Josh Okogie has a great defensive future. But will his offensive skill-set allow him to fully realize it?
The signature moment of Josh Okogie’s rookie season came on Feb. 13, 2019. With the Minnesota Timberwolves up three on the Houston Rockets, James Harden cleared out his teammates for an isolation drive on the Wolves’ rookie shooting guard.
Typically for Harden, this ends with either a drive for an easy basket, a drawn foul, or a trademark step-back. Okogie stayed in front of the drive to cut it off. He stayed disciplined and kept his hands off Harden as he transitioned to the step-back.
And then, he read the footwork as perfectly as we’ve ever seen a defender do it, smothering Harden’s late heave.
The play was emblematic of the overall theme of Okogie’s rookie season, which saw the 20th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft start 52 games for the Timberwolves: Josh Okogie is very good at defense already, and will potentially be a top-flight point of attack defender in the league at some point.
Okogie finished the year with the seventh-highest Defensive Box Plus-Minus for the rookie class, and was second in steal rate behind Mikal Bridges, which paints a good statistical picture. On film, he already at times looks like an established veteran on the defensive end.
In on-ball defense, there are few young players in the league who mirror as well as Okogie does. He doesn’t just have the agility to stay with opposing guards on drives, and the length to help smother open lanes; he reads the movements of opposing guards almost as they’re happening, and like a cornerback breaking down a receiver in the open field, he closes the space between himself and the offensive player with every attempted separation move.
His off-ball defense is also fantastic at this stage. He’s good at sitting in a position where he can cut off multiple offensive options, and he uses his deft touch to poke the ball away from players as they go by.
It’s mesmerizing to watch him disrupt opposing offenses off-ball. While he’s not a Danny Green type off-ball defender that can deny one pass away seemingly at all times, his opportunistic nature is good for 4-5 possessions a game where he shuts down the primary offensive option with his positioning or recognition.
While it’s subtle, his ability to pickpocket opposing ball-handlers while helping or tagging another player off a screen is breathtaking when you stop and appreciate the situational awareness and ability it takes to pull off.
Now, that’s not to say that he doesn’t have lapses. Every young player does. But that’s where his physical tools help, as Okogie is able to recover pretty quickly to getting beat, and his length makes him a very good shot-blocker for a perimeter player.
With time and continued development, Okogie’s defense can be special. He has the right combination of tools to be a good primary point of attack defender, and his length should allow him to defend up positions as well.
He’s comfortable in a variety of different matchups, and his early success has hinged on what much of modern NBA draft scouting shows to be valuable: a superior athletic profile combined with the ability to consistently make smart reads and anticipate offensive actions as they develop. It’s easy to see Okogie becoming a top tier NBA defender if his offensive game comes around.
That’s a large if, though. Because while the defensive side of the ball was mostly positive for Okogie in 2018-19, he still finished with a negative Box Plus-Minus and PIPM for the year. Overall, he was a run of the mill, mostly net negative rookie, because his offensive game severely lags behind his defensive positives.
Horrible shooting percentages were the primary culprit for Okogie’s issues. Shooting 38.6 percent from the field and 27.9 percent from 3 does make it difficult to provide positive offensive value, after all. He was a pretty good finisher at the rim, hitting 63.1 percent from there, per Basketball-Reference. But even his finishing was heavily dependent on cuts, transition buckets and offensive put-backs, where his athleticism fully took over.
However, that isn’t enough, especially to be a player who is purely a finisher as he nearly was last year. The next step for Okogie is going to need to be building strength and coordination around the rim, because he currently struggles to finish against contact effectively.
Rarely would you see Okogie power through a bigger player successfully. Instead, too often his drives looked like this wild, out of control finish against the San Antonio Spurs:
One exciting area of Okogie’s game is as a passer, as he showed a really strong ability to hit cutters and dump-offs when attacking the basket himself.
He wasn’t prolific with this, posting just 91 assists in 74 games, but like J.J. Redick’s ability to pass out of a hard closeout on the perimeter, Okogie’s knack for threading the ball around opponents that stop him on the path to the rim is a useful counter while that strength and coordination develops.
Improvement in these areas as a finisher is very important, because Okogie’s shot form also needs continued work. The release is fairly flat and his mechanics are rather rigid, disrupting his rhythm. This is an area where improvement is expected, but he has a long way to go to become viable at the NBA level as a shooting threat.
Right now, Okogie offers minimal on-ball threat at the NBA level. He’s shown the willingness to take 3s, but he’s a player that you want taking them at this point. With his rudimentary handle and lack of a pull-up game, it’s hard to see him showing any creation ability in the next few years.
As a finisher, however, Okogie’s development is likely very reasonable. Like other strong defensive wings like Tony Allen and Andre Roberson, developing into a strong off-ball cutter and valuable transition asset can be enough offensive value to let his defense shine. And while he’s probably not quite on that level as a defensive prospect, it’s pretty clear he’s going to be very good on that end. There’s arguably a higher offensive ceiling for Okogie given his form itself isn’t completely broken, and he does show playmaking ability that will keep the ball moving.
Okogie looked like the opposite of how most rookies fare in the NBA — flashes of brilliance on the defensive end, coupled with a complete goose egg on the offensive end. The next step is going to need to be breaking through as a finisher, while continuing to progress on the promise that he had on the defensive end in year one. If he can do that, there’s potential that Josh Okogie might not just be a valuable defender for Minnesota’s rotation. He might be one of the NBA’s next great defensive wings.