2020-21 Rewind: Around knee injury, Okafor provided Pistons with a back-to-the-basket presence

Jahlil Okafor
Jahlil Okafor lost two months of his 2020-21 season after undergoing surgery to repair cartilage damage in his left knee
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

If there were a player who puts a face to the radical change the NBA has experienced over the past decade, it would be Jahlil Okafor.

The consensus No. 1 high school player in the country in the class of 2014, Okafor chose Duke over a host of college blueblood programs and carried the Blue Devils to the 2015 NCAA title as a freshman, leading in scoring and rebounding. But the NBA was beginning to come to grips with its identity change about the same time and that explains why Okafor, long considered the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft, instead went third overall instead.

Okafor likely would have been a 20-and-10 staple of All-Star games a generation or two ago, but in an NBA where teams routinely take 40 percent of their shots from the 3-point arc and perimeter playmaking and spacing have replaced back-to-the-basket behemoths as the holy grail of talent acquisition, Okafor has seen his place in the basketball universe dislodged. That explains how he was available for the Pistons last November on a reported veteran’s minimum contract. Here’s a look at Okafor’s 2020-21 season:

PROFILE: 6-foot-10 center, 25 years old, 6 NBA seasons

2020-21 STATS: 5.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 13 minutes per game in 27 games

STATUS: Okafor has one year remaining on the two-year deal he signed with the Pistons in November 2020

A LOOK BACK: Jahlil Okafor came out of Chicago power Whitney Young High in 2014 as the consensus No. 1 prospect in the country and ended a heavily scrutinized recruitment by choosing Duke over Michigan State, Kansas, Kentucky and Arizona. He teamed with fellow freshmen Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen to lead Duke to the 2015 NCAA title, Okafor leading the Blue Devils in both scoring (17.3) and rebounding (8.5) for a team that finished 35-4, beating Michigan State and Wisconsin in the Final Four to win the championship in Indianapolis. Considered the likely No. 1 pick for much of the season, Okafor wound up going third to Philadelphia behind Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. Given his greatest opportunity at playing time with the undermanned 76ers as a rookie, Okafor had his best season in 2015-16 when he averaged 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds while playing 30 minutes a game for a team that finished 10-72. When Joel Embiid, drafted the year before Okafor, finally made his NBA debut in the 2016-17 season, Okafor’s playing time diminished in his second season and he finished with averages of 11.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 23 minutes a game. He was traded to Brooklyn in December 2017, finished that season with the Nets and signed a two-year deal with New Orleans as a free agent prior to the 2018-19 season. Okafor started 33 of 89 games over his two seasons with the Pelicans, averaging 8.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in 16 minutes a game. He signed a two-year deal with the Pistons in November.

THE SEASON THAT WAS: Okafor began the season as backup to Mason Plumlee, but ceded that status after two games to irrepressible rookie Isaiah Stewart. Dwane Casey found time for all three centers for several January games, but a left knee injury that knocked Okafor out of action for all of February and March, spanning 31 games, limited him to 27 games for the season. Okafor had surgery to repair damaged cartilage and returned April 8, appearing in 15 of the season’s final 21 games. Okafor remained an effective post scorer, making 61.8 percent of his field-goal attempts. In the 15 games Okafor played after his return, many of them with Plumlee sitting out, he averaged 6.3 points and 2.6 rebounds in 15 minutes a game.

A LOOK AHEAD: The Pistons are set at center for the 2021-22 season as all three players who manned the position last season – Plumlee, Stewart and Okafor – are under contract for next season. Given Plumlee’s importance to the functionality of the offense in dribble handoffs and screening and Stewart’s certain ascension after a standout rookie season as a 19-year-old, Okafor is likely locked in at No. 3 on the depth chart, though Stewart’s ability to play power forward could open some minutes at center. General manager Troy Weaver and Casey were both laudatory of Okafor’s makeup and demeanor throughout the season and Weaver’s valuation of big men makes it more likely that the Pistons would commit four roster spots than two to centers. Okafor has a decent shooting touch when he faces the basket, though he likely won’t ever be a 3-point threat and always will be at his best in the traditional center role with his back to the basket. More than half of Okafor’s shots came within 3 feet of the basket last season and 82 percent were taken within 10 feet. Okafor worked on his lateral agility and his body last off-season to become a little better able to stay on the floor against the increasingly varied lineups NBA teams play. Any progress on that front made over the current off-season will increase his value going forward.

MONEY QUOTE: “Still a young player, very talented. We know he’s a high pick. Now he’s ready to get his feet back under him in Detroit. He’s had some highs and lows, but he’s really transformed his body. We’re looking forward to great things for him going forward. Excited about him as a person. Jahlil is beloved in every locker room. Extremely humble young man.” – Troy Weaver on Okafor after signing him as a free agent

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