EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Josh Okogie’s arrival brings another ball hawk to Phoenix Suns’ roster

Oct 10, 2022, 2:45 PM
Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball against Josh Okogie #20 of the Minnesota Timberw...
Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball against Josh Okogie #20 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first half of the NBA game at Phoenix Suns Arena on March 19, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Entering Year 4 of the Monty Williams and James Jones era, the Phoenix Suns have never had a player quite like wing Josh Okogie.

Listed at 6-foot-4 and 213 pounds, you can sense how Okogie can come across as physically imposing. Okogie said Saturday that when Williams saw his thigh muscles, he compared it to the athletic phenomenon Bo Jackson.

On top of his strength with a 7-foot wingspan, Okogie sprinted at 20 miles an hour during the Suns’ summer testing. That speed prompted Williams to bring up Jackson when discussing Okogie.

The recently turned 24-year-old Okogie has built up a deserved reputation on the defensive end, where he puts those gifts to use. Given the positions he can cover with his size, strength and length, Okogie is unlike anyone Phoenix has had who could slot into the guard rotation.

“I think he can be a guy that comes off of our bench and just goes in and shuts somebody down,” Williams said of Okogie on Sept. 28. “He’s a guy that hasn’t found his niche in the league just yet where it’s consistent but that doesn’t mean he can’t. We hope over the course of time he makes it hard on me to keep him off the floor. From that standpoint, that was the excitement.”

After four years with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the team that drafted Okogie 20th overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, Okogie signed with the Suns in free agency and changed organizations for the first time in his career.

Okogie got more playing time in the front half of his time there as opposed to the back half, dealing with the challenges of a young player on a franchise that had three different head coaches and general managers across his time up north.

He started 117 games in his first three seasons before struggling to hold a consistent role last year, averaging 10.5 minutes per game across 49 appearances.

Okogie was complimentary of his stay in Minnesota but also outlined how constant change can prove to be difficult.

“You haven’t really established yourself, so you’re always changing your game, changing how you think and it’s hard to play free because each coach is kind of demanding something different,” he said Saturday. “Then you’re trying to fit into different roles, different philosophies.”

In the positive department, Okogie has seen just about everything through four years because of the ups and downs for the Timberwolves.

“I know what it feels like through a whole spectrum,” he said. “I know what it feels like to lose 14 games in a row, to have a winning record, to go to the playoffs, to lose in the first round.”

This is why stability is so important to an organization. The Suns can provide it to their own players and also use it for younger guys who haven’t experienced something like that yet, with the hope being they can maximize a player’s talent in a way the previous team could not.

There’s a lot to like about Okogie’s game. It, of course, starts on defense, where his imprint on a game is clear.

“I saw him physically put his hands on people and defend and finish. He just infects the game with his physicality,” Williams said. “That, to me, is something that you need regular season, playoffs, postseason — you need it all the time and he’s that kind of player.”

Okogie’s activity level remains high. He’s great about using his hands at opportune moments, when he can catch ball handlers off guard because of how quickly he covers ground and how long his arms are.

As Suns fans have learned while watching Mikal Bridges, lazy passes and such are an absolute no-go in his vicinity.

Okogie has always had an elite steal percentage among wings because of that package.

Okogie said on media day that when he and Bridges were able to team up during some scrimmages before training camp, it was a simple “yep” and a nod between the two before they caused all sorts of commotion defensively.

Bridges said he hasn’t had a teammate defending with him who had such a similar thought process and instinctual pursuit of the ball.

“Josh is a freak and he just has that defensive mind where he just reads things and has those ball-hawk skills,” Bridges said two weeks ago. “It’s fun playing with somebody just like that.”

Williams referred to as Okogie being “a bit of renegade” as a defender who causes havoc.

“Josh has that ability like Mikal and Torrey (Craig) where he can go for a steal but keep himself in the play,” Williams said Saturday.

Okogie does that with blocks, too. He’s one of the best chase-down artists in the league and will often recover from a step behind to erase a shot attempt.

Like steals, the production with his block percentage is high for his position. There’s value in Okogie’s defense self-generating turnovers.

Okogie said he likes to think of himself as “a cleanup guy,” meaning he can hold down his own assignment while taking opportunities to sweep up anything outside of that.

The last clip I’ll share is one that backs up the comparison to Jackson and his mythical nature, because how many times have you seen someone block Kevin Durant’s jump shot who is six inches shorter than him?

From a rotation standpoint, one inkling Williams cited was potentially playing Okogie alongside Landry Shamet when Shamet runs the offense. That’s something Shamet will be doing at the moment while Cam Payne heals up from a right finger sprain, and it’s a lineup that gives the Suns real size at guard with two plus defenders.

“It could be beneficial for sure because Josh, man, he’s an elite defender, I think,” Shamet said Friday. “Plays hard, he’s a physical specimen. I’m excited for him to get on the floor with us and show us what he’s capable of and what we know he’s capable of doing so it’ll be a great addition.”

Okogie is currently dealing with a left hamstring strain that has kept him out during the preseason and could for the last two games on Monday and Wednesday. But Okogie didn’t rule out a possible return.

The task ahead for Okogie is on the offensive end. As Williams said, he just has to locate that niche.

Shooting has been a problem.

Of the 220 players to attempt at least 500 3s since Okogie entered the league in the 2018-19 season, Okogie ranks last in 3-point percentage, per Stathead. His 27.5% mark is topped by Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis.

It’s not a technical issue. Okogie has smooth shooting mechanics. It’s just about building consistency, something that has proven achievable in basketball time after time.

“Just trust it,” Williams said when asked how guys develop that consistency. “It’s been proven that that’s the one thing that you can improve is your shot. There are guys who come into the league and they can’t defend. And 10 years later, they still can’t defend.

“Most guys come into the league, even if they had a shooting deficit, that’s the one thing we know that you can improve. He’s got good mechanics, it’s pretty consistent. Now it’s the ability to carry over the work to the floor without thinking about it. And that’s what the elite guys do. They don’t think about it, they just do what they do. And you’re trying to build consistency, you have to adopt that mentality.”

Okogie pointed out something that fans rarely think of, which is how tough it is to maintain a flow as a low-usage player who rarely gets the ball for what Okogie correctly described a “rhythm game.”

“If you shoot three 3s this game and you don’t shoot a 3 the next two games then try to shoot five 3s the next game — it don’t matter how good of a shooter you are,” Okogie said.

Okogie has some of the lowest usage rates among his position group in four seasons and he’s taking just about all of his shots either at the rim or from 3.

A free-flowing offense that preaches movement both on and off the ball is going to be the best chance yet that Okogie has at finding that rhythm. He cited Phoenix’s 0.5 philosophy of quick-hitting decisions and how no one on the team cares who has or shoots the ball. He will not just stand in the corner like he did in Minnesota.

“You kind of get lost in that corner sometimes,” Okogie said.

Going back to his days at Georgia Tech that led to his selection in the first round, Okogie can pass the ball well. His assist and turnover percentages haven’t been kind to him thus far but Okogie is good about making the smart, extra passes that will help keep the Suns’ offense smooth.

He also gets to the line a whole lot. A free-throw presence secondary to Devin Booker has been missing on the team, and while that’s too much of an ask for Okogie, having someone off the bench that gets a few a game like he did earlier in his time with Minnesota will be a plus.

The bottom line for Okogie is that the opening is there.

The Suns’ depth beyond Chris Paul, Booker, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson at guard and wing is limited. Payne and Shamet to some extent have a hold on the ball-handling responsibilities, but beyond that, Okogie could absolutely carve out a role and emerge as another defensive stopper to arm the rotation with.

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