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Okafor's season answers questions (and creates others)

Philadelphia's big man proved he can keep up with the NBA pace, but he and Nerlens Noel may not be a viable tandem

POSTED: Mar 16, 2016 10:34 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper

NBA.com

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Fifty-three games and four months later, this is what we know about Jahlil Okafor as his rookie season reaches an early conclusion:

He can handle a fast pace even though it is not ideal for him, a positive outcome amid preseason concerns and questions whether his half-court game could handle a quick tempo. He can score right away as expected and therefore should be a dependable post threat for many years to come. And, some of his best moments came in January and February in a sign of a good direction, not leveling off or crumbling at the base of the so-called rookie wall.

This is what we don't know: Everything else.

In the latest setback for the 76ers, the news last Friday that Okafor would miss the rest of 2015-16 with a knee injury means they will reach the end of the season without a firm read on how he fits, or does not fit, with Nerlens Noel in a lineup of two centers.

The off-court concerns with Okafor are important -- he was suspended two games for getting in street fights in Boston and another time was ticketed for driving 108 mph on a Philadelphia bridge -- but any kind of lineup uncertainty remains a paramount issue for Philadelphia.

If Noel and Okafor don't mesh -- and there is reason to believe they don't -- someone has to go, sooner rather than later to avoid opening 2016-17 with the two bigs still in each other's way. And that doesn't even get into how Joel Embiid figures into the conversation, in the event the stars align and he one day makes it on the court.

Okafor led the team in scoring (17.5 points a game), making him the first Sixers rookie to top the team in that category (minimum 50 games) since Allen Iverson in 1996-97 (23.5 ppg). Fifty-three games, until the final days of February, just wasn't enough to answer the biggest of questions, until coach Brett Brown had to settle for giving the Noel-Okafor pairing a C.

"With sometimes the excitement of (an) A, no doubt," Brown said, via the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Sometimes the disappointment of (an) F. It's not anybody's fault. We all have talked about it and I believe everybody here understands how difficult (it is) taking two (centers) that are 20 and letting them figure out NBA transition defense and matchups and the punishments.

"And the plus-minus in our defense (with Okafor and Noel playing together) reflects that opinion. It was terrible. We went from terrible to poor over the course of time. We improved in that direction. At times it was good. So it was erratic. I'd level it out at a C. We most definitely learned lot."

Okafor played well enough to stay at No. 3 on the Rookie Ladder most of the four months, before a drop as his absence entered a third week. What happens the rest of the way with the rankings depends on the performance the next month of several players around him. What happens the real rest of the way -- whether he is back in Philly and whether Noel is as well -- comes next.

1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Last week's ranking: No. 1

Kia Awards: Karl-Anthony Towns

Timberwolves rookie Karl-Anthony Towns is the Kia Western Conference Rookie of the Month in February.

Now that Okafor can't catch Towns for No. 1 in scoring in the class, the question is whether Towns will take a slight step back before the end of the season, from 17.7 to the 17.5 of Okafor, to lose the top spot. It's window dressing either way for the Minnesota big man who should easily win the Kia Rookie of the Year Award, but also the important statistical achievement of Towns potentially finishing first in scoring, rebounding (essentially locked up) and blocks, and maybe shooting if he has a great finish while Willie Cauley-Stein slumps just enough.

2. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

Last week's ranking: No. 2

Porzingis' Nifty Layup

Kristaps Porzingis drives in and drains the nifty layup in traffic.

The possibility of a massive late shakeup near the top is becoming real with No. 2 Porzingis in a major shooting slump at the same time No. 3 Okafor heads to the sideline. Porzingis keeps the spot for now because he continues to defend at a high level, including the tie for sixth in the league in blocks (1.9). But he is shooting 32.7 percent overall (and 23.1 on 3-pointers) in his last six games, dropping to 41.9 and 33.2, respectively. The minutes have also declined to where Porzingis has consistently played in the low-20s, before a return to the previous ways with 31 minutes in Friday's loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week's ranking: No. 4

Jokic to Harris

NIkola Jokic fakes the hand off and then passes to a cutting Gary Harris for the layup.

Among rookies, Jokic is No. 2 in PER among rookies, No. 3 in offensive rebounding, No. 4 in rebounding, No. 4 in shooting, No. 7 in total points, No. 6 in blocks and No. 9 in assists, all while No. 11 in minutes. It's possible to see Jokic being overlooked for first-team All-Rookie because he does not put up big scoring numbers and voters like glitz, but he continues to impact in a lot of areas in a way few newcomers can match. Now he's even being overshadowed by a rookie on his team as Emmanuel Mudiay surges.

4. D'Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week's ranking: No. 6

Russell Stars In Victory

D'Angelo Russell heats up for 27 points with 3 assists as the Lakers beat the Magic 107-98.

He has climbed all the way to 13.4 points overall after averaging 20.2 his last nine games, fourth in the class behind Towns, Okafor and Porzingis. Plus, the hot streak that has included 40.4 percent on 3-pointers in March has put Russell in position to catch Porzingis (14.0) for third place. He is also on track for an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-1 for the second month in a row after not coming close the two months before that. The response from coach Byron Scott has been to consistently play Russell at least 30 minutes a game and sometimes into the mid-30s.

5. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat

Last week's ranking: No. 5

Winslow Does It All

Justise Winslow gets the steal, runs down the court, and finishes with the and-one layup.

No wonder his role in the offense has been increasing lately, even if slightly. Winslow is shooting 51.9 percent in March and converting limited opportunities behind the arc and also at 48.4 percent overall the last 13 games, dating to February. He hasn't been better than 44.6 percent any full month so far. The 4.0 rebounds a game in 29.5 minutes in March, though, is a drop from averaging 5.1 rebounds in January (in 28.3 minutes) and 7.8 in February (31.7 minutes) and on pace to be his second-lowest production on the boards for a full month.

6. Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week's ranking: No. 3

It's tough to drop three spots this late in the season, with such a large sample size, but several players behind Okafor are going good and he already hadn't played since Feb. 28, long before last Friday's announcement that he would miss the rest of the season. There is also the strange possibility he could move up before the end of 2015-16, depending on how the others around the middle of the Rookie Ladder play. Climbing a place or two while injured is not the preferred scenario, but the credibility of 17.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 50.8 percent from the field in 53 games means something even with the early exit.

7. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Last week's ranking: No. 8

Booker's Clutch And One

Devin Booker gets fouled and makes the go ahead bucket late in the game.

The response to the 33.6 percent shooting and 13.5 points in February has been 44 percent and 23.6 points the first eight games of March. The minutes have jumped back up accordingly -- 43, 39, 44, 37 and 43 the last five outings -- as he also puts an emphasis on distributing the ball. The next step is to recover behind the arc. Booker is at just 29.5 percent in March in his specialty, dropping to fifth among rookies (36.7 percent this season).

8. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

Last week's ranking: No. 7

Kia Awards: Myles Turner

Pacers forward Myles Turner is the Kia Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in February.

The Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for February has dipped to 9.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 37.7 percent shooting so far in March. But he is still at 12.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 47.2 percent in 21 games as a starter while aware of the increased scrutiny that comes with every game in a playoff race. He is still having big games, just not as regularly as before.

9. Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets

Last week's ranking: No. 10

Mudiay Finds Faried

Emmanuel Mudiay delivers a long pass to Kenneth Faried for the alley-oop layup.

He was already going in a very good direction as a ball handler, as evidenced by the dramatic improvement to an assist-to-turnover of 2.48-to-1 in February and 2-to-1 in March. Now Mudiay is riding the offensive wave all the way to big gains as a shooter, the weakest part of his game. After topping out at 38.6 percent any previous full month, he has made 45.6 percent of the attempts in March and, incredibly, 41.7 percent of his 3-pointers, too (all while averaging 4.5 3-pointers a game this month). If this proves to be more than a good moment and he finishes anywhere close to this good, the Nuggets will be thrilled.

10. Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls

Last week's ranking: No. 9

Time to start taking applications for a new Ladder resident. Portis has reached seven rebounds once in the last five games, has played more than 20 minutes once in the same span. He has gone six games without scoring in double-digits. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg is making the decision for The Ladder. Portis' work on defense remains a personal highlight, though.

Dropped out: None.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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