The first class I ever taught at Stony Brook University included two international students concerned with a lack of resources for developing their conversational English. That semester we founded Foreign And Native Speakers, a group committed to developing English and social fluency between native English speakers and English as second-language learners. FANS grew from weekly meetings of 4-5 people (including me) to averaging almost 30 and receiving funding from my department without ever asking for it.
The two students in question went on to work in finance and attend graduate school, despite being unsure they could develop the skills to reach those points. Now imagine someone even younger dealing with opponents working to exploit their weaknesses under the glare of the national media. Isaac Okoro, this is your life.
Okoro spent a year at Auburn before declaring for this year’s who-knows-when NBA Draft. 6’6” and 225 pounds with a 6’9” wingspan, the first-generation Nigerian-American was named to the All-SEC Freshman Team, All-Defensive Team and All-SEC Second Team. He’s strong. Strong matters.
Between Kawhi and harden I feel like strength is super underrated as an attribute. always focused on quickness, size, etc, but strength to displace defenders and stand your ground on d is so important— Zach DiLuzio (@zjdiluzio) August 22, 2020
You know how a handful of times a year Kevin Knox rises up for what looks like an epic throwdown, only he never finishes? Okoro pro’ly won’t have that issue.
That fearlessness helped Okoro to a free-throw rating of .551, meaning he took more than half as many free throw attempts as field goal attempts. That Harden-esque figure dwarfs the rates put up by recent Knick picks Knox (.373) and RJ Barrett (.319) when they were in college. But dude’s no bull in a china shop. Okoro’s strength belies a grace and subtlety evident when Eurostepping through traffic for an off-hand finish or wrong-stepping lay-ins over taller defenders.
Now, regarding Okoro’s jumper...as you may have read, it is not, at this point, Smithsonian-bound.
This is where I’m supposed to say “He averaged just under 13 points a game and shot only 46% from the field and 21% from deep,” then you say “The Knicks’ last three draft picks — Frank Ntilikina, Knox and Barrett — are all sub-par shooters. They gotta land someone like Devin Vassell or Tyrese Haliburton,” and we quietly praise ourselves for this superficial inference.
Instead I say “Actually, those Okoro numbers were Kawhi Leonard’s as a freshman. Okoro’s scoring and assists were the same and he shot better — 51% from the field and 29% from deep.” This is not to suggest Okoro will one day be on the short list of the world’s greatest players, but to harken back to the opening paragraph of this piece and remind you that it’s difficult to gauge how much anybody will grow in just a few years, especially young people.
While shooting is impossible to predict, defensive projections are perhaps more allusive than elusive. Okoro guarded the opponent’s best player most nights. He is as complete a player on the defensive end as anyone in this draft is on the other side of the ball. Watch him guard South Alabama’s Chad Lott bringing the ball up the floor, then deny him the ball for half the shot clock before ending up with the steal. He sees the ball, he sees his man, and he’s got a handle on them both.
In this clip vs. Georgia, look at where Okoro starts the defensive possession before it ends with him blocking the shot.
He’s not all glamour. Later in that game he blocked two shots in a row, yet perhaps more impressively afterward retained the focus to step in front of the driver and force a miss.
Because he’s such a threat defending the perimeter, many of his steals and deflections result in easy run-outs for his team. If he were a defensive back, Okoro would be a Deion Sanders or an Ed Reed — always a threat to turn defense into offense.
Dare I mention...shades of Pablo Prigioni?
And those 50-50 loose balls, the ones that can create such momentum swings? Okoro has a Charles Oakley-ish passion for those plays.
Speaking of defense, there are other potential defenses of Okoro’s shooting numbers. His Auburn teammates were not exactly marksmen. According to Hoop-Math, Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick, the Tigers’ two leading shot-takers, both made fewer than 35% of their two-pointers and three-pointers. As Barrett learned last year in New York, it’s hard finding your footing at the next level up; it’s harder when even your top teammates shoot poorly. Despite that, only 26% of Okoro’s baskets at the rim were assisted, meaning even with teams knowing he “can’t” shoot, he found a way to be productive and efficient. Brutally, beautifully so, at times.
Two-thirds of his shots in transition came at the rim; in the last five seconds of the shot clock, Okoro made 79% of his looks from in close. It’s true only 10% of his field goal attempts were two-point jumpers, but on the bright side that shows a dude who isn’t intent on forcing what he knows isn’t there, a contrast to Barrett at Duke, where RJ was perfectly content putting up nearly as many shots as Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish combined.
I say that not to damn Barrett, but rather to suggest their differing ethea, perhaps coupled someday with a real-live legitimate point guard (Fred VanVleet?), could end up combining complementary talents. When everybody wants to be the diva, you end up with people struggling to cram their whole skill sets into short bursts. You end up with less than the sum of all parts.
But when talents come together to co-habitate, you get that sweet sweet harmony.
There is reason to believe Okoro’s preference at this point is to elevate others ahead of himself. Blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth, as well as some righteous dimes.
This is a high-I.Q. player with an engine that won’t quit and the same unselfishness on offense that we see in his commitment to defense.
Speaking of that commitment, a couple instances from Okoro matching up against potential top overall pick Anthony Edwards stand out.
At first glance, there’s nothing special about the clip above. Edwards gets the pass, gives a cursory hint of going to his right, then settles for a three-point attempt. What interests me is Okoro’s positioning in this quick sequence. When Edwards first has the ball, Okoro is pretty much squared up on him.
As Georgia’s Toumani Camara breaks for the corner, Okoro shifts to Edwards’ strong side, his right.
There are two Auburn defenders behind Okoro, both of whom are guarding a Bulldog. If Edwards goes left, he’s going to find 40% of the total mass of humanity on the crammed into a small amount of space. If he goes right, Okoro is waiting for him. It’s a little thing, but not everybody gets the little things.
La défense de Michael Porter Jr, puis la réaction de Mike Malone… pépite.pic.twitter.com/bbXq9Pgm50— Benjamin Moubeche – L'Analyste (@MBC_Benjamin) August 26, 2020
The other seemingly meaningless moment came later in the Georgia game, an Auburn blowout. Again we have a rather nondescript Edwards three-point attempt over Okoro, this time a successful attempt.
But it’s the context here and Okoro’s treatment of it that intrigues. Here he is, not quite in garbage time but getting close, matched up against one of his most highly regarded peers, one regarded even more highly than himself. It’d be easy to turn this into a mano a mano with Edwards, and not an unfounded one — Okoro had half of Auburn’s six blocked three-pointers last season.
While he remains engaged in his assignment and contests Edwards, he stays within the flow of the bigger picture. Anytime a player like Edwards is pulling and popping from deep, it’s a win for the defense. Even if the shot goes in, Auburn is losing a battle while winning the war. Okoro not only sees the ball and his man; he sees the big picture.
The Knicks need shooters, sure. The Knicks need everything. If it’s true the new front office seeks assets not only to improve the roster but to possibly trade up in next year’s mother of all drafts, an NBA-ready defender with Kawhi-like upside sounds more attractive than a 3-and-D like Vassell, or a nice shooter who may not be able to create much for themselves in the pros, as some fear with Haliburton.
As for the “What about Kevin Knox? He plays the same position!” sophism, remember: a fair number of us a year ago wrote off Ja Morant because the Knicks already had Dennis Smith Jr. It’s one thing to give young talent the chance to grow. It’s another to pass up potentially superior talent because you either assume or enjoying hoping your young talent will develop. Is it too early to settle on what Knox can be? It is. That doesn’t mean he’s earned the right to be anything more than a question mark whenever the Knicks next set foot on a court.
At minimum, Okoro appears to be someone who excels at things most Knicks don’t, and for what it’s worth there’s talk New York is at least entertaining the thought. A lineup featuring Okoro, Ntilikina, Barrett and Mitchell Robinson would be a joy to watch on defense. Less so on offense, but squeeze a Brandon Ingram in and voila! problem solved, right?
Lastly, listen to Okoro answer Jonathan Givony’s question about why more and more Nigerians are finding success in the NBA. His answer and the cadence of his speech are both maaad Walt Frazier-like. What more do you need?