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Suns’ Elie Okobo staying aggressive, being rewarded for confident play

Elie Okobo #2 of the Phoenix Suns dribbles the ball up court against the Sacramento Kings during the second half of an NBA basketball game at Golden 1 Center on November 19, 2019 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The player that Elie Okobo is and can be is difficult to portray given how he’s looked through 16 months with the Phoenix Suns. You wouldn’t believe if you’ve only seen him in a Suns uniform after he was picked No. 32 in the 2018 NBA Draft.

A microwave combo scoring guard from France, Okobo is a highly skilled bucket-getter and can get hot at any time. He’s got the athleticism to match and even top some NBA point guards, touch in the mid-range area, range on his jumper and craft everywhere else as a ball-handler.

But as is often the case with a prospect once they’re drafted, his identity as a player changed, and he was now a tentative, young point guard learning how to play his position.

Okobo hadn’t even started playing there until a few years ago and the choice he (and probably the Suns) made was to try and be as much of a “point guard” as possible, focusing on running the offense, taking care of the ball and picking spots here and there to score. That’s what Okobo would say when you asked him as much.

While that’s something Okobo indeed has to get better at and figure out at the NBA level, it’s not what his game is about. It was the reason why I wrote in January he didn’t look ready for NBA minutes. He wasn’t the player he should be, and if he wasn’t recognizing scoring opportunities because he wanted to share the ball to not screw up, he couldn’t be out there.

That was after Okobo even started some games and was a key player for the Suns. In hindsight, it’s easy to forget that he played in 53 games and averaged 18.1 minutes a night for a severely-depleted roster at point guard.

Through workshopping that playstyle and inconsistent minutes, Okobo has taken advantage of some recent injuries and is finally finding his confidence to be that legitimate offensive threat.

Ricky Rubio played the first half in Sacramento on Tuesday, restoring the team’s regular rotation at point guard, only for him to miss the second half and be replaced by backup Tyler Johnson. That meant a third guard had to step up to fill in for Johnson.

With the team’s former backup point guard Jevon Carter previously taken out of the rotation, head coach Monty Williams elected to give Okobo the chance.

He ran with it, posting four points, five assists and a game-high plus-18. In the next three games, Okobo has been Johnson’s backup while Rubio recovers from back spasms, and he looks like a completely new player. He’s averaging 8.8 points and 4.0 assists in his last four games over 22.2 minutes a night. He has only two turnovers to 16 assists and Phoenix is an out-of-this-world plus-52 when he’s in.

When Okobo played in the Las Vegas Summer League back in July, his numbers weren’t good, but he obviously made a decision to not hesitate and play downhill for the entirety of his time there.

That was a complete 180 on his rookie year, and that oddly enough has translated to these backup minutes.

Okobo as a rookie was seemingly trying to avoid the “rookie mistakes” that are inevitably coming for rookies. Even with someone as seasoned as Cam Johnson, we’re seeing it from him too. It happens.

Now, Okobo takes risks, which you have to do as a point guard. You can’t be tentative.

“Just play with confidence,” Devin Booker said Thursday of what he wanted to see from Okobo in the opportunity. “Act like you’ve been there before. You’re gonna have to prove to the other team you’re capable of doing what you can do.”

That’s a strong point by Booker to take from a different perspective. Teams aren’t sure what to make of Okobo because he hasn’t shown what he’s about. So not only can he earn their respect, he can catch them off-guard when doing so.

They don’t know he can hit this shot, or that he’d even take it.

This is certainly not a driving lane Okobo would have taken last year, at least at a full pace as he does.

Because of the way Williams wants “0.5” decisions, Okobo has no choice but to be more instinctive when he plays.

There is a sink or swim element to him playing under Williams. Teams can smell a lack of confidence on a ball-handler from a mile away and that is essentially like poison in Williams’ offense. That’s where Carter as a lead guard has struggled. Williams will take the hits with Okobo’s hiccups because he understands his young roster.

Okobo seems to be embracing it.

“He’s doing well,” Williams said after Thursday’s loss. “When he was in the game, especially in the first half, we had burst. He was attacking the paint, getting and-ones.

“He makes mistakes but most young guys do.”

This is great stuff in semi-transition, looking up as the floor general and seeing an opportunity to attack.

Again, seeing the spot. No hesitating. Downhill.

Okobo said after Thursday’s game he’s much stronger and that’s helping him around the rim.

Even with the all-gas, no-brake mentality, the maturity he developed last year shows when he’s able to pick out passes when he could shoot.

The extra pass within Williams’ offensive principles is no issue for him.

Most notably with Cheick Diallo, Okobo has some feel in pick-and-roll playmaking.

Keep an eye on that specific development with Okobo in regard to the return of Deandre Ayton. They were drafted together and both have been partaking in the after-practice pickup games, usually both on the same squad. Rubio can run a two-man game with Ayton, obviously, but if Okobo can too off the bench, that’s going to bring value.

It’s going to get wonky there, though, in terms of Okobo getting playing time. Rubio’s day-to-day status should have him playing soon, and while Tyler Johnson has struggled, his pedigree as a veteran matters. As does the eventual return of rookie Ty Jerome from an ankle sprain that has kept him out all season, and he’s just about there it seems like, with his G League assignment on Monday.

But as Williams’ focus on movement offensively can only help Okobo stay in an aggressive mindset, so can the coach’s tendency to tinker his rotations accordingly and reward players, where Okobo can capitalize.

“I play with way more confidence than last year,” Okobo said. “I gotta keep building on that.”

 


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