Award Watch: Jahlil Okafor’s Off-Court Issues Will Hurt His ROY Candidacy

Since last we checked in on the rookies of the NBA, Timberwolves head coach Sam Mitchell has started handling Karl-Anthony Towns with kid gloves, Kristaps Porzingis’ hype has built even further, and a new name on the wing has begun to catch up on the top 5. And none of them have been in the headlines as much as Jahlil Okafor. But we’ll get to him in a minute.

You can be forgiven for not having watched much, if any, of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson so far, because he’s on the woeful Brooklyn Nets. But the Nets have been feisty in spurts, losing to the Cavs only thanks to a last-second hook shot from LeBron James on Saturday, and even beating the Atlanta Hawks. And Hollis-Jefferson has been a big part of that feistiness.

Rondae might still be the less-talented wing out of Arizona from this draft, but Stanley Johnson is still finding his way on the Detroit Pistons, who incidentally were beat by Jefferson’s Nets on Sunday. Jefferson went 0-4 in that game, but even though he has no three-point range, he’s shown a surprising mid-range jumper and is averaging 49 percent from the field. More importantly, he’s been the tough wing defender he was promised to be, averaging 1.6 steals a game and taking a lot of defensive pressure off Joe Johnson. He’s one of only four rookies with a positive Box Plus/Minus according to Basketball-Reference, and his defense is the reason. As long as he continues to play within himself on offense, he’ll keep earning the bounteous minutes he’s getting and proving to be a steal in the late first round. Hope for the Nets! Who would have thought!

5. Jahlil Okafor

Yes, he’s still leading all rookies in points per game. But he’s been the most talked-about rookie this past week for all the wrong reasons. The Sixers aren’t going to gain any attention for playing well anytime soon, so Okafor will not have many opportunities to change the public narrative surrounding him going forward, and that could very well hurt his chances as Rookie of the Year.

Even sticking to the court, Jah has regressed. His field-goal percentage has dropped, and he’s turned the ball over at least three times in every game but one since the last rankings were published. He’s rebounding at a better rate, but if a big man is supposed to be a team’s primary scorer, he really needs to average better than 50 percent from the field to even have a prayer at efficiency. Okafor is sitting at 46 percent, and if he wants people to stop talking about whether he’s just being a dumb kid or something worse, he’s going to have to improve on the court.

4. Emmanuel Mudiay

Since we last spoke, Mudiay has reeled in the turnover issue, which is immensely encouraging. Through his first ten games, he was averaging a miserable 4.7 giveaways per contest, but in the seven games since, that number is at a more manageable 2.9, which is well within the acceptable range for such a high-usage player. Stephen Curry is averaging 3.6 for the season so far, to give you some perspective.

What hasn’t improved has been Emmanuel’s shot. Since the last rankings, he’s only shot better than 40 percent from the field in one game. He’s averaging a dreadful 32 percent from the field, the kind of numbers that will make an opponent go under every screen and gum up driving and passing lanes. In order for Mudiay’s skills to shine through, he’s got to bring that jumper up to, if not passable, then just anything better than the complete trainwreck it’s been. Otherwise, he’s going to have to become a Rondo-level wizard with the ball if he wants to stay relevant in the NBA.

3. Justise Winslow

The above photo was taken from Friday night’s Heat-Knicks game, in which the Heat held the Knicks to 78 points. Winslow led the team in minutes, and Carmelo Anthony had only 11 points on 4-13 shooting. Sure, Anthony’s only offered brief glimpses of his former self this season, but matching up against a rookie is normally an opportunity for a veteran scorer like ‘Melo to get right by getting to the free-throw line and just using his savvy to school the rook. That was not happening. Justise is the truth on the defensive end.

Winslow is still not scoring very much, and that’s fine. He’s not Tony Allen on the offensive end, he’s just a rookie on a team with lots of veteran scoring options. His shot chart is encouraging, though:

51.8 percent around the rim is perfectly respectable for a rookie. All that green in the midrange is pretty much negligible since he’s taken so few attempts, but hey, it’s better than missing all of them. The Heat are not in rookie-development mode, but Erik Spoelstra can’t seem to take Winslow off the court. When a coach of his caliber thinks that highly of a young player, we can’t help but listen.

2. Kristaps Porzingis

Two weeks ago, these rankings had Porzingis here mostly based on the playing time and hype he was getting, along with anecdotal evidence of dominance. He hadn’t scored 20 points in a game yet. Since then, he’s cracked 20 four times. A lot has changed in two weeks, and the hype has only gotten louder.

Here are his averages in the seven games since our last ranking: 17.3 points, 10.7 rebounds, 44 percent from three-point range, and most startling: 3.1 blocks per game. He’s already using his insane height and length well on the help side, and against smaller teams that like to penetrate like the Rockets and Magic, that’s been devastating. But lest we forget, he’s a rookie and he’s also been posterized for his eagerness. But that’s to be expected when you’re rotating correctly on the defensive end.

On offense, he’s missed some gimme layups that a man of his height has to make, but we know he needs to get stronger. He’s still been impressively smooth on his jumper, and his shotchart from the last two weeks has a lot of green:

His mid-range jumper has been reliable, and most impressively, he’s getting it as the screener on pick-and-pops, on his own screens and from his own dribble penetration. Look at his first basket in this highlight:

In a vacuum, that’s not a great shot — a contested long two. But as he’s already figuring out, “contested” means less when you’re 7-foot-3. With his quick release, he can get pretty much any shot he wants. Dirk Nowitzki comparisons are, of course, wildly premature, but if his jumper is already this versatile, he looks like the kind of shooting big you can build an offense around.

1. Karl-Anthony Towns

KAT’s per-game stats have tailed off as his minutes have been curtailed, but make no mistake: he’s still doing some great things. Here are his per-36 minute averages this season: 18.6 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1 steal. And we may have made a big deal out of Porzingis’ mid-range game, but look at this sh*t:

Towns is killing it from mid-range, and he’s a hair above average at the rim, too. Basketball-Reference grades him as a net positive on both sides of the floor, and his 2.9 defensive Box Plus/Minus is 17th best in the NBA. At this rate, only one of three things can keep Towns from the Rookie of the Year award: injury, minutes restrictions capping his stats, or Porzingis hysteria completely taking over. Towns doesn’t play in New York, but he’s still the best rookie so far.