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Isaac Okoro Ascends on Both Ends as Freshman Campaign Continues
For everyone reading this who’s ever held a job, you know there’s that moment where the lightbulb comes on, when you finally get it.
Cavaliers rookie Isaac Okoro will face plenty of difficult moments still – for the remainder of this season and over what has the potential to be a long NBA career. But it sure looks like the lightbulb is beginning to glow.
Nothing about this NBA season has been normal, and it’s been a difficult adjustment for everybody. But for the incoming freshman class of 2020, it’s been even tougher.
For starters, they missed out on last year’s NCAA Tournament – with this year’s Dance showing how magical and developmental it can be for kids and how critical it can be for talent evaluators. The pre-Draft process was completely impersonal and Draft itself – a seminal moment in a young man’s life, the culmination of his dreams – seemed like more of a formality.
This year’s rookies were selected in mid-November, team’s Training Camps tipped off in early-December, and by Christmas time, their first NBA seasons were underway. No summer to decompress; no Summer League to ease the transition.
When the games did arrive, it was daily rigorous COVID testing, odd rules on the road and games piled on top of one another in an abbreviated schedule.
None of this sounds like a lot of fun. And for the icing on the cake, for one of these incoming rookies – Okoro – his job is to guard the opponent’s toughest offensive player, often switching assignments during the game. Okoro’s drawn everyone from point guards, like Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox, to his most recently task, clamping down on impressive young seven-footer, Aleksej Pokusevski, in a win over the Thunder.
Taurean Prince – who finished with 22 points off the bench in the victory over OKC – disagrees. He thinks that daunting job (and one he’s had as a rookie) sounds like a lot of fun.
”No, that #%@$ is fun,” smiled the fifth-year man from Baylor. “I tell (Okoro) stories of myself, having to guard Kyrie, Marc Gasol, Ibaka, then switching to Paul George then switch to Steph Curry then switch to Klay Thompson, then you gotta go back to LeBron. All those are opportunities not only to guard those great players but also to make a player out of yourself – so I just tell him to embrace those opportunities because there’s nothing you can do to lose in that situation. It’s win-win, in my opinion.
”He’s learning. He’s only going to get better.”
The soft-spoken Okoro agrees. He knew it was his calling card entering the Association out of Auburn.
”Yeah, it’s fun,” said the 20-year-old Atlanta native. “I’ve being doing it my whole life, so it’s nothing new for me. I always have fun playing defense. That’s what I’m here for, so I take it as a blessing, guarding the greatest players in the world every single night.”
Like the squad itself, Okoro’s taken his lumps this season. But he’s also proven to be a very durable young player. Aside from missing five games due to COVID protocol just two games into the season, the rugged rook has started every one since – some at guard, some at forward – and has taken some tough spills along the way.
Okoro’s been so locked in on the defensive end this year that he’s struggled at times offensively. But over the past three games, he’s been outstanding on both ends.
Beginning with a career-high 17 points last Saturday in Miami, Okoro’s notched double-figures in each of the last three games – averaging 14.3 points per, shooting 58 percent from the floor and a blistering 64 percent (7-for-11) from deep over that span. Against the Heat and Spurs, he drilled all five triples that he attempted.
"He’s the type of kid that never changes, and he doesn’t back down from challenges. So everything we kept throwing at him, he kept showing up and trying to do his best at what we asked him to do."
Heading into the trip, Coach J.B. Bickerstaff talked to this year’s top pick about the ‘rookie wall.’
”I think he’s moving out of it,” said Bickerstaff. “There was a point where we talked to him, and he was tired. When you go from playing 20-some games (in a season) and we play that in about six weeks nowadays, that’s difficult. What we’ve done for him is simplify and try to give him a couple of things to just focus on.
”And again, I take responsibility for the load that we put on his shoulders. Every single night, we’ve asked him to guard the opposing team’s best player. That’s physically and mentally exhausting and something that obviously takes some time to get used to. But we believe he’ll be better for it in the long run.”
After that career-high night on South Beach last week, going 5-of-7 from the floor and the stripe, adding three boards, a steal and a block – all while checking Jimmy Butler – the Heat’s All-Star swingman had great things to say about Okoro.
”He plays within the game,” said Butler. “He takes all of the right shots. He gets stops and rebounds. He is always passing the ball to the open guy. I really like his game.”
Okoro – who held Butler to 15 points on just eight shots – was humbled by the praise.
”I heard those comments and it’s a blessing to hear it from one of the best players in the NBA right now,” said the 6-6, 225-pounder. “I watch his game, I see how hard of a worker he is.”
Okoro also acknowledges that he’s been taking little lessons from each heavy-hitter he’s had to check. “Yeah, just seeing the way they create contact and draw fouls,” he said. “I’ve learned from them every single time.”
Okoro and the Cavaliers know that his offensive game will come. He’s posted 21 games of double-digit scoring and has had some nice late-game moments on that end. Plus, that lightbulb continues to flicker brighter by the game – shooting 64 percent from the floor over his last four outings.
Above it all, the youngster hasn’t been rattled by whatever’s been thrown his way. He suits up and squares off.
”He’s the type of kid that never changes, and he doesn’t back down from challenges,” praised Coach Bickerstaff. “So everything we kept throwing at him, he kept showing up and trying to do his best at what we asked him to do. And I don’t expect that to change, just because of the makeup and the type of person that he is.”