DimeMag

Isaac Okoro Is A Lottery Talent With One Major Question Mark

For a minute, let’s pretend I am capable of fixing the most damning flaws possessed by NBA Draft prospects. In this scenario, assuming I still yearn to write about the NBA Draft, the following piece would focus on Isaac Okoro, a top-five prospect. Instead, this is about Isaac Okoro, a 6’6 wing from Auburn University whose outside shooting indicators are so bleak that they relegate him to the fringe-lottery tier on my board.

There are a host of skills to enjoy about Okoro. I’ll dive into those later and attempt to project how they will translate to the NBA, but we must begin with the foremost concern, which permeates throughout the entirety of his offensive toolkit: his shooting. In 28 games this season, Okoro shot 29.0 percent beyond the arc and 67.2 percent from the charity stripe. He converted 69.8 percent of his dunks or shots at the rim but just 25.3 percent everywhere else, registering in the 22nd percentile on catch-and-shoot jumpers and 19th percentile on no dribble, spot-up jumpers. He’s also gun shy in nature, consistently passing up open threes and wandering into precarious positions. Combine all of that with his stiff, robotic mechanics and Okoro’s shooting projection is rather dire.

You saw these issues manifest this year on a regular basis and negatively affect Auburn’s offense. Those scenarios are only going to become more frequent at the next level when the opposition manipulates his lack of shooting gravity by playing way off of him and mucking up other actions. In two of the following clips, look at how easily his man can provide help to deter Samir Doughty’s drive. Despite getting opportunities to take open looks, Okoro turns down these shots.

Being a perimeter-sized player who cannot knock down threes at a consistent clip and also passes up countless opportunities (.284 three-point rate) makes it quite challenging to produce positive value offensively. Nonetheless, there are a few avenues for Okoro to do so, though his shooting development is the crux of all this and I am dubious he gets that to a point where it opens up the rest of his game.

As a slasher and finisher, he is among the best in the class. Only 30.7 percent of his buckets at the rim were assisted and he ranked in the 89th percentile around the basket in the half-court (64.2 percent). There is legitimate upside as a player who can create looks on his own (97th percentile in isolation, 23 possessions) and it’s powered by his blend of strength, balance, interior touch, body control, and improved ball-handling. Plus, he can score inside with either hand.

The issue then becomes figuring out how much his shooting woes will inhibit this on-ball creation. Can he still rely on his strength, balance, and touch? Can he develop a floater as a secondary weapon for when he doesn’t get all the way to the rim? After making significant strides from high school to college, will he continue to expand his ball-handling and further unlock driving lanes?

Broadly, my answer to all three questions is yes, and it’s why I remain in on him as a lottery talent. However, much of this translation to the NBA is contingent on his team. To be a consistent downhill slasher, he’ll need to play alongside floor-spacing frontcourt partners. If the paint is occupied by a rim-running center or big man, Okoro will largely be restricted to spot-up duties, a job for which he’s improperly suited. As such, that lineup construction would also negate much of his potential as a roll man — another path to offensive value, given his finishing and quick leaping ability — and chances to target mismatches on the block (78th percentile on post-ups, 25 possessions). An unimaginative coach that treats him like a classic 3-and-D wing would prime him for failure and ignore the on-ball potential he holds.

If he can provide some semblance of scoring equity, it’ll mandate entrusting him with a few on-ball reps each night to promote his playmaking, which is genuinely special for a non-primary initiator. Whirling skip passes, kick-outs to shooters, and feeding the roller in stride, Okoro is capable of operating pick-and-rolls. When he’s attacking off the catch, his talent as an impromptu creator shines through, mainly via interior reads. Considering his struggles as a shooter, he won’t be one of the most impactful passers from this draft, but he wields some of the best vision and timeliness as a distributor.

Yet it is unlikely he will shift defenses much when the ball in his hands, since he’ll fail to offer threatening scoring gravity away from the rim. That seemingly inherent flaw in his game will mute some of his passing upside, though there remains enough to maintain value.

While many of Okoro’s most ardent supporters peg him as an elite defender, I have him a tier below that. Regardless, he projects as a versatile stopper with good, not great, off-ball instincts to turn teams over at a meaningful rate. On the ball, he has light, active feet, can swiftly rotate his hips to stymie drives and applies his functional strength well, often using his powerful upper body against his assignment to deter them from reaching a desired spot on the floor.

His strength and low center of gravity enable him to comfortably function in the post as well, making him a valuable defensive asset in the playoffs as a wing who cannot be targeted by most ball-handlers or non-5s. He should most frequently be tasked with checking wings and power forward, but he can conceivably get switched onto point guards and centers in a pinch.

Off the ball, Okoro is a resourceful rim protector and interior defender. He promptly rotates to draw charges or alter shots inside, but his impact in the former role is capped due to a 6’9 wingspan and underwhelming vertical pop. That doesn’t mean it’s entirely extinguished, though, because his core strength prohibits him from being dislodged at the basket and his awareness ensures he executes most necessary team defense decisions inside.

Despite underwhelming steal and block numbers this season (1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per 40 minutes), I saw more than enough on film that lends credence to my faith in him as a disruptor. He tags rollers as the weak-side defender in ball screens, digs down to eliminate drop-off passes to bigs on drives, and understands how to position himself away from the action, which maximizes his readiness when the time comes. His numbers don’t reflect his instincts and awareness, both of which are very good.

Okoro is not without his flaws as a defender. Often, he is undisciplined against shot fakes, dribble moves, or hesitations. When defending one pass away, he is overzealous to unnecessarily help on drives and invite open catch-and-shoot threes. He’ll grow infatuated with denying his man the ball, turning on the blinders and removing himself from important help situations. There can be a buffering period for his reaction time and instincts, leaving him late in responding to off-ball moves by his assignment — usually against cuts or dribble handoffs, both of which allow opponents to frequent the paint — or protecting the rim.

On the whole, these issues are vastly overshadowed by everything else he does. Okoro’s potential to flummox creators on the ball and prevent them from maneuvering as they wish matters. His penchant for spurring chaos off the ball while also carrying through with necessary rotations is essential. There are few players in this class with more promising defensive impact moving forward.

Okoro is the type of prospect who inspires you to dream about “what-if” scenarios. If only he could shoot, you’d be looking at a really, really high-level guy in this class. But accounting for all the available evidence, that development feels quite far off, especially in terms of emerging as a shooter who actually influences how defenses shape their decision-making process. Because of that, he won’t be deserving of significant on-ball usage. For complementary perimeter players, the shooting is vital. Other skills are welcomed and effective, but their importance is dramatically lessened.

Even without a jumper, he remains among the top-15 on my board. The self-creation, facilitating, improved ball-handling — which should continue to blossom functionally — composite defensive package, and athletic tools (strength, quick jump ability, coordination and balance) are too enticing to pass up.

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