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Okobo’s growth, partnership with Ayton key for Suns without Booker

Phoenix Suns' Deandre Ayton, left, and Elie Okobo, right, of France, slap hands after the team introduced its new players after the NBA basketball draft Friday, June 22, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — No one is going to complain that Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker takes his time to recover from his latest left hamstring injury.

Booker has been hurting all year, admitting on Monday he doesn’t think he’s been fully healthy for a single game.

Outside of Booker’s next-level competitiveness, he knows how much the Suns’ current roster construction relies on him to avoid getting blown out every night.

The Suns are outscored by 4.9 points per 100 possessions — the league average for possessions per game is around 105 — when Booker is on the court, but that number skyrockets to 16.2 points when he’s on the bench.

The problem is who comes in for him. When Isaiah Canaan (-10.6 net rating), Jamal Crawford (-19.1 net rating) or Elie Okobo (-10.2 net rating) played, things went off the rails.

That is now unavoidable as Booker’s left hamstring heals.

The hope is that the rookie Okobo can build some chemistry with center Deandre Ayton in the starting lineup to reboot the offense. That’s even more important for Tuesday’s game against the Sacramento Kings with T.J. Warren out.

Now, Okobo and Ayton’s defining weaknesses coming out of the draft were on defense. No one is expecting that end to be great for them, but as a duo in 124 minutes this year, they have a terrible 86.4 offensive rating. Okobo on his own has a 92.5 offensive rating, the lowest in the rotation.

Because of Okobo’s self-creation skills, that number should be higher. Ayton is shooting a bonkers 70.6 percent at the rim, a tremendous luxury for a rookie point guard to have around the rim.

The key for Okobo will be finding him.

For a rookie who has only been playing point guard the past couple of years, Okobo shows a good feel for basic floor spacing and how to get to space.

Behind Booker, he’s the only other player on the court who can score for himself and find open guys as well.

Because of his size, handle and ability to change speeds, Okobo’s best asset is how he can get to most of the spots on the floor.

When it comes to running the pick-and-roll, that’s crucial.

Watch how Okobo sees that Richaun Holmes will be open, delays his dribble and waits for the passing lane to open.

Here, Patrick Beverley gets lost for the Clippers, which allows Okobo to go full speed and find Holmes. You can hear Holmes say, “Oh yeah, Elie!” to call for the lob.

Okobo’s instincts to hang in the air and fake the shot to open up the pass are special stuff. That’s not natural.

As a rookie point guard, though, those instincts have to develop.

We take you to earlier in the game when the same opportunity arises. Okobo has Beverley on his back and, for whatever reason, chooses to fling the ball over to a not-open-at-all Trevor Ariza.

But if you watch closer, Clippers guard Lou Williams starts on Okobo. He then camps on the elbow to watch Holmes’ space on the roll before recovering back to Ariza. Okobo sees Williams on the elbow and passes the ball as soon as Williams lunges back to Ariza.

That’s one of the many reasons why reading NBA defenses is so challenging and can bring on a complacent playstyle.

“I just need to read the game really well, the right way,” Okobo said Tuesday at shootaround. “And don’t make mistakes or turn the ball over.”

The Suns want Okobo to avoid hesitation and stay aggressive, being the leader on the floor the point guard is supposed to be.

“Elie’s doing pretty good,” Ayton said. “He’s been shooting the ball pretty well. The only thing about us is we want him to take over more. He has the green light to let guys know where they are supposed to be and where they are not supposed to be. It’s a big role, but we trust him and we are comfortable with him.”

Because of Okobo’s talent to get to certain positions on the court, he can score from all over.

The X-factor for his NBA game will be the jumper. He’s comfortable shooting it in any situation, including off the dribble.

There is no other way to put it — Okobo’s just got to make the shot.

He reads the defensive coverage well here and takes what the defense gives him, but misses.

With his role as the team’s backup point guard seemingly locked in like his starting spot while Booker gets healthy, watching his numbers from those spots on the floor will be telling. A 38.7 shooting percentage is not a good start.

More importantly, how often he looks for that shot is key. As head coach Igor Kokoskov puts it, Okobo being a threat as a scorer opens up his passing, and vice versa. You can see on that clip itself that former Suns center Tyson Chandler is performing his traditional pick-and-roll coverage of sagging off and letting the guard have an open shot if they want it.

The Suns’ starting lineup when Warren returns gives Okobo an optimal group to succeed with.

Okobo will play with three shooters — Ariza, Mikal Bridges and Warren — and Ayton, four players who will space out the floor and allow him to go to work.

It’s on him as an offensive-minded guard to learn on the fly, let his natural talent take over and play with the right mindset. That might not be the fairest expectations for a second-round rookie, but it’s the role he is being thrust into.

“He’s gotta be aggressive,” Kokoskov said of Okobo. “Not just his ability to score but also they have to guard him to be a facilitator. If they don’t guard him, then there is no way he’s going to be (a) facilitator and help other guys [to score].”

That’s the balancing act Okobo has to handle, and what will likely swing the Suns’ chances of winning without Booker.


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