Timberwolves

The Case For Isaac Okoro

Photo Credit: John Reed (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Timberwolves have the No.1 overall pick in this year’s draft, and we’ve all been wondering what exactly Gersson Rosas intends to do with the pick. Does he pick a player? Can he possibly trade the pick for a player who can help the Wolves more immediately? Nobody knows. The Wolves are keeping things very private, so even those closest to the team have no idea what they plan on doing.

Here’s what we do know, as we approach the draft, it has become clear that there is a league-wide consensus about which players should be taken with the top 3 picks: LaMelo Ball, James Wiseman, and Anthony Edwards. We also know that each of these prospects has tremendous amounts of boom or bust potential. I don’t like any of these three, so is there someone outside the top-3 that we’re missing? I believe that someone is Auburn’s Isaac Okoro

I work in education, and one thing we always talk about is doing our work with an abundance mindset. This means rather than focusing on what students can’t do, we need to focus on what they are good at. I think of what my dear friend and educator Troy Asseln said about abundance “When educators laser in on potentially negative aspects of students’ character, much of the goodness of those students can be forgotten.” With the top 3 guys, it seems we have focused on the abundance of talent, but with Okoro we just can’t get over the things he can’t do.

So let’s take some time to look at the things that Okoro can do.

Shawty is Thicc

What I mean by that is Okoro’s body is as NBA ready as it gets. He is 6’6”, 225 pounds with a 6’8.5” wingspan. He lacks some length (for context Edwards is 6’5” with a 7’0” wingspan), but Okoro’s bulk gives him the ability to guard multiple positions. He is amazingly spry for someone his size with incredible speed and good bounce that gives him the ability to throw down with force.

Lockdown Defense

The Wolves have plenty of offense. Last year we didn’t get the opportunity to see KAT and Russell play together, but my gut tells me they are going to be pretty good. The Wolves have a serious need for a perimeter defender, and Okoro is the best perimeter defender in this draft class. He spent his lone season at Auburn proving that he was one of the best defenders in the country.

Although Auburn played quite a bit of zone defense, he was able to shine by reading passing lanes, closing out with speed, and a great feel for when to collapse and help inside. When Auburn played man-to-man he was the primary defender on quick guards like Alabama’s Kira Lewis Jr. and Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans. He also guarded big, physical forwards like Trendon Watford from LSU who weighs in at an impressive 6’9” 235 pounds. It’s really hard to find defensive statistics to really show how good of a defender he is, but how about a highlight reel?

Playmaking Ability

Looking at Okoro’s counting stats is a little underwhelming: He averaged 12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game. But during his time at Auburn, he showed an ability to read a defense and make smart passes. Watch him work.

The reason Okoro didn’t average more assists is that his usage was fairly low for a top prospect. Normally, we’ll see usage north of 20% for players drafted this high. Okoro has a usage rate of 19.6%. It wasn’t his ability that stopped Okoro from running the offense more often, it was the hierarchy. Of the six Auburn players who played the most minutes, five of them were seniors.

He didn’t get that many opportunities to run the offense, but when he did, he took full advantage of it. According to Synergy, on 46 pick-and-roll possessions in which Okoro was the ball handler, the Auburn Tigers scored .98 points per possession, which is ok. When Okoro passes out of the pick-and-roll, the Tigers put up an impressive 1.26 points per possession. But, he did struggle to score out of the pick-and-roll, scoring only .731 point per possession. And here we have the biggest negative aspect of Okoro’s game, his shooting.

Offensive “Woes”

The biggest critique of Okoro’s offense is his struggles from the three-point line: He shot 28.6 percent from behind the arc. Usually, I look to free throw percentage to project if a player had bad shooting luck or really can’t shoot. Unfortunately, he shot 67 percent from the free-throw line which does not help his case. I admit it: He struggles to shoot the ball. However, Okoro is not the only top prospect who struggled from distance last season.

Obviously, with Okoro and Ball, there is a much smaller sample size, but it’s clear to see that all three prospects need to improve their shooting. The key here is that even though Okoro struggled to shoot the ball in college, he was still able to play an incredibly efficient brand of offense, posting a much higher true shooting percentage than Ball or Edwards.

The key to Okoro’s efficiency is his ability to finish at the rim. Efficiency is essential in the NBA. Ryan Saunders’ offensive system is reliant on most of the shots coming at the rim or the three-point line. One thing we’ve seen Saunders do during Wolves practice is taping off sections of the mid-range. Shots that are taken from those areas count as negative points to emphasize the inefficiency of those shots. Last season, Okoro took 93 percent of his shots at the rim or the three-point line. I tried my hand at putting together a shot chart for Okoro and it looks something like this:

How’d I do? Ok, more seriously, here is a shot chart from the Stepien Report:

Oh man, mine is really bad huh? Shoot. Anyway, Okoro’s shot chart shows his efficiency at the rim. I took a look at this and thought it bore an incredible resemblance to the shot chart of All-NBA forward, former Timberwolf and “Mr. Finals Triple-Double” – Jimmy Butler.

Jimmy Butler has found success even though he is not a terrific shooter. He plays elite defense, gets his teammates involved, and plays with near unparalleled grit and intensity. Okoro has shown many of the same qualities in his game. By focusing on his jump shooting, we ignore everything else that makes him a winning player. When I watch Okoro play, I see an elite defender with high-level athleticism, a player who can create for himself or his teammates off the dribble, and someone who will be the hardest working player on the court. There are no questions about his commitment to the game. There are no worries about his ability to lead by example. There’s no doubt that he will be one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. The only thing that’s missing is a jump shot.

Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’m missing something. But, to me, Okoro seems like one of the safest bets at the top of the draft and a player who can develop into an all-star. Most NBA front offices probably don’t have the stones to pick Okoro No. 1 out of fear of picking the next Anthony Bennett. But Rosas has already shown that he’s willing to make big swings, so maybe Okoro is a swing he should take.

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