Seltzer's Notebook: Okafor vs. Gasol, McConnell Embracing all Roles
Some thoughts and observations left over from the 76ers’ most recent game, a 104-90 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday at The Center:
Brett Brown recognized that Tuesday night, when the 76ers hosted the Memphis Grizzlies at The Center, observers of the home team would have the chance to watch - first hand - the type of dual threat big man Brown believes Jahlil Okafor can ultimately become.
“I think [Tuesday] night, you’re going to see an example for all of us, me, Jahlil, all of us, of how Marc Gasol plays,” Brown said. “Because Marc can play that high post area as good as anybody in the NBA.”
Brown has been anything but short in his praise of Okafor’s prowess to score down low. The rookie center has deposited 135 of his 205 made field goals (65.9 percent) from a range closer than five feet from the hoop. Brown, however, is convinced that Okafor, between his natural offensive gifts and willingness to be coached, will eventually be able to acquire skills similar to the ones that have made Gasol as dangerous around the foul line as he is inside.
Gasol was asked about his own impressions of Okafor, who he faced for the first time on November 29th, when Memphis defeated the Sixers, 92-84, at FedEx Forum. They both finished with nine points.
“Very skilled offensively,” said Gasol, a two-time All-Star and former Defensive Player of the Year award winner. “His timing and some of the moves remind you a little bit of [Charlotte’s] Al Jefferson, the way he dribbles. Of course, he’s not Al Jefferson yet, but his offensive skill set reminds you a little bit of Al.”
When told that Brett Brown sees some of Gasol’s qualities in Okafor, the 30-year old Spaniard didn’t disagree with the assessment. Gasol reflected on the steps he’s taken over the course of his career to expand his arsenal, attributing his development to “studying the game,” and making the most of his opportunities.
“Game experience, obviously, and understand what the game is giving you, and where you’re liking it,” Gasol said. As a rookie, nearly 44.0 percent of his field goal attempts were taken within four feet of the rim. The following campaign, his shot distribution started to change, as he began getting more comfortable moving farther out from the bucket.
Gasol recalled, “First season, I didn’t take as many jumpers. I would take them the second season. But [former head coach Lionel] Hollins told me to work on that. He wanted to see me out there to give Zach [Randolph] more room on the low post. So that summer my main focus was to work on that, and obviously on my body.”
In addition to increasing his shooting range over the course of his eight-year career, Gasol’s assist numbers have gone up, too. He made it clear that he takes great pride in trying to elevate the level of play of his teammates, whether it be fellow frontcourt partner Zach Randolph, or some of Memphis’ contributors in the backcourt.
“I think part of it is...seeing and understanding what other players need,” Gasol said. “Understand that I can go for 20 on any given night, but what really is important, is that...it’s everybody’s game.”
He applied that philosophy to the context of Okafor’s professional growth.
“I think [Okafor] has a ton of talent,” Gasol assessed. “What matters is how you bring it all together, and how you put yourself in a situation so everybody benefits from your talents, and eventual you put wins on the left column.”
While Gasol and the Grizzlies ended Tuesday evening in that left column, Okafor certainly proved himself to be a force, one that looked far more self-assured than in his first meeting with Gasol. In pacing the Sixers with 18 points, Okafor produced seven of his game-high eight field goals in sequences in which Gasol was at least one of the closest Memphis defenders to Okafor.
“We played them a few weeks ago,” Okafor said of the progress he displayed versus the Grizzlies. “It’s just getting used to playing them a little bit more. Playing against some of the better big men in our league, it’s definitely a challenge. Marc Gasol is amazing, and Zach Randolph is, too. I’m a competitor, so I enjoy playing against those guys.”
Okafor also snagged five rebounds. Gasol accounted for 19 points (7-15 fg), six rebounds, five assists, and three steals.
Over the past three games, with Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas each seeking to get into rhythm from beyond the arc, the Sixers have combined to convert 25.4 percent from three-point territory (18-71). When asked Tuesday about three-point shooting relative to the Sixers’ offense, Brett Brown acknowledged the importance of perimeter production, but also stressed that his players shouldn’t take outside attempts just for the sake of doing so.
“I mean it obviously helps,” Brown said. “It’s funny, when you start studying the stats, some teams don’t rely on it just that. They just take good shots. You look at the San Antonio Spurs. They make shots. They don’t have to all be three’s. I think we all get caught in this free throw, lay-up, or three world. It’s not that. It’s people. And good shots are good shots. You’re open, you should take some. It’s still to me about clean looks. We want to tilt towards open three’s, but you hear that word, ‘open.’ And we need our guys making some shots.”
Hollis Thompson was a bright spot from distance versus the Memphis Grizzlies. He teed off for 16 points, his second-highest total of the season. He knocked down four three-pointers, one shy of his season-best total from a November 11th appearance against the Toronto Raptors.
Brett Brown continues to be impressed with T.J. McConnell’s determination. Even as the more experienced Kendall Marshall and Tony Wroten have been brought back into the fold, and the undrafted rookie free agent’s playing time has subsequently taken a hit, Brown said, “Little T.J., he don’t buy that,” noting that McConnell remains focused on maximizing his playing time.
After receiving the starting nod in 13 of the Sixers’ first 16 contests this season, McConnell has primarily been used as a reserve since Marshall and Wroten were cleared for game action. Admiring that McConnell came off the bench to drain 10 points in Sunday’s fourth quarter in Cleveland, Brett Brown told a story to reporters before Tuesday’s home game versus Memphis. In part, the story went:
“He comes in and he just plays,” Brown said of McConnell. “One of my [San Antonio] years with Steve Kerr, he would tell me...his workout literally was, he would go to a gym, and his workout guy would give him a newspaper, and he’d sit him on a bench for 30 minutes, and then bring him out and draw a play and say, ‘Now win a game, go make a shot.’ That’s life of a shooter on a bench sometimes. You got to come in ready to play. If you’re not playing, how do you get in the game? How do you study that environment? And so I see T.J., he’s not pouting. He comes in and just goes. Look at his percentages. If anybody told any of us that’s what he was going to shoot from NBA three coming out of Arizona, you would have looked at each other sideways. He’s created value for himself. He’s not pouting, and he has responded to his role in a way you’d want trying to prove me wrong.”
McConnell, shooting 36.4 percent on three-point attempts, is averaging 6.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 5.1 assists in 24.6 minutes per game.