Despite a tumultuous 2018-19 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves appear to have struck gold in late in the first round with Josh Okogie.
It is rare for late first-round draft picks to make an impact, let alone start, in their first season, but Okogie proved to be an important piece, both last year and for the Timberwolves’ future.
At the start of last season, Okogie’s role was ill-defined. He went through stretches of playing limited minutes to starting to not playing at all. This was exacerbated by coaching instability and inconsistent nightly rotations.
Luckily for Okogie, changes were made that stabilized the rotation and set a clearer picture of what the future would entail. Through these changes and Okogie’s play on the court, it became evident that Okogie is an important piece moving forward.
While Okogie’s rookie season was promising, the real question is how good can Okogie be moving forward for the Timberwolves?
During the FIBA World Cup, Okogie averaged 12.6 points, 4.4 assists, 2.4 steals, and 1.2 blocks with 43/42/90 shooting splits (field goal/3-point/free throw percentages). If sustained, this would be a drastic jump in Okogie’s shooting efficiency from last year. These numbers are only representative of a five-game stretch so while they are encouraging, they also should be taken with a massive grain of salt.
Going forward, the obvious wish list would be for Okogie to shoot near 40 percent from three and be a legit playmaking option. While in the long-term that is a great mindset, the immediate future must have a focus on what Okogie already excels at.
Okogie isn’t a good shooter and struggles at playmaking, but he is already a strong perimeter defender and provides a rare infusion of energy.
When thinking about other players in the league that share these traits, Marcus Smart continuously comes to mind and is the type of player that Okogie should aspire to model his game after.
There are obviously the negatives of Smart’s game — namely, his shooting woes — but since the season is nearly upon us and hope is still alive and well, let’s focus on the positives.
Like Smart, Okogie is a tenacious defender and plays with infectious energy. This season, Okogie and the Timberwolves need to play into those strengths and not force Okogie into playing a role he is not suited for.
Okogie will make his biggest impact with the Timberwolves on the defensive end. Last season, Okogie ranked No. 28 among guards in total steals with 88 (more than Klay Thompson and Danny Green), No. 24 in blocks with 33 (more than Donovan Mitchell and Eric Bledsoe), and No. 16 in deflections per game with 2.1 (more than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and T.J. McConnell).
Before Okogie, the Timberwolves were notably horrible on defense. While there is still room for improvement, the Timberwolves were better defensively with Okogie on the floor per NBA.com/stats. The Timberwolves’ defensive rating last year was 112.2 and dropped to 110.6 when Okogie was on the floor.
While it still isn’t an ideal number, for a rookie to have an impact of two points is pretty significant. Even more notable is how good the Timberwolves’ defense is when Robert Covington is on the floor with Okogie. The team’s defensive rating drops to a stellar 102.9 when both are on the floor. This pairing is destined to see a lot of playing time together which sparks belief that the Timberwolves will be able to turn around their recent defensive woes.
Below, we see how Okogie isn’t afraid of any opponent and is always a threat to force turnovers. He uses his agile footwork to stay in front of opponents, his quick hands to abuse sloppy dribbling, and his athleticism and awareness to disrupt passing lanes.
While Okogie is exciting and reliable on defense, he is equally frustrating on offense. He will go through stretches of being a reliable scorer but at this point in his career, that isn’t a role he should be forced into.
What Okogie did succeed at last year, however, was cutting. Per NBA .com/stats, Okogie was one of the best cutting guards, scoring 1.30 points per possession on cuts. Among guards who had a cut frequency of more than six percent, Okogie ranked fourth in points per possession.
In these situations, Okogie can use his quickness and leaping ability to attack the rim. He can take a major offensive leap this season though by improving on his ability to finish at the rim. Even though he was one of the leaders in points per possession on cuts among guards, he still only had a scoring frequency of 68.2 percent and an and-one-frequency of just 4.5 percent.
If Okogie can improve at absorbing contact and utilizing a softer touch at the rim, he will see a massive uptick in his scoring efficiency.
Expectations and excitement for Okogie entering this season should be high. He was one of the lone bright spots for the Timberwolves last season and will be important to their success this season. With that said, unrealistic expectations regarding Okogie’s shooting and playmaking potential need to be tempered.
If Okogie is forced into a role where he is relied on to consistently score and/or create, he will struggle. He will be at his best if he is used as a defensive and emotional leader like the Celtics use Marcus Smart. If used in this fashion, Okogie will be a hound on defense while attacking the rim on offense.
Josh Okogie has the potential to be an All-NBA defender and emotional leader for this team going forward, and he will be a key piece of the team in 2019-20 and beyond.