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Jahlil Okafor Needs To Work On Free Throws


Jahlil Okafor has a lot of expectations surrounding him as the number three overall pick in the draft to the Philadelphia 76ers, and a projected first pick overall by plenty of analysts.

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There’s plenty of reasoning behind why he went so early, and why he’s worth so much to the Sixers. He led the Duke Blue Devils to a national title, their third since the 2000s while averaging 17.3 points per game and 8.5 rebounds during the season, accounting for nearly 22% of the Devils’ shots.

Obviously, this is something the Sixers want on their team, since the scoring was an issue for the Sixers last season, as they came in at 29th out of 30 in points per game. Okafor is supposed to fix that, but with a faulty free throw shot that won’t be happening, at least not as well as it should be.

We’ve gone over his issues numerous times, most of them being defensive issues. While he lines up in the front court alongside one of the league’s best young defensive players, Nerlens Noel, that does not make him exempt from trying to contest with players who come into the paint. Okafor will have to show us more effort than he did at Duke, otherwise he is at risk for becoming a victim of some ‘posterizations’ as players take advantage of his lack of effort.

The defensive issues are big, and need to be addressed, but the free throw shooting issue seems to be overlooked.

Especially in today’s modern game, poor free throw shooting is getting exposed more each season. DeAndre Jordan shot below 40% from the line last season and was a victim of ‘hack-a-Shaq’ which may now be renamed to ‘hack-a-Jordan.’ This strategy is one used to keep the ball out of an opponent’s hands by forcing the worst free throw shooting player on the team to take free throws (that they will probably miss) by intentionally fouling them.

The history of this strategy largely involves Shaquille O’Neal, hence the name. The history of this strategy can be seen here.

The problem with this strategy as far as the NBA is concerned is the boredom that it brings to the game. A lot of times watching teams play the Clippers last year, it was a very long, dreary, and boring last four minutes of the halves (particularly in the Clippers vs. Rockets game four during the playoffs). This makes fans not want to watch, and the NBA is dependent on fans tuning in.

Could this strategy be a threat to the Sixers, and something that we see being done on Okafor? It’s definitely a possibility if we don’t see him begin to pick up his free throw shooting.

During his only season at Duke, he shot 51% from the line throughout the season. When tournament play came around, he shot at 54%, a slight improvement. If this was the case in the NBA, he wouldn’t be fouled, since typically, the cut off point to make intentional fouling strategy worth it is 55% and below, so it would be too close to comfort for teams to practice this against Okafor (if he could shoot at this level).

This of course, is contingent on how well Okafor shoots once the season begins. While it looked like Okafor’s shooting was getting better, –at least as far as how he was coming along at Duke comparing his tournament stats to his regular season stats — it fell once Summer League started. He shot 39.1% in five games of Summer League, not impressive whatsoever. In the final game, he went 0/4 from the line, his worst showing of free shots of the Summer League season.

This was mostly ignored, because Okafor had decent showings in most Summer League games, averaging 15.8 points per game. However, if he was able to shoot at 75% from the free throw line — a generally satisfactory stat for centers — while taking the same amount of free throw shots, he would have averaged 17.8 points per game in Summer League, a two point jump, per game.

During the regular season, these two points alone could easily put the Sixers a few spots up in the offensive rankings at the end of the year. They were just 2.2 points behind the Charlotte Hornets for the 28th spot last year. This isn’t a significant increase, but it’s something.

One player that the Sixers had a ton of trouble with last year was DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins scored 39 and 33 points on the Sixers in the same month last season, and Okafor could learn a thing or two from him. Between the two dominant games against the Sixers, he averaged 19.5 attempted free throws, shooting from the line at an average of 82.25%. Cousins draws fouls like a big man should, but capitalizes by actually making his free throws.

While these games were outliers for Cousins, and he definitely doesn’t shoot like that every single game, overall, he’s a pretty good shooter, shooting at 78% from the line.

Cousins is better than Okafor, even offensively, as he averaged over 24 points per game last season with the Kings, with a usage percentage of 34.1. Even with Duke, Okafor’s usage percentage was just 27.6, a difference of 6.5%. This is a comparison between the collegiate level and the pro level, which makes some people cringe, but it still speaks to just how much further along Cousins is, and I think that’s often because of the threat he is in the post and the threat he has at the line, making him a dangerous big man to foul.

Free throws are what separate the average centers in the NBA from the legends at the position. Okafor has shown he’s not great in this realm, and must improve as he transitions into his first year as an NBA big man. While some may point to Okafor being the answer for the Sixers, let’s not get too excited about what the Sixers have gotten themselves into.

Next: Finding Peace In The Point Guard Race

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