From the moment the Los Angeles Lakers selected D'Angelo Russell with the second-overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the cries began. "The Lakers should have taken Jahlil Okafor!" said a certain sub-sect of Lakers fans, a sentiment that only increased when Russell struggled mightily during Las Vegas Summer League and the preseason. The rookie point guard's start to the regular season wasn't much better, and the declarations that the Lakers had made a mistake intensified as Okafor averaged 17.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.3 assists in November while Russell averaged 10.7/4.9/3.1 in those categories over the same period, respectively.
But what the box score watchers and "the Lakers should have stuck with drafting centers" narrative pushers missed as Okafor continued to stuff the stat sheet on the only team arguably more awful than the Lakers was:
1) Almost every Lakers center of note was acquired in a trade or through free agency, so their organizational tradition of drafting Hall of Fame big men was always a bit overstated by some media personalities in the lead up to the draft.
2) Russell's improvement.
The Lakers' rookie point guard has improved in almost every statistical category since the beginning of the season, averaging 13.3 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting (46.4 percent from behind the arc) to go with 3.6 assists and 2.9 rebounds in the month of February, his shooting efficiency rising as the season has went along.
While those averages may not sound impressive compared to Okafor's larger stat lines (17.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game on 50 percent shooting this season), when digging a little deeper it becomes easier to argue that the Lakers made the right choice, especially considering the direction the league is shifting.
Okafor may rack up stats, but he is doing so while using 27.9 percent of the Sixers' possessions while on the floor compared to the 23.1 percent Russell uses for the Lakers. Okafor also turns the ball over on 12 percent of those possessions, a high rate for a center. Russell turns the ball over 13.5 percent of his possessions, but Okafor's turnovers still look worse not only because he uses more possessions, but also due to him assisting less than Russell (assisting on just 8.3 percent of Sixers' possessions while on the floor, while Russell does so 19.1 percent during his playing time).
Okafor does shoot a higher field goal percentage than Russell at 50 percent to D'Angelo's 41.8 percent. However, when factoring in the added value of Russell's three-point shooting, their shooting efficiency is essentially a wash, with Russell's effective field goal percentage (which accounts for three-pointers being worth 1.5 two-pointers) sitting at 48.6 percent on the year compared to Okafor's 50 percent. With the league moving further away from post-ups and shooting more three-pointers, Russell's proficiency there could end up being the far more valuable skill going forward, particularly if Okafor continues coughing up the rock at his current rate.
Even if one still says Okafor is the superior offensive option right now, it is not enough to make up how actively harmful he has been to the 76ers' defense this season. Neither the Lakers (who rank last in the league in defensive efficiency, giving up 109 points per 100 possessions) or the Sixers (22nd, 105.6) are good defensive teams, but Okafor's defense has been one of the main factors in Philadelphia's struggles.
When Okafor is on the floor, Philadelphia gives up 108.4 points per 100 possessions, as compared to 102.7 when he sits (the worst differential of any Sixers player), a difference of 5.7 points that equals the difference between the 30th ranked Lakers and 17th place Dallas Mavericks defense. Meanwhile, the Lakers have actually been better defensively with Russell on the floor (108.5) than when he sits (109.6).
That difference is influenced by a bit of noise like Russell playing much of the year off the bench while Okafor has started (and thus been on the floor against other team's best players more often) the majority of the season, but it does point to Russell being at the very least a less harmful defender than Okafor.
That concession may be underselling things though, as Russell has been surprisingly good as an on-ball defender for the Lakers this season, leveraging his length to cut off passing angles with his active hands. He's not a great defender yet, but he has shown considerable more promise on that end than Okafor, who often appears to be playing defense in slow motion and has exhibited very poor help instincts.
Okafor's defense could certainly improve with some more seasoning, but it's hard to see him ever topping out as better-than-average on that end while Russell already appears on track to be at the very least mediocre. This issue is compounded by just how essential defensive competence and rim protection is from a big man in the modern NBA, especially with the league's best offenses showing a merciless tendency to hunt down and exploit plodders like Okafor using pick-and-rolls.
Could the Sixers young pivot-man improve? Sure, both he and Russell are still too young to legally buy a drink and will certainly get better as their careers continue. On that note, places where drinks are consumed have proved to be another issue for Okafor, with the rookie getting into multiple bar fights in Boston during his first season in the league. Okafor has also been pulled over for speeding this season while Russell has thus far managed to avoid getting into trouble off the court. Everyone makes mistakes when they are 19 years old, but these are factors to consider when evaluating these players long term. Philadelphia reportedly even went so far as to consider dealing Okafor at the trade deadline before ultimately backing out.
Okafor is still a promising player, and it's far too soon to definitively declare if the Lakers made the right choice in selecting Russell second-overall. However, it's also fair to say that his rookie season has been more promising than Okafor's when you look deeper than their raw box score averages after games. Neither player is going to win Rookie of the Year, but Russell looks primed to succeed in a league trending more and more toward his skill set and away from Okafor's.
All stats per NBA.com. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.