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Is Jahlil Okafor or D’Angelo Russell In a Worse Long-Term Situation?

Rookies D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor will be forever linked.

As the second and third respective picks of the 2015 NBA draft, the one-and-done sensations out of two big-name schools (Ohio State and Duke) will be compared to one another year in and year out for rest of their lives, despite playing different positions.

Plus, as an added bonus that came from ESPN’s Chad Ford, the Los Angeles Lakers were locked into the big fella before eventually taking the south-pawed point guard:

About a quarter of the way into their rookie campaigns, both have been respectable on the stat sheet. But things have not exactly gone swimmingly for either one.

Okafor looks like a future All-Star with the Philadelphia 76ers, but the team is intentionally trying to lose. Is he simply a product of inflated numbers, a la Michael Carter-Williams? Plus, aside from 32-year-old Carl Landry, who has yet to check into a game, Philly’s oldest player is 25-year-old Robert Covington. There is not an ounce of veteran leadership on that roster—and it shows.

Would Okafor be getting into street fights if Kobe Bryant were on his team? No chance.

Russell’s playing time has undergone an uptick in recent weeks, but he began the season pretty much standing in the corner and watching the Retiring Mamba jack up shots. D-Russ would’ve been more comfortable buying a ticket on some nights. In addition to Bryant, the Lakers also have Lou Williams, Nick Young and Jordan Clarkson at guard, and all of them need touches.

Still, Okafor is getting valuable playing time. Russell is under the wing of an all-time great.

Who is better off in the long run?

JAHLIL OKAFOR 

Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre for three years and immediately emerged as a star quarterback when he got his chance. That doesn’t really happen in basketball.

Playing time is important for all rookies. But for a 19-year-old with just a year of college under his belt, it’s invaluable.

We knew Okafor could score. He has. We knew he could rebound. He has. We knew he couldn’t play defense. He hasn’t.

But who cares? Philly is playing to lose, so Okafor can screw up, thrive, grow, learn and struggle in a safe environment. He has time to improve.

In many ways, he’s been impressive. The smooth 6’11” center has been held to single-digit points just twice in 19 games. Big Jah has also pulled in an average of 8.1 boards and swatted 1.6 shots a night.

The Sixers are losing, though, and that seems to bother Okafor. Head coach Brett Brown—bless that man’s soul for what he does—believes Philadelphia’s struggles on the floor have resulted in some problems off the hardwood for his promising young star.

“I think we’d all be naive to think that it doesn’t have some level of effect,” Brown said on The Dan Patrick Show. “He has been used to winning. He is one of the major faces of the program. He is a prideful young man. You add it all up—not to make excuses—just out of fairness and reality, I believe a portion of it has impacted that mindset.”

Okafor has been videotaped getting into two pretty wild street fights (via TMZ) in recent weeks, both of which coming after a loss to the Boston Celtics on Nov. 25. The team suspended him two games, and rightfully so.

Fans are going to heckle. That happens. If they start getting on him in the wee hours of the morning, that’s a different situation. Anyone in his shoes would probably get defensive.

Here’s the solution: Don’t insert yourself in that situation.

People will defend Okafor and say that he has a right to go out and have a good time, just like everyone else. But he’s not like everyone else—he’s getting paid millions of dollars to play basketball. If sacrificing nightlife is necessary, then that’s what he has to do.

This ties back into the leadership idea. Think about the role models the other Rookie of the Year candidates has.

  • Kristaps Porzingis has Carmelo Anthony in New York.
  • Karl-Anthony Towns has Kevin Garnett in Minnesota.
  • Russell has Bryant in L.A.
  • Okafor has…nobody.

Unless the Sixers start adding veteran voices to that locker room, it’s possible he’ll develop some poor habits.

Which of his young teammates are going to get on him about dogging it in a practice? How many would even think of addressing the fights? Who would he ever take advice from?

Brown can’t be the only voice in Okafor’s ear.

Getting time to develop and grow on game nights is great. But there is a lot more that goes into being a pro than that.

D’ANGELO RUSSELL

It’s probably not easy sharing the court with Kobe, especially now.

Fans want to see him. Byron Scott lets him play and shoot as much as he wants. He’s far from the player he once was, so wins are scarce.

Playing with Bryant won’t help Russell right now. But playing on a team with him will. There’s a big difference.

Is Russell really getting better each time the Lakers take the floor? Not in the same way you could argue Okafor is.

According to Basketball Reference, Russell and Bryant have shared the floor for about 393 minutes. For context, Julius Randle (444 minutes), Roy Hibbert (422) and Jordan Clarkson (413) are the only players who have more time in with D-Russ.

While on the floor with Bryant, Russell has watched the Lakers score negative-16.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s worse than any of the three teammates mentioned above.

After losing to the Sacramento Kings on Oct. 30, the legendary veteran talked about pulling back and letting the young guns be the ones to fire in critical situations.

Per ESPN’s Baxter Holmes:

I’m really wanting to let the young guys, especially D’Angelo, let him call the game. Let him call the game. Let him organize the game. Let him read the game. Let him read the flow. Let him make those decisions.

Which is part of me taking a step back, which needs to be done. You have to let the young guys make those reads, and you have to be able to help them and support them with those reads.

Bryant also noted that while difficult, “it has to be done.”

His heart was in the right place, but his game has been in another. Since then, Bryant has fired up 17.9 field goal attempts per game, connecting on 28.7 percent of ‘em. Russell sees a whole seven fewer shots per outing, which makes it difficult for the rookie to truly develop a rhythm.

It certainly doesn’t look like he’s always enjoying the Kobe Show, either:

On Monday, it was announced that Russell and Randle would be relegated to the bench. Per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, they weren’t pleased.

Scott didn’t even meet with them personally, according to Serena Winters of TWC:

This is exactly the type of nonsense Russell’s fellow rookie out in Philly doesn’t have to deal with. What the Lakers are doing is similar to trying to grow a plant in a dark room.

But Bryant will be gone after this season, and he’ll surely leave his rookie protege as a more intelligent and dedicated player after displaying (and preaching) exactly what it takes to be great.

Russell will be out in the sun soon enough.

This year, Okafor is in a better spot. Going forward, it’s definitely Russell.

Stats are courtesy of Basketball Reference. Follow @TJDhoops.

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