Just as the race for NBA playoff spots and the quest for MVP heat up this time of year, so does the scrutiny of contenders for the No. 1 draft pick.
Right now, it's Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor's turn to go under the microscope.
The 6'11", 270-pound center is in the midst of an impressive March Madness run that includes a combined 47 points on 21-of-27 shooting in two games. He's aiming to enhance his stock as the Blue Devils' season nears its culmination.
He was widely dubbed the premier prize of the draft for most of the season, but sparkling displays from Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns and Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell have closed the gap. Now the hierarchy isn't quite as clear.
Many scouts and analysts have raised valid questions about Okafor's game. Can his interior playing style translate enough to tomorrow's league to warrant a No. 1 selection? Can he play defense against agile pros? Is his free-throw shooting fixable?
Let's examine what he could achieve in the NBA based on his skills, noticeable potential and intangibles.
There are distinct limitations to Okafor's ceiling or possible roles in the NBA. He is not a jump-out-of-the-gym athlete, doesn't figure to be a prolific perimeter shooter and won't likely play any position other than the 5.
These factors have dinged his draft stock in the eyes of many, but I'm here to illustrate a more optimistic (but still realistic) view of his potential.
First of all, Okafor's place as a non-elite athlete doesn't mean he won't be mobile or fluid enough to operate in the modern, uptempo Association. His agility and movements are actually quite impressive for a 270-pound behemoth.
Does this look like a Roy Hibbert to you?
Let's remember he's still a teenager growing into his massive frame, which includes a 7'5" wingspan.
Once he loses some of the childhood fat and becomes more muscular, you can expect an uptick in highlights like the following one. These types of plays indicate he won't be an athletic liability in fast-break scenarios.
What about his low-post prowess?
Okafor will carve up opponents in one-on-one scenarios in the post, using a plethora of back-to-the-basket moves. He can drop-step, use the up-and-under or turn over either shoulder for baby hooks.
He'll execute all of the above until opponents start double-teaming him. Then things get a little trickier.
When he's cornered or trapped by athletic, long NBA defenders, will he have the chops to make the right plays as a scorer and passer?
My instinct is that he will, based on his success as a freshman and several key plays that illustrate his dexterity and awareness of his surroundings. Okafor is quick enough with the ball to make an effective scoring move or a critical pass to an open shooter.
Watch him make one dribble out of the baseline and do his best NFL quarterback impersonation. That's a crisp pass with some extra juice on it:
Okafor's jump-shooting potential is murky. His motion and delivery aren't the smoothest, and he doesn't consistently hoist many field goals outside the paint.
However, there's evidence to believe he'll be a decent mid-range shooter. Okafor intermittently hits shots as far as 15 feet from the hoop.
A peek at his shot chart indicates that he's actually quite proficient from mid-range on the right side of the hoop. With some refining and repetition, he could keep defenses honest with a 12-15-foot jumper, much like Tim Duncan and Al Jefferson (his closest NBA comparisons) do.
Don't forget that Okafor is just a freshman. While he's closer to being a finished product than someone such as Towns, he still has plenty of room and wherewithal to grow.
"One of Jahlil Okafor's greatest qualities is what his Indiana-based trainer, Rick Lewis, calls his 'conversion rate'—Okafor's ability to convert moves he's very recently learned in workouts into his game repertoire," noted Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated.
Okafor doesn't fit the mold of future superstars, yet his offensive upside is colossal. The NBA is trending toward smaller, speedier lineups, but there's always room for exceptions, especially when they're as skilled as he is.
His ceiling offensive output could look something like this: 22 points, three assists, 55 percent shooting and 68 percent on free throws.
Defense and Rebounding Upside
I'm not here to convince you Okafor has the potential to be a standout defender in the NBA. He hasn't shown consistent effectiveness against collegiate competition, and that includes so-so foot speed, spotty effort and underwhelming leaping ability to block shots.
For most of the year, he has struggled to stop foes as a one-on-one defender and especially as a weak-side helper. He's particularly shaky against pick-and-roll defenses.
Okafor's unimpressive displays have been highlighted as a reason to pass on him as a No. 1 candidate. In many cases, the anti-Okafor camp has portrayed him as a lost cause in order to illustrate the point that he's not a home run prospect.
Those portrayals are exaggerated.
In this Draft Express video breakdown of his defense, there are some bright spots to go along with the negative revelations.
When Okafor is in the correct spots and his teammates are in sync, his interior defense is solid. Unfortunately, Duke's sloppy team execution didn't do him any favors for most of the campaign. It frequently put him in difficult situations.
The star center certainly was part of the Blue Devils' defensive problem, and yes, his effort could be better. But Sam Vecenie of CBSSports.com explains how the guards' shoddy perimeter efforts failed Okafor:
...Okafor's rim protection is fine when he makes effort, which given how integral he is to the Blue Devils' offense doesn't always happen. However, at the end of games it's fine. Secondly, while his pick-and-roll defense is certainly nowhere near a plus (or even average), it's exacerbated by the fact that neither Tyus Jones nor Quinn Cook can fight through screens or keep anyone in front of them on the perimeter, which often hangs him out to dry longer than he should be.
That excerpt is from late February. It's just a few weeks later, and Duke's team defense is starting to click much better.
And in turn, Okafor's performance is starting to reach respectable form. He's enjoyed three multi-block games in a row, and his positioning is looking much more sound.
Amid his offensive success during the NCAA tourney, Vecenie was most smitten by Okafor's stoppage: "...It was his defense that was most impressive, as he looked more active and locked in than he has all season in protecting the paint and rotating throughout it. If he continues to show that defensive potential, he's a lock for the No. 1 overall pick in my mind."
Don't expect him to contend for NBA Defensive Player of the Year, but he could be closer to the middle tier of rim protectors than the bottom group.
As a rebounder, Okafor hasn't wowed us this year. He doesn't always go after boards with the tenacity and athleticism of someone such as Towns, and occasionally he's failed to box out a challenger on the defensive glass.
Nevertheless, he still managed to snare 11.9 boards per 40 minutes in ACC play. And although he's not a freakish athlete, his mobility, massive frame and huge hands will enable him to take care of business in the NBA.
It's not crazy to think that he'll average double-digit rebounds, flirt with two blocks and post a defensive rating around 100 in his prime.
I don't blame any lottery team for looking at Towns and Russell, or even picking them due to their versatility and upside.
But it will take an abundantly convincing argument from either of them; Okafor possesses a bunch of upside of his own, along with his established exquisite repertoire.
Sean Deveney of the Sporting News indicated that Okafor is still the front-runner among NBA front office types, considering his recent magnificence and overall body of work. One executive definitively stated he's still the top dog.
"Sometimes there is fatigue, you know, when one guy is No. 1 all year, you start looking for something different,” one general manager told Deveney. “But he’s still the best player out there."
When you consider the big fella's enormous offensive potential along with his capability to play respectable defense, it's going to be hard for the top lottery team to pass on him.
Daniel O'Brien covers the NBA draft for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR