EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

The if of the 5th: Josh Okogie’s on-ball duties could be Suns’ priority

Sep 28, 2023, 3:14 PM | Updated: Sep 29, 2023, 4:30 pm

Josh Okogie, Phoenix Suns...

Phoenix Suns' Josh Okogie (2) hams it up after making a 3-pointer against the Indiana Pacers during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Phoenix, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

(AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

The unofficial start to the NBA season in media day is within a week, and who the Phoenix Suns make the fifth starter alongside Deandre Ayton, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant is unknown.

Well, that was how we introduced this series on Tuesday, a day before Ayton (and Toumani Camara) was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers as part of a multi-team trade in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson.

Nurkic slots in for Ayton but the question still remains of who the fifth starter is, and now the Suns have even more options.

It is a compliment to the depth Phoenix has built up but also points to how necessary it is that they must figure that out. We are going to roll through eight candidates leading up to media day on Monday with respect to names like Damion Lee, Chimezie Metu and Ish Wainright, who could hypothetically start games this season as well.

While much intrigue is percolating in regard to the player receiving the nod on opening night in the Bay, we will instead preview all of the options under the optics of who starts the first game of round one in the postseason.

This means our conversations will naturally trend toward what these players have to do over the course of the regular season to earn that spot and how they can differentiate themselves over that time, as opposed to keeping it more theoretical by projecting how training camp and such goes.

That is likely how this will pan out. Head coach Frank Vogel will try different looks and grant various opportunities across a seven-month period. Injuries will force him to do so anyway. Could the Day One starter secure that job immediately? Sure. But Vogel and his staff would be wise to sift through everything he’s got.

Josh Okogie’s case as the Suns’ 5th starter

Why should he start: To take the assignment as the defender of the opponent’s lead ball-handler, to be quite obvious. Okogie already proved he could command that role well last year after Mikal Bridges departed in the Durant trade. Reducing wear-and-tear on Devin Booker and Bradley Beal is of grand importance, and only Okogie and backup guard Jordan Goodwin seem to fit that bill.

Pros: Okogie’s physicality and size to break up play initiation from the point of attack is an important thing, especially when considering Vogel’s desire to be more aggressive on defense. Teams that want to hunt switches will do so to get Beal or Booker on their best offensive player, but at least Phoenix won’t have to worry about Okogie landing on an opposing forward or another perimeter ace.

Beyond the on-ball defense, Okogie taps in as an aggressive offensive rebounder, and that becomes even more important with the Suns losing minutes with a true center following the Ayton trade. They’re going to go small more certainly with Nurkic on board for Ayton, and Okogie can help Phoenix hit the glass when doing so.

Having Vogel likely pitching curveball defenses and using smaller lineups could help Okogie in a number of player combinations, starting or not. But the fresh looks, you’d think, also come on offense. Okogie has the body to be an effective screener. As a roll man, he’s actually got enough juice to put the ball down and finish around the rim to perhaps tinker with him like the 2021-22 Brooklyn Nets did with Bruce Brown’s role.

Cons: The good news is that 2022-23 showed Okogie might not be a lost cause as a shooter. He shot 34.9% from three before the All-Star break and 31.9% after it. That fell off a cliff in a more limited role to 14.2% (2-of-14) in 10 playoff games.

Okogie as a corner spacer is going to happen alongside the trio of perimeter stars, and in limited minutes or in series against the same team, there’s no doubt he’s going to be a short leash if he can’t knock down a three here or there.

It’ll be killer if Okogie goes through a poor shooting stretch like he did during Phoenix’s last run. But last year’s full regular season was just enough to wonder if there’s more room for improvement. If not, he’s an offensive liability that will pop in the postseason. Even with the perimeter trio around him, it’s limiting.

Likelihood: Somewhat high. If I list the starting point guards on potential Western Conference playoff teams and decide which Phoenix player best can handle the group, Okogie is probably the answer over Booker, Beal, Jordan Goodwin and the rest of the Suns roster: Jamal Murray, Ja Morant, De’Aaron Fox, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, C.J. McCollum, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kyrie Irving, Mike Conley.

With that, he’s got a decent chance at winning the job.

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