Isaac Okoro, the 2020 NBA Draft, the Atlanta Hawks, and me

Friday, October 16, 2020

Isaac Okoro, the 2020 NBA Draft, the Atlanta Hawks, and me

Hello! I’m Jerry. I am an Auburn basketball fan. I am also an Atlanta Hawks fan.

25 years stood between Sonny Smith’s departure and Bruce Pearl arriving to whisk Auburn out of the basketball desert in his magical hot air balloon, and at no point in those 25 years would those two statements have been relevant to each other in any way. “I am a fan of the 2000s indie band Rogue Wave” and “I am a fan of eating spaghetti with meat sauce” would have had more to do with each other.

But Pearl’s changed one or two things shy of literally everything about Auburn men’s hoops, of course. So in these strange and marvelous days, watching his team means also watching honest-to-God NBA prospects — and of late, that’s not even meant prospects in the K.T. Harrell “he’ll get a look at Summer League, maybe parlay a good showing there and a strong season in Europe into a training camp invite” tier. Bryce Brown is a mainstay for his G-League team. Jared Harper routinely appeared in NBA top-100 boards by the end of his Auburn career, and has signed small contracts with the Phoenix Suns and now the New York Knicks. A projected late-first-rounder, Chuma Okeke wound up going 16th overall to the Orlando Magic despite the ACL tear that robbed him of the 2019-2020 season.

That brings us to Isaac Okoro. Projected in the No. 30-to-40 overall range entering his freshman season (when he was projected at all), Okoro spent December and January with his Beast Mode setting permanently enabled, began appearing in mock draft lottery slots even before the meat of Auburn’s SEC schedule, and by season’s end became a consensus top-10 pick, a fixture near the top of analysts’ big boards, and a possibility to go as high as No. 4 or 5 overall.

But according to a comfortable majority of mock drafts, Okoro should still be on the board at No. 6. He should be a prominent option for the team in possession of the sixth selection, my Atlanta Hawks. Worlds that in my basketball-watching lifetime have never inhabited the same solar system could genuinely collide.

So why does the possibility of Okoro-to-the-Hawks fill me with anything other than radiant joy? I spent hours daydreaming scenarios to get Okeke to the ATL — first-round trades down for the Hawks, second-round trades up, Okeke pulling an Eli Manning and forcing his way onto the Hawks’ roster. (He’s from Georgia! It could’ve happened!) I’d have given up at least one and possibly multiple toes for Harper to fill the Hawks’ backup point guard role. (He’d have been an objective improvement on their actual plan. That’s not my bias talking.)(Much.) Having an alum from my favorite basketball team continue his career on my other favorite basketball team should be an unqualified dream. It’s been that for other Auburn players already.

It’s just that … even when I want it to, my Auburn- and Hawks-loving soul can’t shut off my rational Auburn- and Hawks-evaluating brain. The soul longs terribly to see Okoro in Atlanta. But the brain just keeps concluding that Atlanta’s wing-heavy roster would be better served by drafting a different player. With the draft delayed, and delayed again, I’ve been trying to reconcile the following true statements for actual months:

1. His sky-high floor as a shutdown wing defender, high-level rim finisher, and exceptional worker and teammate means Isaac Okoro is every inch a deserving top-10 or even top-5 selection in this draft.

2. Watching Isaac Okoro prove his value as an NBA player and establish himself at the world’s highest level of basketball for the same professional team I’ve already invested in would be an unbridled delight as a fan.

3. After spending a combined three top-17 picks on players just one draft ago on defense-first wings, the Hawks cannot justify the inefficiency of using this draft’s No. 6 pick on another defense-first wing, even one as promising as Okoro — especially when that wing isn’t ready to provide the shooting the Hawks desperately need.

Let’s unpack those statements, shall we?

Statement 1: Don’t take my orange-and-blue word for it. The take from draft guru Sam Vecenie at The Athletic:

Everyone you talk to around the basketball industry says Okoro is about the right things in terms of his future. And his blend of power and explosiveness often lend themselves to being able to get on the court early as an NBA player, especially when accounting for the fact that he’s already such a strong defender.

More than anything, what impresses me about Okoro is his feel for the game on defense. He’s constantly in the right spot, and his scramble defense is terrific. He understands how to play in gaps extremely well for a 19-year-old …

It’s really hard to find players who have the physical dimensions and strength to go up against guys like Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Paul George, Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum — all of whom are 6-foot-8 or taller and have the strength to get to the rim against smaller defenders with ease. There is a reason that these guys often end up having to guard each other: there aren’t many others like them in terms of power, size and athleticism. Having someone like Okoro who can expend his energy on taking those assignments is a huge plus. Okoro is a bit shorter than those guys, but he’s legitimately strong enough to deal with them physically already, even if their experience would give him issues early in his career.

That intersection of power and explosiveness also shows up on the offensive end. As a finisher at the basket, Okoro was the second-best wing prospect in this class behind Naji Marshall of Xavier. He made 64.2 percent of his shots at the basket in halfcourt settings. That’s an impressive number, given that relatively few of Okoro’s points in the halfcourt came off of cuts or offensive rebounds.

Here’s where the Auburn fan explains that as impressive as that rim conversion figure looks, it’s even more impressive than that when you consider how little halfcourt space Okoro had to work with. God bless them forever, but knockdown perimeter shooting was never a strength for the 2019-20 Tigers — they finished at 30.6 percent from 3 for the season, 301st in D1. That meant Okoro regularly faced a thicket of help defenders on his way to the basket; that once there he not only scored effectively but scored more effectively than any other major wing prospect in his class is the mark of a truly elite rim finisher.

Put that cherry on top of the sundae that is Okoro’s incredible (and incredibly NBA-valuable) defensive potential and two-way basketball IQ, and you get the rare draft prospect with both an exceptionally high floor and an equally high ceiling — a ceiling perhaps higher than some scouting reports would give him. The broadly-agreed worst-case scenario is that Okoro’s shot never develops, his passing and ballhandling remains competent rather than incisive, and he manages only a 10-year career as a high-level wing defender/transition finisher role player. The less-discussed best-case scenario is that a notorious ass-off-worker works his ass off to become a 34% three-point shooter, enhances his already extant off-the-dribble distribution and movement shooting skills, plays NBA All-Defensive Team wing defense, and duly becomes one of the most valuable secondary pieces in the league.

That potential is why Vecenie has Okoro No. 6 on his current board, why ESPN has him No. 7, and why I think even those projections could be too low. It’s true that Okoro’s profile does have flaws even aside from his wonky shot — as former Memphis Grizzlies exec and ESPN numbers cruncher John Hollinger noted, his steal and rebound rates were below what you’d expect from a top-tier defensive prospect. As you’d expect from an evaluator known to rely on stats, this dropped Okoro down Hollinger’s board all the way to … No. 9.

The Internet will give you roughly seven million Okoro scouting videos if you ask it to, but this one from longtime NBC Sports college hoops writer Rob Dauster best shares (and explains) my optimism:

The last word should perhaps belong to this anonymous opposing coach from Vecenie’s evaluation:

“[I]f you watch the games for them when he got hurt, I just felt like when they lost him their team went from being a really good team to being a below-average team. They dropped so much. He’s a good player, but he’s not averaging 25 a game. Why did they get so much worse? Offensively, defensively, he made everyone better. So when I look at that, is he Tony Allen or Kawhi Leonard? Is he somewhere in between? I don’t know, but I think he’s going to be really good. He was my favorite guy. Sometimes you can just tell with guys where they have a certain makeup to them. I don’t know what it’s like coaching that kid, but it seems like he’s just the kind of guy who figures it out. Competing means so much to him, or at least that’s how he plays. When a big play needed to happen, he did his job every single time. I think that means a lot.”

Between his senior year at high school and the first 24 games of his lone season at Auburn, Isaac Okoro’s teams went 54-2. That wasn’t a coincidence.

Statement 2: Duh.

Statement 3: Sigh.

Let’s start by being as specific as we can with Okoro’s hypothetical place in a Hawks rotation. Though Okoro has plenty enough agility to switch onto NBA 2s (or even the occasional 1), there’s universal consensus he’ll continue to play the bulk of his NBA minutes at the 3, with potential for additional time as an undersized-but-physical 4. With Cam Reddish likely earning the Hawks’ starting small forward nod after his strong close to last season, Okoro’s initial role would be to back up Reddish and provide a few minutes a night as cover for John Collins at the 4.

But hey — know who else plays the bulk of his NBA minutes at the 3, while receiving additional time as an undersized 4? Whose 2021 role you could already likely describe as backing up Reddish and providing a few minutes a night as cover for John Collins at the 4? De’Andre Hunter, who the Hawks traded the No. 8 and 17 picks for the right to draft with the fourth overall selection just last year. Because of the rarity and value of two-way wings, it made sense for Hawks GM Travis Schlenk to use both the No. 4 pick on Hunter and the No. 10 pick on Reddish in the 2019 draft, even if the 3 is both players’ most natural position. But does it make sense to spend the No. 6 pick in this draft on adding a third 3 to the mix, particularly one who fills the exact same slot in the rotation as the player you invested so heavily in last year?

To boot, though Hunter and Okoro are starkly different athletes — Hunter wiry and long, Okoro a hoops The Thing — their practical impact on that end might prove similar. Hunter put up even more lackluster steal rates than Okoro’s in college, and finished 166th out of 187 qualifying players in that statistic his rookie season, third-worst among small forwards; he combined that with the league’s 102nd-best defensive rebound rate and 138th-best block rate (the latter worse than all but six other qualifying small forwards). For all that, even as a rookie he still held worthwhile defensive value as an on-ball defender whose ample length and Virginia-honed positioning sense could force opposing wings into difficult, contested shots.

As his numbers indicate, however, that value extended into off-ball, overall team defense on a far rarer basis. Subjectively, I’d argue Okoro’s off-ball defensive potential far outstrips Hunter’s; he possesses more lateral agility for switches and closeouts, boasted a much better college block rate, and — maybe most pertinently — is three years younger. Nonetheless, Okoro’s lack of what Hollinger termed “handsiness” or impact on the glass means his greatest strength overlaps perfectly with Hunter’s greatest strength: defusing opposing perimeter threats by forcing them to take and miss tough shots.

Okoro will do it by bullying ball-handlers off balance and away from the rim, rather than making them shoot over a pair of Inspector Gadget arms a la Hunter. But the job is the same. And asking both a No. 4 pick and a No. 6 pick to come off the bench to perform it isn’t asking for enough return on investment on either selection.

“All right, Jerry,” you say. “Maybe there’s some similarity in Okoro’s and Hunter’s defensive skillsets, and yes, the redundancy in the rotation could prove awkward. But the Hawks were a defensive nightmare last season. If Okoro’s as good on that end as you believe, why wouldn’t they take the opportunity to make an immediate upgrade, roster fit be damned?”

Because this is where we face the unfortunate reality that Okoro isn’t ready to keep NBA defenses honest as a jump shooter. 28.6 percent from deep on only 70 attempts is not great, 67.4 percent from the line doesn’t help at all, and I can’t in good faith dispute scouting reports that his mechanics were far too erratic. My assessment would be he showed better form and more confidence shooting off the bounce than in catch-and-shoot situations, which is good news for both his ability to develop his jumper eventually and overall shot creation potential …

… but doesn’t do much for the Hawks. For all the oxygen devoted to Atlanta’s defensive struggles, the Hawks finished all of one spot better in the league’s offensive efficiency rankings than defensive, 26th to 27th. The primary culprit? The league’s rock-bottom, dead-last three-point shooting percentage, despite having one of the planet’s most potent offensive engines running the show. The Hawks attempted a healthy 36 threes a game, eighth-best in the league. They just missed them. And missed. And missed again.

That’s not a problem Okoro will solve, at least not in the immediate future. But it might have been a problem the Hawks could work around if they’d made moves this past season to shore up their spacing elsewhere. Nope: Schlenk sensibly decided one season of having arguably the worst center rotation in the NBA was enough, and traded for Clint Capela. He’s good! But he can’t shoot. You can already question how Capela’s effect on Atlanta’s spacing will affect John Collins, so imagine how much louder those questions will become with a second de facto non-shooter on the floor. The Okoro-Capela unfit wouldn’t be a temporary issue, either; Capela’s signed for three more seasons at reasonable cost.

On the offensive end, Okoro’s a poor fit for the Hawks and doesn’t help their greatest need; on the defensive end, he largely replicates the role and skillset of a player already on the roster Atlanta acquired at sizable cost. And yet there’s still an argument for the Hawks to select him, such is his upside not only as a defender but as a secondary, weakside ballhandler — another notable weakness for the Hawks last season, and one where I’d expect Okoro to outperform Hunter (and Reddish) in time.

But I can’t endorse that argument when there’s a player likely available to the Hawks who would upgrade the Hawks’ secondary ballhandling even further and ranked in the 99th percentile as a spot-up shooter and is an excellent off-ball defender who racked up steals and blocks at sensational rates and could soak up minutes as the Hawks’ backup point guard, another painful sore spot for the current roster and isn’t, you know, another 3. That player is Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton, who I think the Hawks should select if given the opportunity.

If that opportunity isn’t there, I’d suggest the Hawks take Killian Hayes, the 6’5″ 19-year-old French point guard who would also alleviate the Hawks secondary ballhandling and backup 1 problems. Though he’s not much of a catch-and-shoot threat yet, his free throw percentage bodes well, and Hayes’ ceiling as a crafty scorer/distributor on one end and ably-sized plus-defender on the other tantalizes; it’s not too much to imagine him as something like A Poor Offensive Man’s But Rich Defensive Man’s McCollum to Trae Young’s Lillard. In the unlikely possibility neither Hayes nor Haliburton is available, after seeing an entire series of undervalued Kentucky guards go nuclear in the bubble, perhaps the Hawks should look to trade down and take Tyrese Maxey?

Believe me, it’s not fun typing “Atlanta’s better served is passing over Isaac Okoro to select a Kentucky Wildcat than taking Okoro themselves, in my opinion.” It’s weeks, months that I’ve kept reaching these conclusions as the most rational decisions for the Hawks, and at no point have they become any less irritating.

But they should be. Because I’ve realized I should add a fourth true statement to the ones above: If it’s true Isaac Okoro isn’t the best choice for the Hawks, then it’s also true the Hawks aren’t the best team for Isaac Okoro. Maybe it would be immensely fulfilling for me to watch Okoro play for the Hawks, even if he’s struggling to earn more than 15-to-20 minutes a night. But would that would be all that fulfilling for Okoro? After what Okoro gave me as an Auburn fan, I should want whatever he wants for his next step, even if I’m also a Hawks fan, right?

Of course, as someone raised in Powder Springs, Okoro might want to stay at home regardless of whoever is or isn’t in his way as the Hawks’ 3. But there’s unquestionably teams with more straightforward paths towards playing time, and potentially friendlier on-court situations. Picking 4th, the Bulls should be able to offer minutes at the 3 and 4 and have floor-spacing bigs to alleviate Okoro’s growing pains with the jumper. At No. 9, the Wizards could desperately use a perimeter stopper and between Bradley Beal and (likely re-signed) Davis Bertans, two of the most prolific three-point snipers in the league. The Cavaliers (No. 5) are less exciting, but Lord knows any team that’s trying to build around a Collin Sexton/Darius Garland backcourt could use the defensive help.

The most delightful realistic scenario of all? The Timberwolves take Anthony Edwards No. 1, and the Knicks elect to trade up for the Golden State Warriors’ second pick to hand over the keys to LaMelo Ball. That drops the wing-needy Warriors to No. 8 … and Okoro gets to start his NBA career competing for a title as an integral defensive part of one of the league’s best-run franchises.

That’s a long shot, but it’s a shot nonetheless. And in the end, Okoro’s going to get and take his, regardless of location. I’ve spent quite a while feeling like this was a lose-lose situation — either the Hawks make what I believe to be the wrong pick, or I have to watch Okoro play for someone else when he could be in Atlanta. But it’s the exact opposite — either Okoro and the Hawks both arrive at the places that work for each of them, or they come together and I buy an Okoro shirsey before watching him play 82 games that matter to me. It’s actually as win-win as situations get.

War Eagle. Go Hawks. Bring on the draft, and bring on whatever’s next for Isaac Okoro’s thrillingly promising career.

Screencap via @SECNetwork

from The War Eagle Reader

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