An explosive forward from Auburn University, NBA Draft prospect Isaac Okoro brings everything that the San Antonio Spurs need at an attainable draft range.
The San Antonio Spurs are set to re-enter the NBA Draft lottery for the first time since they drafted Tim Duncan at No. 1 in 1997. Needless to say, they’ll be looking to make this trip outside of the playoffs as brief as it was when they snagged Duncan 23 years ago.
With this in mind, the Spurs need to focus on players who impact winning. The type of player to go out and give his all on every play, battling on defense while providing a versatile scoring punch in any capacity.
Enter Isaac Okoro, a 6-foot-6, 218-pound forward from Auburn University. Ever since his dominant senior school season when he led McEachern High School to a perfect 32-0 record, Okoro has been all about winning. He joined a strong core in place at AU and led his team to a 25-6 record by applying a wide range of skills, building an NBA-caliber resume in the process.
Okoro is already built like an NBA player because of his brawny frame and impressive athleticism. He’s a powerful finisher who attacks the basket with reckless abandon, using both hands to finish through contact with acrobatic layups or powerful dunks with either hand.
San Antonio already has a handful of players who can attack the rim as their primary offensive skill, but what makes Okoro most exciting is his potential as an NBA defender and a threat to develop into a three-level scorer. He’s exemplified a high motor through the early stages of his career, averaging just-under a block and a steal in 31 minutes per game this season.
There’s a lot to like with Okoro, but there are a few cons to ponder with the 19-year-old freshman.
Next: Comparing risk vs. reward
Banking too heavily on an easy development process
Let’s make this absolutely clear: Okoro is a project. There are certain skills he can carry into the NBA from the jump like downhill scoring, defending on the wing and spot-up shooting. However, he’s got a lot of work to do before he can become the player that many scouts believe he can eventually become.
Okoro is an unsure jump shooter at times who hasn’t perfected the art of creating his own jump shot. In many cases, this would be a big problem for teams looking to draft him, but it works out in the Spurs’ case. Considering there’s a young core built around the team including multiple guards who are known for their shot creation, Okoro could suffice as an off-ball scorer who focuses on defense.
However, his jump shot isn’t a sure-thing coming out of Auburn. We’ve seen Okoro hit some wild, contested jumpers in traffic and transition that indicate he can be a solid jump shooter with the proper time and attention. However, he did only hit 28.6 percent from deep this year and 67.4 percent from the charity stripe.
The jumper is going to be a project, but there’s no team better suited to teach him how to refine his shot than San Antonio. With shooting guru Chip Engelland on the bench and the practice courts, young players in the Alamo City always have a reliable shot doctor to help them become stronger shooters from anywhere on the court and Okoro has a natural scoring instinct that will enable him to take that next step.
Most of the time, Okoro has strong decision-making skills that put him and his team in good situations to score. While he’s not a natural playmaker, he’s shown flashes of underrated passing vision that show he’s capable of translating his scoring threat to opportunity for his teammates.
Lastly, he’ll need to cut down on his fouls at the professional level to make a true impact. He’s a smart defensive player who uses his habitual defensive tendencies to keep attached to the hip of his assignment, but sometimes he gets overzealous in his efforts and reaches in or puts himself in position to have fouls drawn on him.
Being that he’s only 19, there’s more than enough time for him to figure this all out.
Next: Potential as the league's next best defender
Boundless defensive potential as a pro
For San Antonio, the idea of taking a player whose instincts and work ethic suggest something greater than a defensive phenom is not at all farfetched. There are few teams better suited to develop someone like Okoro into an All-Star caliber player. However, the baseline of his game, besides the athleticism and slashing, is his affinity for on-ball defense.
Okoro is a sneaky defender who uses quick footwork and active hands to pester his assignment into turnovers, poor shots and painstaking headaches by the time he’s done with them.
The Best Defensive Player in the NBA Draft ?? pic.twitter.com/pKva1wMt44
— Brad Ballislife (@BradBallisLife) April 26, 2020
The modern game calls for players to switch constantly, adjusting to matchups against multiple positions including players both quicker and larger than them. San Antonio isn’t well equipped to manage that right now, which is why Okoro makes a great deal of sense for them in the draft.
Having someone out on the wing who can bounce around on defense, picking up steals and blocks against the toughest of the competition will add a layer of grit that the young core is lacking. Playing a lineup with Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Okoro all on the floor together would be menacing for opposing teams expecting to run all over the Spurs’ youth.
Being that he’s one of the best defensive prospects to come out this year, Okoro is gaining traction as arguably the best small forward in the draft. Wings seem to be coveted much more than they used to be, so it might take a miracle for the Spurs to get in range for Okoro, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
Next: An instant glue-guy with star potential
Making a nice fit on offense, regardless of lineup
Instantly, Okoro is going to make himself fit in with the team around him. He’s a selfless player who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective, moving nicely off the ball to either set himself or his teammates up for better shots.
Okoro is skilled at playing near the rim, gathering a staggering amount of offensive rebounds for a player projected to play on the wing at the next level. Earlier on, I mentioned that Okoro has an outstanding motor which he showcases in his defensive impact on the Tigers. However, that hustle gains even more attention when taking into account that 1.9 of his 4.4 rebounds per game came on the offensive glass this year.
Grabbing offensive board as a wing is very difficult to do considering how far most small forwards stand from the basket. He’s a three-point jump shooter when he needs to be, but if he’s not the man taking the shot then he’s going to hustle as hard as possible to get to the rim and help corral the rebound if that shot doesn’t fall.
The term “glue-guy” gets thrown around often without most people understanding what it means. Even if they’re not the best player on the court, the glue-guy is the player who puts their heart and body on the line to make everything work for the players around them. This is someone who gives 100 percent effort all the time, fighting hard on both ends of the floor to keep momentum in their team’s favor to help secure a victory.
For San Antonio’s current roster, the most prominent glue guy is Patty Mills, who fights hard on every possession and represents head coach Gregg Popovich‘s instruction with his sheer will and competitive spirit. Having an athletic glue-guy on the wing to impose himself physically and push the team’s agenda forward would do dividends for this group.
Next: Fitting with San Antonio's lineup
Okoro instantly addresses the Spurs’ needs
No one is expecting Okoro to be a star player from the moment he starts his career, but if drafted by the Spurs, he could be one of very few players who crack the rotation in their first year. San Antonio doesn’t actually have a true small forward with DeMar DeRozan, Lonnie Walker and Marco Belinelli all filling in minutes at the three.
Okoro’s defensive impact could make him a candidate to don the silver and black in year one, filling in as a backup three to alleviate the pressure from Walker, who is better suited at the shooting guard from a defensive standpoint. Inserting a beefy 6-foot-6 wing with the drive and ambition to be a high-level two-way player in the NBA helps spark the Spurs’ youth movement in a way that might help decide the direction of a team in limbo.
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The categories that San Antonio needs to address most crucially from the jump are perimeter defense, rebounding, spacing and intensity. The Georgia-native checks off all of those boxes and can fall to the team toward the end of the draft lottery.
Auburn has a strong culture in place that emphasizes teamwork and selflessness. This aligns well with the Spurs, who cultivate a locker room that puts the person above the player and does everything to empower their players to be the best versions of themselves. For a raw, untapped player like Okoro, transitioning into a system like that may be the key to unlocking legitimate All-Star potential.
San Antonio may still be rostering DeRozan amongst other veterans whose contracts expire in the 2021 offseason, so breaking into the rotation might not be easy. Spending a season bouncing back and forth between the Austin Spurs and San Antonio has done dividends for players drafted in the Spurs’ system for years and the Summer League is always a great chance for young NBA prospects to come to grips with what they need to work with.
For Okoro, the Spurs offer the opportunity for him to be himself while learning to harness all of the skills that make him great, as well as the parts of his game that he hasn’t quite mastered.