Isaac Okoro is easily the best defensive wing in the 2020 NBA Draft class. But how good does his offense have to get for him to be impactful?
One-way NBA players are difficult to build around. It’s obviously easier to count on players who can give you reliable production on offense and defense, and for that reason, two-way players are very desirable. To succeed as a one-way player, you have to be at the outlier end of the spectrum in terms of talent to have any longevity. Offense-only players basically only come in the primary initiator and off-movement shooter varieties, two of the most valuable roles in NBA offenses; meanwhile, defense-only prospects are pretty much only centers anchoring defenses and All-Defensive team candidate perimeter players.
Even then, offensive talent is easier to play than defensive specialists, due to the nature of modern NBA defense. It’s easier for a defense to funnel shots and creation opportunities to someone who can’t do those things than for an offense to specifically hunt a bad defender. The 2015 Western Conference semifinals swung on the Golden State Warriors forcing Tony Allen to do things on offense. But when essentially every team that played the Warriors built their gameplan on hunting Stephen Curry into one-on-one matchups for five years, only the 2019 Toronto Raptors were able to truly do this enough to keep pace with the Warriors’ offensive weapons, aided in no small part by injuries.
Through a draft focus, this means that offense-first prospects are rightly valued higher than defensive specialists. While defensive fundamentals and skills are much harder to teach, it’s much more likely that a player who can score consistently or fit seamlessly into an offensive system becomes an early productive rotation player than for a defensive ace (bigs are exempt from this due to the value placed on their defensive capabilities and their usual role on offense being play-finishing). Even though the defensive ace like Marcus Smart might be more valuable now, the Jabari Parkers of the world are going to get more chances and bigger contracts as they progress through their development stages.
That puts the draft stock of Auburn’s Isaac Okoro in an interesting spot. Okoro is probably the best defensive wing in the draft class, and might have been the best one not named Matisse Thybulle last year. Okoro’s skill profile at his age is very impressive, and it’s easy to see how he fits into a modern NBA scheme as a productive defensive player. At 6-foot-6, 215 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, Okoro’s size, athleticism and instincts let him succeed in a variety of contexts. His footwork and agility allow him to stay in front of guards on the perimeter:
He also routinely makes the types of off-ball rotations necessary to run today’s stunt, collapse and recover defenses. The below clip ends in a make, but you can see the many good decisions and technical pluses that Okoro can offer.
As Ben Pfeifer discussed in our preseason scouting report on Okoro, he’s a potentially special defensive prospect who, at his ceiling, could potentially guard 1-5 at the NBA level. He has the strength to compete against centers and shows good rim protection from the wing, and he’s certainly quick and disciplined enough to defend the point of attack. Of everyone in the second tier in the draft, he has the clearest path to a high-level role, approximating some type of P.J. Tucker-type role as a mix-and-match switching defender that allows his team to scheme a variety of different situations in multiple ways.
However, it’s hard to sell that type of skill-set at the top of the draft if there isn’t a baseline level of offensive skill to go with it. These players very clearly help good teams, as they routinely show up as difference-makers on playoff teams year after year. But it’s hard to establish the same type of value for a bad team, and the limitations these player types present really make themselves apparent if there isn’t elite offensive talent surrounding them. The best ace defenders have at least some utility offensively, even if there are still holes in their game that are exploitable. To provide the same type of value, Okoro is going to need to emulate the types of offensive roles that other players of his archetype have.
The easiest and most logical avenue is as a shooter, and that’s probably out for Okoro. Barring a Tucker-esque late-career bloom into being around a 38 percent 3-point shooter, Okoro will probably be a negative that defenses try to force the ball to for open 3s in the playoffs. Shooting 20.8 percent from 3 this year, Okoro has poor mechanics and doesn’t demonstrate a comfort pulling on anything but wide open 3s. His primary plan on spot-up opportunities is to try to attack the basket.
This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily — Okoro is incredibly decisive attacking the basket out of spot-ups, and his ability to dissect a defense in advantage situations is what makes Draymond Green such a threatening offensive weapon.
For one, Okoro is an elite finisher, converting 76.6 percent at the rim this season. His touch and ability to extend over the top with length makes him a useful pick-and-roll option, and he has the strength to draw and power through contact, posting a solid 43.9 percent free throw rate. His handle has also made promising improvement this season, helping him turn his footwork into a weapon to clear space in a crowd:
But most importantly, Okoro’s passing in these situations is what could help him be a breakthrough offensive support player reminiscent of Green. Okoro has both good technique as a passer, executing simple reads with good passes to the shooting pocket:
And the vision to make some truly special reads in transition and off primary actions.
He’s also a strong off-ball cutter, which sets up the role player package pretty well. Okoro may not be able to shoot, but he can dribble and pass, and two of the three, in concert with elite finishing talent, will play at an NBA level to a degree when elite defense is on the table. He’s still able to be schemed against if his passing is his primary value, but if you can get to the rim and find your teammates when the defense collapses, you can be a functional placeholder while you wait for the real fun to begin on the other end.
But if we’re talking about Okoro as a top prospect in the draft class, even a weak one, Okoro needs to be more than a placeholder. He needs to be someone that complements star talent on offense, to be able to turn a Tony Allen situation where you can get by with him, to a Tucker, Green or Marcus Smart situation where you’re happy to have him on the floor in your best lineups.
That’s where his shooting becomes a much more necessary issue to solve. Star initiators are able to collapse a defense, and Okoro’s spot-up attacks, while effective, are pretty easy to just run right into that already collapsed defense. The threat of a shot is also what creates the space for the stars to drive, and forces the defense to start rotating. It’s why Green has always ripped 3s in the playoffs despite being his team’s fifth option, and why Smart launches nearly five attempts per game with one of the worst releases in basketball.
Just the threat of a confident shooter can start that cascade of rotations that opens things up for other shooters, and that’s where Okoro needs the most growth. Continuing to develop his handle would be nice, and better footwork would certainly help him maintain his excellent finishing threat. But the confidence to force the decision to react from defenses has shown to be something that, as counterintuitive as it seems, matters on a pretty significant level in the NBA. Okoro has an elite defensive profile, and a surprising amount of tools that could make him viable on offense. But if we’re talking about him having offensive utility in the playoffs, he needs at least the threat of a 3 to tie everything together.