PHOENIX – Entering the fourth year of the Monty Williams and James Jones era, the Phoenix Suns didn’t have a player like winger Josh Okoji.
Listed at 6-foot-4, 213 pounds, you can feel how physically imposing Okogie can appear. Okoji said Saturday that when Williams saw the muscles in his thighs he likened them to athletic phenom Bo Jackson.
On top of his strength with a 7-foot wingspan, Okogie sprinted at 20 mph during the Summer Suns Test. This speed prompted Williams to bring in Jackson when discussing Okogie.
The 24-year-old Okogie has earned a well-deserved reputation on the defensive end, using these gifts. Given the positions he can cover with his size, strength, and height, Okogie is unlike anyone with a Phoenix who can get into the Ranger rotation.
“I think it could be a guy who comes off the bench and gets in and shuts someone down,” Williams said of Okogie on September 28. “He’s a guy who hasn’t found his place in the league yet as it’s consistent but that doesn’t mean he can’t. Hopefully with time it will make it harder for me to get him off the ground. From that standpoint, that was the excitement.”
After four years with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the team that drafted Okogie 20th overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, Okogie signed with the Suns at a free agency and changed hands for the first time in his career.
Okogie had more playing time in the front half of his time there than in the back half, dealing with the challenges of a young player in a franchise who had three different coaches and general managers through his time in the North.
He started 117 games in his first three seasons before struggling for a steady role last year, averaging 10.5 minutes per game across 49 games.
Okogie was complementary to his Minnesota residency, but he also showed how difficult constant change can be.
“You haven’t really established yourself, so you always change your playing style, you change your way of thinking and it’s hard to play freely because every coach asks for something different,” he said on Saturday. “So you’re trying to fit in with different roles and different philosophies.”
In the positive department, Okogie has seen just about everything in her four years due to the ups and downs of the Timberwolves.
“I know what it feels like across the entire spectrum,” he said. “I know what it feels like to lose 14 games in a row, to have a record of winning, going to the playoffs, losing in the first round.”
This is why stability is so important to an organization. Suns can provide it to players and also use it for youngsters who haven’t experienced something like this yet, hoping that they can increase player talent in a way that the previous team couldn’t.
There is a lot to like about Okogie. He, of course, starts to defend, where his mark on the match is evident.
“I saw him physically put his hands on people and defend and finish. He just hits the game with his body,” Williams said. “That, to me, is the thing you need in the regular season, playoffs, post-season — you need it all the time and it’s that kind of thing,” Williams said. of the players.”
Okogie’s activity level remains high. He is great at using his hands at the right moments, when he can catch ball coaches by surprise due to his speed at covering the ground and the length of his arms.
As Suns fans have learned while watching Mikal Bridges, slow passes and such are strictly prohibited in his vicinity.
Okogie has always had an elite steal percentage among the wings because of that package.
Okoji said on a media day that when he and Bridges managed to cooperate during some scuffles before training camp, it was just a “yes” and a nod between the two before they caused all sorts of defensive turmoil.
Bridges said he never had a teammate to defend him with the same thinking and instinctive pursuit of the ball.
“Josh is weird and has a defensive mind where he just reads things and has the skills of a hawk,” Bridges said two weeks ago. “It’s fun to play with someone like that.”
Williams noted that Okogie is “a bit bouncing” as a defender who causes havoc.
“Josh has that ability like Michael and Tori (Craig) where he can go for a steal but still keep himself in the play,” Williams said on Saturday.
Okogie does this with blocks, too. He’s one of the best chasing artists in the league and will often recover from a step back to wipe out an attempted shot.
Like the robbers, the production with its mass ratio is high relative to its position. There is value in Okogie’s defense self transformations.
Okogie said he likes to consider himself a “clean-up guy,” which means he can keep his own errand while taking opportunities to sweep anything outside of that.
The last clip I’m going to share is one that supports the comparison to Jackson and his legendary nature, because how many times have you seen someone block Kevin Durant’s jump shot that’s six inches shorter than him?
From a rotation standpoint, Williams would likely have played Okogie alongside Landry Shamet when Shamet would manage the offense. That’s something Chamet will be doing for the time being while Cam Payne heals a right finger sprain, a lineup that gives the Suns real size on guard with two defenders.
“It can definitely be useful because Josh, man, is an elite defender, I think,” Schmitt said on Friday. “He plays hard, he’s a physical specimen. I’m excited for him to come down to earth with us and show us what he’s capable of and what we know he’s capable of so it would be a great addition.”
Okogie is currently dealing with a left hamstring strain that has kept him out during pre-season and could happen in the last two games on Monday and Wednesday. But Okogie did not rule out a possible comeback.
The task that awaits Okogie is at the end of the attack. As Williams said, he just has to locate that niche.
Shooting was a problem.
Out of 220 players who have attempted at least 3,500 seconds since Okogie entered the league in the 2018-19 season, Okogie ranks last at 3 percentage points, in Stathead. His 27.5% mark is topped by Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antikonmo, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis.
It is not a technical problem. Okogie has smooth shooting mechanics. It’s just about building consistency, something that’s been proven to be achievable in basketball time after time.
“Just trust him,” Williams said when asked how men develop this consistency. “It’s proven that the only thing you can improve is your shot. There are guys who go into the league and can’t defend. And 10 years later, they still can’t defend.
“Most players come into the league, even if they have a shooting deficit, that’s the only thing we know you can improve. He has good mechanics, it’s pretty consistent. Now it’s the ability to take action to the floor without thinking about it. And that’s what he does.” Elite guys. They don’t think about it, they just do what they do. And as you try to build consistency, you have to adopt that mindset.”
Okogie pointed out something fans rarely think about, which is how difficult it is to keep flowing as a low-use player who rarely gets the ball for what Okogie has correctly described as a “rhythm game.”
“If you shoot three times in this game and you don’t shoot 3 in the next two games, try shooting five seconds into the next game — it doesn’t matter how good the shooter is,” Okogie said.
Okogie has some of the lowest usage rates among his set of locations in four seasons and he captures nearly all of his shots either at the edge or from 3.
A free-flowing offense that invites movement in and out of the ball would be Okogie’s best chance yet to find that rhythm. He cited the Phoenix 0.5 philosophy of quick-kick decisions and how no one on the team cares who has the ball or who shoots it. He wouldn’t stand in the corner like he did in Minnesota.
“Sometimes you get lost in that corner,” Okoji said.
Going back to his days at Georgia Tech that led to his being picked in the first round, Okogie can pass the ball pretty well. His assist and spin ratios haven’t been good with him yet, but Okogie is good at making extra smart passes that will help keep Suns’ attack smooth.
It also hits the line a lot. Having a secondary free throw for Devin Booker was missing in the team, and while that required a lot of Okogie’s request, having someone on the bench getting as few games as he did earlier in his time with Minnesota would be a plus.
The bottom line for Okogie is that the opening is there.
Depth of sun behind Chris Paul, Booker, Michael Bridges and Cam Johnson on guard and the wing is limited. Payne and Schmitt have somewhat of ball-handling responsibilities, but beyond that, Okoji can take on a role and emerge as another defensive leader to arm the spin.