Suns PG Elie Okobo could have more chances at seizing opportunity

Oct 30, 2018, 4:13 PM
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)...
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — Five losses in a row and two injuries to the starting backcourt combine to make the Phoenix Suns one of the most likely teams to hit the panic button this early in the season.

Coach Igor Kokoskov remains patient just six games in, but those injuries could push him to make changes out of necessity.

Shooting guard and de facto point guard Devin Booker is doubtful to play Wednesday at home against the San Antonio Spurs due to a hamstring strain, while starting point guard Isaiah Canaan is questionable with an ankle injury.

Even Josh Jackson, who slid into the starting shooting guard spot with Booker hurt, is questionable with a toe contusion.

There’s a good chance rookie point guard Elie Okobo will earn another opportunity at eating up any of those available minutes. He made the most of his first big break on Sunday, posting 18 points, seven assists and five rebounds in 31 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder as Booker sat out for the second game in a row and Canaan went down after tweaking his ankle.

“I wasn’t expecting that really, but anytime you have to be ready to be on the court,” Okobo said Tuesday. “It was a good experience. Always space to improve.”

The Suns, however, don’t want to put too much on the plate of the 31st overall pick.

One of the few players on Phoenix’s roster with a hot start beyond the arc (41 percent) and as someone who has play-making abilities off the dribble, the rookie from France stands out as a necessity beyond filling in for injured teammates.

The Suns just don’t want to put too much on the 21-year-old who just spent last season carving out more than a backup role in the top French league.

“I just want him to grow as a player and every day to feel like he’s getting better,” Kokoskov said. “He’s a dedicated kid, very hard-working kid, loves to play basketball. Very likable, great personality. We don’t want to put too much pressure on his shoulders.”

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound rookie has already been a steady offensive force, posting a near 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in limited minutes.

Take a look at a series of his assists against the Thunder, and Okobo’s Phoenix teammates could take a note or two from his decision-making.

Okobo didn’t force the issue on those plays, earning assists by pushing the ball up the court with numbers, throwing the ball into the post when a lane was there or hitting a rolling big man off a pick-and-roll.

Okobo said he’s grown leading the Suns’ offense.

“I’m getting more and more comfortable every game, but I can still work on that. Talk maybe more to everybody on the court, make sure everybody’s ready to execute a play or whatever,” Okobo said.

“Point guard is like the second coach on the court. He has to make sure like we play the right way. We have a lot of turnovers and maybe I need to control the tempo and, like, slow it down and make sure we execute the plays and get the best shot we can.”

All of those things exemplify what the Suns want: simplicity.

Kokoskov spent practice on Tuesday pushing that very idea on his players. Make the easy pass, keep the offense moving and react.

Okobo is averaging 8.0 points and 2.5 assists in 15 minutes per game over four outings, including his 31 minutes Sunday. His biggest challenge should he earn more playing time could come on the defensive end, where he’s also averaging 3.0 fouls in those restricted minutes.

Regardless of the injuries ahead of Okobo, Kokoskov could be forced to turn to the rookie more often considering his presence on a team that lacks primary ball-handlers. The good news for Phoenix if that’s the case is that Okobo is acclimating to his new team well.

“Everybody likes him. That helps,” Kokoskov said. “You have to be a likable guy to be a glue guy, to be a playmaker to … make everybody else better. Personality matters.”

And if Okobo finds himself on the court with several perimeter players potentially out of action Wednesday and beyond, he just might have a shot at forcing his coach’s hand once those injured starters return.


— Trevor Ariza and Kokoskov both said the Suns aren’t as far off on the defensive end, at least when it came to the halfcourt. While Phoenix is getting gashed in transition due to the turnover woes that rank as the worst in the NBA, Kokoskov said the players are close to knowing what coverages they’re supposed to be in. When a mistake is made, he said players know the right corrections, at least a first step when it comes to limiting miscues.

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