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How 76ers Can Maximize Jahlil Okafor-Nerlens Noel Pairing

You can’t blame the Philadelphia 76ers for drafting a center for the third year in a row. Duke’s one-and-done star Jahlil Okafor was clearly the best prospect available at No. 3 overall, and he offers tremendous value as a low-post scorer.

But now the onus is on coach Brett Brown and Co. to make it work.

Joel Embiid‘s foot issues will sideline him for yet another year, but the Sixers must still figure out how to maximize the frontcourt duo of Okafor and Nerlens Noel during 2015-16.

Although they have distinct playing styles, they both do the vast majority of their scoring damage near the rim. One look at Noel and Okafor’s 2014-15 shot charts illustrates that neither can truly stretch the floor from the perimeter.

In this era that values spacing, speed and shooting, how can Philly make the most of these twin towers on the offensive end?

Time Noel’s Cuts During Okafor’s Post-Ups

This is something Brown will undoubtedly work on with these two bigs, and if they polish it, they’ll be tricky to guard.

Okafor is clearly the better back-to-the-basket player, and Noel thrives while moving toward the rim on putbacks or face-up drives. It’d be great if they can put pressure on opponents using these strengths simultaneously.

When the Sixers get Okafor the ball on the block via the secondary break or half-court post entries, both Okafor and Noel must be ready to instantly react to the defense.

If a double-team doesn’t arrive (or arrive quickly enough), Okafor will successfully attack or draw a foul more often than not. But in many cases, they will send an extra defender at Okafor. As Noel spaces the floor to help give Okafor room, teams will be tempted to double Okafor because Noel isn’t a prolific outside shooter. The second-year rim-rocker must make them pay with well-timed, aggressive cuts.

Dylan Murphy of Bleacher Report sharply illustrated the type of destruction this duo can unleash. If Noel cuts (rather than remains in the open space) like Winslow, and Okafor delivers an on-target pass, the defense will break down:

Murphy explains that while the two are capable of pulling off plays like this, there’s a considerable margin for error and plenty of chemistry required:

Maybe the most crucial piece of the Noel-Okafor combination will be how Noel moves off the ball…Finding these crevices in the paint—particularly in two-big lineup combinations—is crucial to maintaining the integrity of an offense’s spacing. Hover too close to a post-up player with the ball and you’ve effectively brought a double-team without providing an outlet. Sit too far away and you’re not able to be seen.

Get Noel High-Post Touches On the Move

Okafor will spend most of his time on either block or the baseline, so the Sixers must find ways to create offense and weaponize Noel when Okafor doesn’t have the ball.

Noel won’t scare anyone from the wing or three-point land, but he can create off the bounce from the elbow or high post. He’s shown the ability to drive and score with either hand, and equally importantly, he’s a skilled passer compared to most young centers.

Noel posted 2.0 assists per 36 minutes last year, which is rock-solid considering the talent level and fluctuating roster that surrounded him. He also had a 9.8 assist rate, which is above average for big men and outstanding for a rookie frontcourt player. Given the opportunity, he’ll connect with shooters like Nik Stauskas and Robert Covington, along with Okafor sliding to the rim for dump-offs.

Brown should consistently run sets where Noel flashes to the high post or catches the ball on the high post after screening. It’ll give Noel the chance to do a pretty good Joakim Noah/Marc Gasol impersonation. Once Noel is squared up, he’ll effectively distribute the rock or slash first before getting rid of it. Then it’s up to Okafor to capitalize on the open space vacated by help defenders.

Let Noel Let It Fly

Just because Noel can’t stretch the opposing defenses out to three-point land doesn’t mean he can’t keep them honest as a jump-shooter. He can give Okafor a little space by sporadically hitting 15-footers:

I’m not saying Noel should uncork jumpers every chance he gets and redefine who he is. It’d be unhealthy for him to change drastically from a glass-crasher and pick-and-roll finisher.

However, Noel should sprinkle in a regular diet of jump shots, especially in a year where development supersedes playoff contention. Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Noel has been working on jump-shooting with his manager Chris Driscoll five days per week in Rhode Island this offseason.

Noel knows improving his shot will help streamline the arrival of the post-centric Okafor:

“I think it’s really going to help me as a basketball player overall, especially at [power forward],” Noel said of the daily workouts. “[It will] help space the floor with my ability and start hitting the jumper consistently and complement our whole offense.”

As the 2015-16 season unfolds, both Okafor and Noel will learn to collaborate smoothly as their chemistry builds. Brown can help expedite the process by putting them in optimal positions to not only coexist, but feed off each other.

If Okafor hits Noel diving to the rim and Noel operates fluidly away from the basket, Philly will see promising strides from its frontcourt. The Sixers could soon be home to one of the best young twin tower duos.

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