A couple of weeks ago, I moonlighted as a guest on the esteemed CnD NBA Show Podcast. In the wake of the trade for Patrick Beverley, we all tried to predict a starting lineup for the Minnesota Timberwolves next season. Off the cuff, I said that the starting lineup would look like this:
This lineup, in turn, would leave a “kickass” (Asseln et al. – August 2021) bench unit of:
Regarding the latter unit, I was thinking how ridiculous that lineup combination would be. Just imagine Beverley and Nowell sharing ball-handling duties, with Vando as the only non-shooting threat on the floor. It was halfway through this thought process that Dylan Carlson, co-host of the podcast and pseudo/psycho-intellectual extraordinaire, asked me one simple question:
“So, where’s Okogie on this?”
Oh yeah. Josh Okogie. I forgot about him again.
What about Josh?
Now that the Olympics are over, Okogie appears to have become a neglected piece of this new Timberwolves roster. Arguably one of the only quality players to emerge from the Tom Thibodeau era, Okogie, along with Towns, is the last holdover of the team that Rosas inherited from the madman two seasons ago. Okogie will be entering his fourth season as he looks to help this roster make the playoffs for the first time in his career.
In deducing why Okogie has become an afterthought, one only needs to look at last season’s performance. A 2-guard by trade, he was played out of position at the 4 all year due to the lack of viable options. Okogie averaged career lows in the following per-game categories: minutes, points, rebounds, assists, and steals.
This was a noticeable regression for a player who had spent the previous two years capturing the hearts of Wolves fans with his defensive intensity and hustle. With an incomplete roster construction and something called “effective height,” Okogie was miscast as a small-ball PF and would see his minutes dwindle under both coaches, Ryan Saunders and Chris Finch. Playing at the 4 would stunt Okogie’s development as a lockdown perimeter defender, and the lack of touches also did not stabilize Okogie’s already inconsistent shooting.
There were times last year when Okogie was just downright unplayable. Finch’s modern offense will require players to hit open shots to take the pressure off of Towns. Okogie has never shot over 28% from deep in a season. Teams regularly leave him wide open, and he often fails to capitalize.
Taking last season’s regression into consideration, it is unsurprising that Okogie may be left out. For us armchair analysts mapping out prospective rotations for the 2021-22 season, Okogie’s name is not rushing to the frontal cortex like he’s closing out James Harden at the top of the key. For arguably the highest-character player of the last three seasons, it is disappointing to see the beginning of the end of his tenure.
Rewriting the Narrative
Many complaints about Okogie’s game are expressed in frustration; Wolves fans know that the player they fell in love with in 2018 is still in there and is begging to be developed.
The first step towards Okogie’s success in the upcoming season is to stop playing him out of position. Okogie is a 2 guard who can effectively guard 1-3 and anyone on the perimeter. Miscasting him as a PF because his arms are long and his “effective height” is “big enough” doesn’t allow Okogie to play to his strengths. Great coaches know how to make the most of what they have on the roster, and if Finch keeps trying to shove a square peg into a triangular hole, he will not see development from Okogie.
Anyone who kept up with the Olympics knows that Okogie played as a primary ball-handler for the Nigerian national team. It is doubtful that he will ever see that sort of responsibility on a Minnesota team that is chock-full of ball-handlers. Still, his ability to initiate an offense gives Finch more lineup options. This would pave the way for Okogie to earn minutes on a playoff-hopeful team that could desperately use his defensive acumen.
While his most natural position is at the 2, Okogie should be able to find minutes at the 3 behind McDaniels and Prince, both of whom will almost surely play some time at PF this season as well. This will relieve the pressure of having to guard someone considerably larger than him, and he will still have the opportunity to utilize his skillset better on the perimeter. The Timberwolves are deep at shooting guard, with Edwards, Beasley, and Nowell prefer that spot. With Russell and Beverley having the ability to play off-ball themselves, it will be tough for Okogie to crack that rotation. Delving back into the PF spot is a bad idea for Okogie, but minutes at the 3 will suit his strengths.
Okogie is entering the final year of his contract. While last season brought out the worst in many Timberwolves players, it will be on Finch and his staff to make the most out of the players they have. Expect Finch to use Okogie sparingly, barring an injury, but it will be easier to trust him to utilize Okogie better than Saunders did last season.
He is a good player and one of the better perimeter defenders in the NBA, but until Okogie develops a consistent shot and becomes a true two-way player, his role in the NBA will be limited. Look for him to get back on track this season as he proves his worth for the Timberwolves and any other team that may be interested.