On Saturday, July 10, Philadelphia 76er center Jahlil Okafor made his Las Vegas Summer League debut against the Los Angeles Lakers and No. 2 selection D’Angelo Russell. This gave the Lakers a front row view of Okafor, the player they passed on to select Russell.
In the last few seconds of the second half, Okafor rotated over to help on a driving Russell. Okafor’s biggest knock coming out of the draft was his defense, but he showed quick feet on this exchange.
Okafor slid in front of a driving Russell and grabbed his flailing shot attempt right out of the air. It was not just a block, but a major denial of the player selected directly in front of him during the 2015 draft.
Again, these two players squared-off in the fourth quarter. The Lakers needed a basket and Russell faced Okafor at the top of the key. The quick point guard called an isolation play, but the result was the same. Okafor again blocked Russell. Hence, Okafor won the first two exchanges between the two players.
Even though Russell and Okafor play in different conferences and completely different positions, these players will forever be linked. Even though they will never guard each other for then a few moments, they will forever be compared.
Okafor did not just best Russell in these exchanges, but throughout the exhibition tournament. The center only played two games in Vegas, but he played an additional three games in Utah. For the entire Summer League, the former Duke big man averaged more than 8 rebounds and 16 points. Often times, looking far mature for a player who has yet to play in the league. He showcased the excellent footwork and post moves that he displayed in college. Okafor also displayed improving lateral quickness and rebounding ability.
Meanwhile, Russell averaged 9.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and under 4 assists per game in Vegas. He did make some great passes, and showcase a natural leading ability. However, he also seemed to be pushing it too hard and his turnovers proved that. The former Ohio State guard had 23 turnovers in five games.
It is probably unfair to knock Russell or praise Okafor after five exhibition games. Considering the Lakers need to become a winner in Kobe’s possible last year, first impressions are everything for a franchise that made Russell its’ highest lottery selection in decades.
Many people have used the “new-NBA” as a defense to the Lakers selection of Russell over Okafor. Citing that it is a point guard driven league and that is why the Lakers took the high-ceiling of Russell over Okafor’s polished body of work.
Yet, free-agency proved the prominence of the big man. Every team tried to swoon all-star big man LaMarcus Aldridge. Center DeAndre Jordan has yet to make an All-Star Game, but he had the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks throwing up hail-marys to get him.
Not to mention, Russell was not even the best point guard in Vegas. Denver point guard Emmanuel Mudiay captured people’s attention with his ability to get to the basket and find his teammates. At this point, Russell looked more like a developmental project than even Mudiay.
When you select a player in the top-five, you hope to see moments that make you believe he can takeover a game and be the face of the franchise. Russell did not have many of those moments for the Lakers’ summer league team. Okafor had some of those moments, passing out of the double team, grabbing key boards and knocking down mid-range jump-shots. Even Mudiay showed that promise getting to the rack, creating separation and finding his teammates.
Still, it is way too early for anyone to call Russell a bust. However, there is always pressure when you are selected No. 2 and even more when you play for the historic franchise of the Lakers.
The Lakers needed a player to make an instant impact and they might regret taking Russell over Okafor. Okafor will shine instantly with Philadelphia. He has a young team and a young defensive center, Nerlens Noel, who should complement him. Russell will need time to adjust to the NBA and playing next to ball heavy guards like Lou Williams, Kobe Bryant and Nick Young.
Selecting number two in the NBA is probably the hardest position in the draft. For every Lamarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant selected No. 2, there are more Darko Millicics, Michael Beasleys, and Derrick Williams. Who knows which side of the spectrum Russell will end up on?
Thus far, Okafor looks to be more NBA ready than Russell. Expect Okafor to show that each time he faces-off with Russell and the Lakers. Even if the Lakers don’t regret passing on the big man, Okafor will continue playing with a chip on his shoulder to prove he is the best player out of this draft.
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