36 unbothered: Suns need Josh Okogie, and he still has things to prove

Oct 13, 2023, 9:14 PM | Updated: Oct 14, 2023, 12:00 am

Devin Booker left the Phoenix Suns’ second elimination game blowout loss in the conference semifinals without saying a word. At least to the media.

He went into the offseason without addressing what happened, both after the game and at exit interviews the next day, only posting a vague social media post “36 unbothered” afterward, two days following the firing of head coach Monty Williams. What was first speculated by fans as a reference to his and Kevin Durant’s added-up jersey numbers was later corrected by Booker: He was just cruising through 36 holes of golf.

Regardless, he unknowingly created a nickname for the Suns’ superstar duo in the process.

To keep us occupied until the Oct. 24 season opener against the Golden State Warriors, which is 11 days away from Friday, Empire of the Suns podcast co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman will round out the last 12 key storylines for Phoenix’s 2023-24 season after being joined by Arizona Sports contributor Erik Ruby for the first 24.

Previously –

Day 36: Devin Booker enters his prime
Day 35: The Suns have put in the work this summer
Day 34: Suns do have some continuity with returning bench players
Day 33: Kevin Durant gets integrated
Day 32: Bradley Beal proving something
Day 31: How the Big 3 develop chemistry

Day 30: Mat Ishbia’s first full season as owner
Day 29: How does Suns’ place of play change without Chris Paul
Day 28: Suns can maximize Yuta Watanabe in proper role
Day 27: Deandre Ayton finally is traded
Day 26: Who is Suns’ biggest threat in Western Conference?
Day 25: Matrix and STAT in Ring of Honor
Day 24: Phoenix Suns’ most appetizing lineups combinations
Day 23: The importance of Kevin Young’s return to the Suns
Day 22: The revamped Suns sunburst jerseys

Day 21: TV antennas and Phoenix Suns basketball for all
Day 20: Is there room on the Suns to unlock Bol Bol?
Day 19: What Grayson Allen brings to Suns
Day 18: Suns’ championship expectations
Day 17: Drew Eubanks could bring pop to Suns’ center group
Day 16: Olympic implications
Day 15: Jusuf Nurkic changes the Suns in the middle
Day 14: Jon Bloom takes over for Al McCoy on the airwaves
Day 13: Eric Gordon was the Suns’ biggest offseason signing
Day 12: Do the Suns need to trade for a point guard?

Day 11: The Suns need Josh Okogie

Kellan Olson: Through everything that happened for the Suns last year and in the offseason, along with how his postseason went, I think we collectively forgot the huge success story Okogie was. And it’s good to revisit that since it looks like he’s going to be a key part of this Suns team as well.

First-round picks who see their first contract expire and then sign elsewhere for the minimum are at a real line-in-the-sand moment in their career. They are either going to figure it out within two to three years or end up pursuing basketball outside the NBA. Okogie’s four seasons in Minnesota had finished with his playing time decreasing across the last two and Phoenix was his first get-right pitstop attempt.

He didn’t start last year in the rotation, but thanks to injuries and the Suns getting stuck in a rut, Okogie’s energy was enough of a difference-maker to get enough chances to show he belonged in the rotation. It earned him spot minutes. But then because of the three-for-one wing swap for Kevin Durant that also included Durant missing a ton of time, Okogie got more playing time than he ever had before. He logged 28.9 minutes per game post-Durant trade.

And in that time, he was really good. Okogie averaged 11.5 points a night to go with his great on-ball defense to take the primary cover Mikal Bridges always did for the five years prior. The scoring can’t go unnoticed since guys in his type of role can fade offensively. But some level of production still has to come if you’re on the floor that much. Okogie was getting to the foul line (3.8 FTA/G), creating havoc on the offensive glass and improving his league-low 3-point percentage.

All of that felt like a guy who was going to get paid rotation-level money in the summer the Suns couldn’t afford.

But then Okogie’s negatives, plus an on-ball assignment in Jamal Murray he couldn’t crack, were a bit too prominent in the postseason. He fell out of the rotation entirely. And that was enough for Phoenix to somehow get him back on the minimum, which I’m still surprised by. Because even if Okogie isn’t someone a team can trust in the playoffs, he was legitimately good in the regular season, and teams need guys like that to win games!

Regardless, we have to remind ourselves this is a player who just turned 25 years old in September and is coming off some serious growth. Given the options the Suns have in their ranks, I’m not sure Okogie holds down the fifth starter spot, but he’s in a position to be even better this year.

In a lightbulb “no duh” moment this preseason that took seeing it on the court to realize it, Okogie’s been slashing to the basket in an opportunistic manner thanks to the extra spacing provided by the elite shooting the Suns possess, as well as the increase in pace. He will benefit from both of those things to showcase his driving game, where decision-making again will be a key for him after he was much better last season.

His 3-point shot, while much improved, was still all over the place in the previous campaign, going from a 44.6% two-month sample size in January/February to 33.3% in the final five weeks of the regular season. He shot it more confidently when playing time became a guarantee and that must continue this year.

It’s cruel how simple it is for a player with many good attributes like Okogie but he’s just going to have to knock down that shot, especially on this team, to keep his minutes high. Gordon, Allen and Watanabe will if he won’t. Phoenix will eventually succumb to an all-out offensive barrage if the defensive guys can’t get it done. Or maybe Jordan Goodwin can be good enough in this role. Either way, it’s a big year (again) for Okogie.

Kevin Zimmerman: For this assignment, I started watching videos of Okogie’s assists from last season.

That’s because I know what Okogie is: He’s the primary perimeter defender, a long and thick body who has nudges-into-guy-with-ball-and-guy-will-lose-the-ball strength. He’s an elite offensive rebounder and that will come in handy on this team. He’s the hard-nosed defensive identity that Phoenix needs around its stars.

Okogie hit a career-high 33% from three last year, though he’s still a career 40% shooter from the field and his effective field goal percentage really hasn’t budged much. I think there’s value in improving from three still, but I’m not banking on it. He is what he is there.

What I think the Suns could do more to make the poor shooting less of a problem is actually to put Okogie in the action more. Don’t let him hang in the corner and hope he can make it when teams leave him. Instead, put Beal or Booker or Durant in the corner.

Let Okogie hang on the weakside wing, catch on the move and use his explosiveness to attack less-than-aggressive closeouts. There will be more spacing with this year’s team for Okogie to get all the way into the rim instead of relying on an inefficient midrange game. Or maybe, just maybe, he can make the simple kickout to, again, Beal or Booker or Durant.

The Suns could also consider using Okogie as the screener in some lineup combinations. I’ve suggested a Bruce Brown 2021-22 Brooklyn Nets rim-running role for the jumbo guard in the past. Again, Okogie catching on the move and making an easy read against an already-rotating defense might lead to good shots for others. He’s shown flashes.

I know that Okogie wasn’t even in the top-half of last year’s team in assists per 36 minutes. But I think the Suns should explore ways to put pressure on him to help on offense in other ways than just hoping he can hit wide-open threes come playoff time. Unlocking ways to keep him on the court for longer should only benefit Phoenix considering all the little things he does well.

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