Isaac Okoro, in his rookie season, has guarded 16 different All-Stars — and nine All-NBA members — for at least 20 possessions. The life of any rookie presents various litmus tests, challenging, or accelerating, their assimilation to the league. For Okoro, these exams are seemingly a nightly occurrence, quickly questioning the degree of validity behind his pre-draft label as a premier wing stopper. They manifest in various ways, ranging from the 6’2, 18 -pound Trae Young to the 6’9, 250 pound LeBron James.
Nestled across that spectrum includes other MVPs, such as Stephen Curry and James Harden. An array of play styles are featured: the slippery, dexterous, sweet-shooting attack of Kyrie Irving; the powerfully explosive nature of Zach LaVine; the methodical, distinctly skilled craft of DeMar DeRozan.
Being thrust into many diverging assignments affords Okoro a platform to showcase his on-ball versatility, even if the end result does not always favor him. This is not so much because they are besting him with ease, but because defense is really, really hard. Playing good, disciplined defense is sometimes, perhaps commonly, not synonymous with effective defense. Okoro is learning that. His tape is proof of this concept, conveying rather often that defensive outcomes are independent of one’s control.
Despite some faults against high-profile opponents, the 6’5 rookie has the means for menacing possessions. He’s burly and zippy laterally, so overpowering or blazing past him aren’t necessarily viable options. But more impressive than the physical tools is the comfort with which he wiggles under, over, or through screens. He flips his hips to glide around picks and knows how to angle himself in preparation for them that belies his first-year moniker; he blends size and agility, maintaining balance and positioning if he crashes into a pick. The physical characteristics and technique are augmented by instincts. Okoro diagnoses offensive decisions immediately as they unfold and acts.
To excel in pick-and-roll coverage or actions entailing multiple bodies and screens is rare for a rookie. Staunch isolation defense is notable, but this is much more. He’s thriving on the ball in a team context amid his inaugural NBA season, where, compared to any previous setting, offenses are more complex, the margin for error is thinner, and the development of plays is expedited.
Two primary factors prevent Okoro from flustering All-Star foes on a consistent basis. His lack of elite length (6’9 wingspan) for a perimeter irritant allows guys to fire clean looks over the top when he stays in front of them. He tends to be reactive in his movements, so offenses continue to dictate the action and remain in rhythm, the intangible quotient for many star creators. Growing adept at proactive decisions without fouling — the hallmark of many elite stoppers — is the next piece, since his arms are unlikely to sprout a few more inches anytime soon. Right now, he mirrors and contains the actions of assignments. Forcing offensive players to respond to him rather than vice versa is the tricky, yet paramount, step for his emergence.
His exploits as an on-ball defender headline his prowess, but he’s also an advanced interior help defender and competent at the nail in stunt-and-recover duties. On the weak-side in ball-screens, he tags rollers and rotates for rim contests, doing so snappily and with physicality. He recognizes when to peel to rollers and seal off pocket passes. There’s a level of defensive know-how uncustomary among rookies.
That last play, when he promptly switches to the rolling Bam Adebayo, immediately spreads his arms out wide, and deflects the pocket pass, subtly stands out. The impact is negligible. He does not force a missed shot nor snare a takeaway. Miami retains possession. But it is exactly the type of micro decision and execution emblematic of defensive awareness that pervades through an entire arsenal. Rookies do not do that. Okoro, however, is, because he wields an anomalous wherewithal, both on and off the ball.
Yet for every enticing feature of his defense, his offensive shortcomings potentially serve to jeopardize his value. He is currently a glaring negative, struggling to both effectively convert spot-up triples (29.8 percent this season) and around the rim (59 percent, 35th percentile, according to Cleaning The Glass). There are, however, threads that sew credence in Okoro’s eventual ascendance to offensive tenability.
He is already a perceptive, high-level cutter, particularly from the corners when Cleveland plops him there. He’ll drift in as a drive transpires. He’ll explode at a moment’s notice. He’ll float in from the wings when defenders divert away their attention away. This is not self-creation, but it is beneficial creation in tandem with an offensive conductor, embodying the complementary role he has always projected to serve.
Periodically, Cleveland entrusts him with self-creation opportunities and he delivers enough to inspire hope that it can blossom as more than merely flashes down the line. Despite limited shooting gravity, he touts ambidexterity, patience, ball-screen savvy, and a Euro-step finishing weapon to hammer home drives. Any sort of space provided by defenders, who gear up to prioritize stone-walling a drive as opposed to contesting a jumper, evolve into a runway for him, where he absorbs contact and applies his strength and repped-out talents.
Neither of these skills are frequented happenings yet. Okoro hints at elite wing finishing, but a 59 percent success rate and 35th percentile ranking are not the marks of someone who can credibly rely on paint scoring for offensive equity at this juncture. The primary inhibition is a lack of flexibility. If he were not as rigid and tightly contained an athlete as he is, the middling length would carry less importance. But he fails to maximize his size or sprawl his limbs around defenders, requiring a patterned or predetermined method for profits on drives.
Addressing his flexibility restrictions moving forward with the intentions of discovering greater improvisation at the basket could be the bridge between his driving and finishing. Reducing that physical deficiency seems like the approach to tying together a pair of potential pluses in his game that reside upon contrasting endpoints. It is not solely in his finishing where inflexibility confines him. His shooting mechanics are stiff and short on optimal fluidity. All of it looks taut.
At least one of his outside shot or finishing developing to adequate is principle. Until then, in high-leverage contexts, if he’s out there as a one-way specialist, defenses will presumably pin lesser, smaller players to him, unbothered by any threat he may offer. Discovering avenues to capitalize upon that gambit, either firing and hitting catch-and-shoot threes over the top or dislodging opponents as a slasher, is how he accentuates the impact of his defense, justifying considerable minutes on competitive teams.
Plenty of defense-first guys have fizzled out of the league with offensive equity as their downfall. Most, perhaps all, are not of Okoro’s ilk at this stage of their NBA career, but also have not carried the mantle of expectations associated with a top-five pick. He should warrant All-Defensive team consideration quite soon because he is that good. It’s not a matter of carving out a consistent roster spot in the NBA, it’s about being good enough to be more than a niche stopper.
He brandishes the caliber of defense that can alter opposing game plans by coaxing them to restructure an offensive hierarchy or blueprint. The hope, and emphasis in his developmental philosophy, must be that his offense is not of a similar vein for his own franchise. Prevent coaches from weighing any offensive vs. defensive trade-off when allocating minutes. Be the exquisite perimeter defender who is not lauded with a repeated “yeah, but” caveat.
Isaac Okoro is en route to defensive preeminence. Yet his offense shall determine what defines his NBA career, answering which side of the ball will overshadow the other. His end goal is to make this type of discussion a footnote, a concern that was never worth actually fretting about. If he does, his defensive preeminence will be displayed for all to see under glowing spotlights in tantalizing scenarios — not just in a mid-week League Pass tilt against fellow lottery-bound squads.