Chuma Okeke Showing He Has the Potential to be an Exceptionally Good Defender
ORLANDO - The Orlando Magic chose Chuma Okeke 16th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft knowing he would have to sit out for an entire season to heal an injury. He had torn his ACL in his left knee in his final college game at Auburn during the NCAA Tournament three months prior to the Magic selecting him.
It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that the wait was well worth it for the Magic, winners of three of their last four games.
Those who are simply just box score gazing probably aren’t aware of just how valuable Okeke, who spent last season rehabbing with Orlando’s G League affiliate in Lakeland, has been in the 14 games he has appeared in so far.
While his offense is coming along, as displayed during Friday’s thrilling victory over the Golden State Warriors when he buried a pair of clutch 3-pointers down the stretch, it’s the 6-foot-8, 230-pounder’s defense that has really stood out in his rookie campaign.
Of all players in the league who have been the closest defender to at least 100 shots this season, per Second Spectrum tracking data, Okeke has the sixth best defensive field goal percentage, although the players ranked fourth and fifth are just tenths of a percentage point ahead of him. The player ranked No. 1 in this category is Philadelphia’s Matisse Thybulle, second is Utah’s Mike Conley Jr. and third is OKC’s Hamidou Diallo.
Opponents have shot 38.2 percent from the field when the Magic’s 22-year-old has been the closest defender. That percentage is 36.5 percent when he contests the shot, which accounts for 104 of the 110 shot attempts he’s been the closest defender to.
His defense against the Warriors, in particular, was not just good, it was exceptional. Okeke contested eight Golden State shots, per Second Spectrum, and only one of them went through the hoop.
His foot speed on the perimeter is remarkably good for someone his size. Very rarely have opponents beat him off the dribble. This quality of his makes him a really good pick-and-roll switch defender. He’s also a mistake-free defender most of the time. He’s only averaging one foul per game, 1.7 per 36 minutes, which is very impressive for someone as young and inexperienced as he is.
A few players that come to mind that he could be like on the defensive end as his minutes rise and his confidence grows are Trevor Ariza and Andre Iguodala. Okeke’s technique draws comparisons to both, although in the case of Iguodala when he was in his prime nobody had better anticipation and an eye for details. But in terms of deflecting away passes and applying pressure on the ball, Okeke has the tools to do those things at a very high level.
Just his presence on the defensive side, even when he’s not guarding the shooter, is felt. Magic opponents are shooting just 43.9 percent from the field and 33.2 percent from 3-point range when he’s been on the court this season. When he’s off the floor, opponents have shot 47.7 percent overall and 37.8 percent from beyond the arc.
“I love Chuma, I really do,” said Evan Fournier, who scored a season-high 28 points during Friday’s win. “I like the player, but I just like the person even more because he does the right thing and he has the right mindset. I’m just really happy for him that he had a good night and he made some huge shots. As a rookie, this is no small thing.”
Making his recent contributions more exciting is that he’s a hard worker. The effort he puts into the gym, weight room and film room should translate into even greater success in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.
“He uses the opportunity to get better,” Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford said. “I think it’s just who he is. That was really the intel on him coming out of college, what a great work ethic he had. You guys didn’t get to see it, but the amount of rehab he had to do to be able to get back on the floor. He was diligent, so he’s a natural worker and he’s a natural competitor. There’s nothing more important than that, guys that you don’t have to worry about whether or not you’re going to get their best.”
Another Magic player who flies under the radar way too often as far as his defensive excellence is concerned is Michael Carter-Williams, who was absolutely sensational on that end against Golden State, and in particular Stephen Curry.
Of the eight shots taken by Curry that were contested by Carter-Williams, six of them were misses, including the 3-point try in the final seconds by the seven-time NBA All-Star, three-time champion and two-time MVP that resulted in an air-ball.
Among players who have appeared in at least 10 games this season and average a minimum of 20 minutes of action, MCW has the league’s best defensive rating (97.2).
You can’t help but wonder just how good defensively the Magic would be if they were completely healthy. Jonathan Isaac showed last season before he got hurt that he has a chance to be a perennial DPOY candidate. Aaron Gordon was in the running for that honor before the ankle sprain. Al-Farouq Aminu has always been known for his stellar defense. Nikola Vucevic and Fournier are underrated defenders. Terrence Ross, as described in this article, is a far better defender than he gets credit for. And now, with Carter-Williams doing what he does best and Okeke blossoming into a force on that end, there’s a lot of optimism about the potential this team has defensively long term if they can get and remain healthy.