The Incredible Ceiling For Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor


The Incredible Ceiling For Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor

Let me take a step back before I take a step forward to clarify a couple of things. In the title, when I say ceiling, I seriously mean as high of a ceiling as possible. It’s always hard to look at young basketball players and decide what their future holds. So, I decided to look at the best case scenario for Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor to see what kind of front-court they can become.

A couple of weeks ago, I highlighted why Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor might not work together as a front-court duo. But, today, we are looking at all positives. I’m going to assume that Brett Brown can find a way to have these two young big men work together in the same system.

With this assumption, how do Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel compare to some of the great front-court duos? When I was doing some research on great front-courts, I couldn’t help but see the Houston Rockets’ front-court from 1984-1987 as a perfect comparison to these two’s ceiling.

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Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon were two of the best big men in Houston Rockets history. They were perfect compliments to each other in that front-court and understood their roles.

Sampson was extremely tall (7’4), very athletic, and quite thin. He could run the floor exceptionally well for his size and did what he could do to provide assistance on both sides of the court for Olajuwon. Ralph has better offensive skills than does Noel, but that doesn’t mean Nerlens can’t have the same kind of impact on the floor. Sampson, like Noel, had one year under his belt before his better offensive duo, Olajuwon or for Noel’s sake Jahlil, was drafted to the team.

Comparing the generic numbers between Sampson and Noel would be unfair.  However, Nerlens did show glimpses of fantastic play while posting 20 points and 10 rebounds on numerous occasions. Like Sampson, Noel has, early on in his career, been labeled as an inconsistent player.

Ralph Sampson’s numbers Ralph had a greater offensive load for the 1983 Rockets team that is highlighted in his 27.1% Usage rate. You can’t compare that to Noel’s 17.0% rating. So, to better understand their comparisons, we’d have to look deeper into their games.

In their respective rookie years, Sampson actually fared worse defensively compared to Noel. Sampson finished with a 1.2 steal percentage, 4.0 block percentage, and a 4.1 defensive win share rating. Noel, in his rookie year, had a 2.9 steal percentage, 5.0 block percentage, and a 4.2 defensive win share rating. So what do all of these numbers actually mean? Nerlens Noel had a very good defensive presence and was even more active than Ralph Sampson was. No, Ralph Sampson wasn’t notoriously known for his fierce defense, but it was because of his weak side help defense that made the Rockets such a feared defensive front-court. Well, of course, along with that other guy they had.

So, now we come to the tough comparison. How in the world am I about to try to compare Jahlil Okafor to Hakeem Olajuwon? Let me establish one thing first. I’m not talking about the defense side at all because well, frankly, Okafor can’t even come close to the dominance that Hakeem displayed on a nightly basis in the paint. In college offensively, though, they were quite similar.

The following is a chart comparing their offensive stats from their final, or in Okafor’s case his first, year in college:


Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/15/2015.


Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/15/2015.

Like I said, the defensive numbers aren’t close. Olajuwon was a fantastic rim protector in college and continued to show that dominance in the NBA. Even the rebounding is lopsided in the favor of Hakeem. Keep in mind, though, that Hakeem had three years in college to progress, not just one.

The obvious similarities in the numbers, come with the scoring. They both averaged around the same amount of points per game, shot a fantastic percentage from the floor, but struggled at the line. It’s honestly kind of odd to see those numbers so close. A fact that further proves that they had such similar shooting numbers is that Jahlil and Hakeem had almost an identical true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage. Okafor had a 64.1 TS% and a 66.4 eFG% while Olajuwon possessed a 64.7 TS% and a 67.5 eFG%. Alarming isn’t it?

Yes, while Okafor and Noel have similar numbers to Olajuwon and Sampson in their early years, respectively, the main point that I am not making is the progression that these two took as the years went on. Hakeem, as we know, became one of the best players of all time because of the jump he took and the time he put in at the gym. Will Jahlil put in that time and effort? It remains to be seen.

Is it naive and presumptuous to give these two young players such a high ceiling so early in their careers? Yes. But one thing I can tell you for sure is that Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel have a long road ahead of them, but if they put in the hard work at practice now, then that established high ceiling won’t seem so steep.

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