Minnesota Timberwolves: What will Josh Okogie’s role be in 2020-21?

The Minnesota Timberwolves have a roster that appears to have solid depth. Where does Josh Okogie fit into the plan moving forward?

It’s well-documented that the Minnesota Timberwolves only have two players on the current roster that were with the team when Gersson Rosas took over as president of basketball operations just under 13 months ago.

Karl-Anthony Towns is one, and he remains the focal point of the Wolves roster, now aided by another young All-Star in D’Angelo Russell.

The other player that remains is Josh Okogie, the athletic, defensively-minded wing drafted by Rosas’ predecessor, Tom Thibodeau, in the first round of the 2018 draft.

Following Okogie’s selection, yours truly wrote about the clear similarities between Okogie’s draft profile and that of Thibodeau’s greatest success story, Jimmy Butler. It was obvious that Thibodeau saw some of the same qualities, especially related to toughness, defensive ability, and a raw offensive game, that he had seen in Butler several years ago while both men were with the Chicago Bulls.

As a rookie, however, Okogie was pressed into duty far earlier and at a higher minute allotment than Butler was in his first season in the league. And while Okogie struggled offensively as expected, he had amazing defensive moments sprinkled throughout the 2018-19 campaign.

This season, Okogie came off the bench more often than he did as a rookie but saw his minutes per game tick up just slightly, from 23.7 to 25. His other per-game averages did the same, as he received more opportunities to produce.

Surprisingly, Okogie’s 3-point rate actually decreased from .423 to .387, meaning that only 38.7 percent of his field goal attempts came from beyond the arc despite the team’s shift in focus to shooting as many 3-pointers as possible. Okogie’s success rate from deep ticked backward, too, from 27.9 percent as a rookie to 26.6 percent in his second season.

Okogie did, however, improve many of the rest of his rate-based numbers, including rebounding, assists, and free throw rate. He also continued to be the Wolves’ most consistent wing defender.

So what role does a wing who shoots at a below-average clip from deep have on a Gersson Rosas-run team?

Okogie is already dangerous in transition and doesn’t need to change much about that aspect of his game. His athleticism and the pace at which he plays fits perfectly with what the Wolves want to do.

Well, at this moment in time, he’s a fit as the only above-average defender in the starting five. Towns, Russell, and Malik Beasley, who will likely return via restricted free agency, are all below-average defenders.

While the Wolves need their trio of star scorers to improve defensively if they want to make any real noise in the Western Conference, they can contend for a playoff spot with an unstoppable offense and a passable defense. The defense should be able to reach passable levels if the stars at least buy into the system, and if the other two starters can play at least average individual defense.

At the moment, Juancho Hernangomez is the starter at power forward, and he’s an all-around decent defender. He competes hard on that end of the floor and, for the most part, is in the right place at the right time but doesn’t possess amazing lateral quickness. That might be okay, but it puts that much more pressure on the other defenders — and especially Towns and Okogie.

While Okogie is the best defender on the Wolves, it doesn’t mean he’s an All-NBA defender, either. The Timberwolves need a couple of things from Okogie if he is going to successfully round out their starting unit.

  • Moderate improvement on his jump shot. Ideally, he can become something like a league-average 3-point shooter, hitting 32 or 33 percent from deep. He’s already in that neighborhood from the corners (32.8 percent for his career, to be exact), and the Wolves need him to carry that around the arc.
  • Taking his defensive game to the next level, both individually and as part of the team concept.

Again, just because Okogie is the best defender on the team doesn’t mean that he’s capable of being the only plus-defender in a lineup full of minus-defenders. And if Okogie wants to hold down his role as the fifth offensive option and the stopper on defense, he has to get a little better in both of those areas.

If the 2020-21 season started today (wouldn’t that be nice?), Okogie would be the fifth starter and could hold down that role. The guess here is that he’ll have the start of next season to show marked improvement from beyond the arc and continual improvement defensively. If he can do that, he can stick as a relatively affordable fifth starter for a team with designs on the playoffs.

If not, then Okogie can still fit as a wing piece off the bench as the team might search for a better-shooting or better-defending player as an alternative for the starting lineup.

Next: 3 Wolves who have earned more playing time

Either way, Okogie has a role on this team moving forward, and at under $2.8 million next year and only $4.2 million in 2021-22, he’ll be a valuable piece of the rotation regardless of whether or not he’s in the starting lineup.