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Forward Thinking

Cavs Tab Rugged Auburn Forward Isaac Okoro at No. 5 Overall
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

Forward Thinking

Cavs Tab Rugged Auburn Forward Isaac Okoro at No. 5 Overall

Since the 2019-20 season came to its precipitous end, the Cavaliers have been talking about getting better on the defensive end. On Wednesday night, they let the Draft do the talking.

Widely-recognized as the best all-around defender in his class, the Wine and Gold tabbed Auburn’s Isaac Okoro – a man-sized 6-6, 225-pound forward who doesn’t turn 20 until late January.

After going with guards in back-to-back drafts, the Cavaliers seriously bulked up at the wing, snagging a player whose college coach, Bruce Pearl, said could guard every position on the floor. Pearl should know; Okoro led a Tigers team rebuilding from a Final Four run the previous season to a 25-6 mark last year – pacing the squad in scoring (12.9ppg) and emerging as one of the best defenders in the conference.

The Cavaliers brass had their eye on Okoro and a meeting with the Atlanta native sealed the deal.

Okoro was All-SEC Second Team as well as earning All-Freshman and All-Defensive Team honors in his single season at Auburn.

Todd Kirkland/NBAE via Getty Images

”I feel like I had a great workout, a great interview with (the Cavs),” said Okoro. “They also took me out to dinner. We just had a great conversation. So, I feel like throughout that day, I feel like I had a good sense that they were going to take me.”

Okoro, whose parents emigrated to the States from Nigeria, earned All-SEC Second Team honors along with being named to the Conference’s All-Freshman and All-Defensive Teams.

”I feel like I could fit alongside Sexton and Garland by just running the floor, getting in quick buckets,” said Okoro, “And I feel like I’m the best defensive player in this draft – like I'm able to switch off one through four and still hold my ground.”

The rugged forward is an above-the-rim athlete and ranked 10th in the nation with a .514 field goal percentage. He’s not considered a long-range threat just yet – shooting under 29 percent from deep – and has some room for growth at the stripe, where he shot 67 percent.

”Coach Bickerstaff is excited about using him all over the floor,” said Cavs GM Koby Altman. “His offensive game is underrated. He can really pass, he knows how to cut and score in different ways. He can post up a little bit. So you’re going to see him all over the floor doing a lot of different things.

”He has to get the basics down, in terms of catch-and-shoot – but he’s a wonderful fit with our guards, who are more ball-dominant. He’s gonna live in the gym and he’s gonna work and you’re going to see him progressively get better.”

A member of the U.S. team that won the gold in the 2018 FIBA U17 European Championship, Okoro is one of the Draft’s most explosive leapers and has a high motor on both ends – an ideal physical combination of strength and length.

And for all his impressive physical attributes, the word on Okoro is what a selfless, low-maintenance team player that he is. On the floor, that trait translates to him being effective without having the ball in his hands. Off the floor, it translates to him being named to the Auburn Athletic Director’s Honor Roll after maintaining at least a 3.5 GPA in the fall.

"My goal for this year is to help the Cavaliers get back to the Playoffs. Just do anything to help us win and get back to the Playoffs."

Okoro won’t get the normal grace period June draft picks do – time to decompress and get his feet wet at Summer League. Instead, he’ll be looking for apartments and finding his way around town while preparing for Training Camp at the end of the month.

But he prides himself on being a winning player and he’ll get a chance to get in the fire and prove himself from the jump.

“(Okoro)’s humble, but he’s not blind when he says he’s a winning player,” said Altman, referring to a comment Okoro – who went an entire calendar year spanning high school and the start of his Auburn career without losing a game – made before the Draft. “He’s all about that. He’s team first and he’s prideful about that.

”He’ll see pretty soon how tough it is to get wins in this league night to night. And what we have collectively to grow, especially this young team. But I know from Day One that’s his attitude – and we’re excited about that.”

But probably not as excited as the 19-year-old rookie who comes to Cleveland later this week.

”My goal for this year is to help the Cavaliers get back to the Playoffs,” said Okoro. “Just do anything to help us win and get back to the Playoffs.”

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