue Devils in usage rate (22.8%; second to Bagley). He was a model of efficiency, shooting 56.1% from the field and 41.3% from beyond the arc, just one of four players in the country to reach those thresholds.

The 3-point shooting came on only 46 attempts, but Carter looked comfortable more often than not from the top of the key, where 40 of his 46 shots came from. He’s a non-factor in the midrange game, but he’s more than comfortable spotting up from beyond the arc. Plus, Horford was 0-for-4 in three years at Florida; last year in Boston he made 97 triples. Carter is ahead of the curve already.

Carter has impressive footwork but that didn’t translate to his post-up numbers, as he averaged a pedestrian 0.753 points per possessions, far worse than Horford’s mark (1.056) at Florida. Still, Carter’s 1.06 overall PPP ranked in the 90th percentile thanks to that outside shooting and his work on the glass – also, his post game is better than those number suggest.

Carter had an offensive rebounding rate of 12.8%, higher than Mo Bamba (12.2%) and Jaren Jackson (8.7%). That impressive mark – all while battling with Bagley for boards – was higher than Horford’s 12.2% mark.

Carter made good on those offensive rebounds, scoring 99 points on 68 possessions. That 1.456 PPP ranked in the 94th percentile and was better than Mamba’s 1.338 PPP. He’s a terror inside and as he improves his post-up game will be a jack of all trades.

Carter’s defense is a little more difficult to analyze. He was the anchor of the Blue Devils’ 2-3 zone that transformed their season, so many of his 1-on-1 numbers are skewed. From the limited data we do have, however, Carter was dominant. He ranked in the 97th percentile nationally in post-up situations and the 87th percentile defending around the basket.

Carter did the heavy lifting defensively, whereas Horford deferred to Noah in Gainesville. Carter’s 7.6% block rate was higher than Horford’s 6.7%. For reference, likely No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton had a 6.1% block rate. It was a solid number for Carter, especially considering he played zone so often and had less opportunity to block shots.

Again, it’s tough to draw anything from those numbers, but make no mistake: Carter is an excellent defender. His 9-foot-1 standing reach and 7-foot-4.5 wingspan are plenty big, and his 251-pound frame is larger than players like Jaren Jackson (236), Mo Bamba (226). He may not have the 7-foot height but Carter is plenty capable of defending the interior. It’ll be his most NBA-ready trait.

He's got the foot speed and foot work to defend pick-and-roll action. Again, he didn't get to shot it often playing primarily a zone at Duke but he has that skill set. His 1.7% steal rate was on par with Horford's at Florida and projects at the next level.

Carter has a veteran-like game. He's just 19 years old but he already does a lot of things well that otherwise take players longer to accomplish. He has the footwork, he rim protects without committing too many fouls (4.2 fouls per 40 minutes). His post game numbers weren't great, but he projects as a player who will finish those looks more often than not. Don't read into his numbers; again, he was a fourth or fifth option on a team littered with talent. Plays were rarely run for him.

His ceiling may be lower because he isn't a bouncy athlete, isn't someone who can put the ball on the floor and isn't all that versatile.

That shouldn't matter. His floor is high and there's a reason he's been compared to Horford throughout this process. Horford has been an unsung hero on many a playoff contender, and Carter could be the same type of player in Chicago.