Nine seconds remained in Auburn’s game at state-rival South Alabama last November, and the Tigers, not far removed from their appearance in the 2019 Final Four, were trailing 69-68. J’Von McCormick’s missed 3-pointer from the right corner fell short and was scooped up by Samir Doughty, who appeared trapped by a defender. He faked a pass to the perimeter, had the presence of mind to drive the baseline, spotted freshman Isaac Okoro under the basket and whipped the ball to him.
But there was one problem. Or rather, four problems. Four fifths of South Alabama’s team had converged on Okoro. Undaunted, he jumped, pumped once and tossed the ball into the basket with 1.3 seconds to play as the Tigers escaped with a hard-earned win. Okoro was immediately christened with a new nickname.
That game continued Okoro’s auspicious college basketball debut. He scored 15 points, his third consecutive double-figure scoring game for then-3-0 Auburn, and also contributed six rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks.
“We had No. 23,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl told the media after the game. “No. 23 is pretty good. He’s not afraid. He’s productive. He plays the game on both ends of the floor and obviously made a big basket late.”
Pearl probably wasn’t thinking much about the NBA Draft that night, but as it turned out, Okoro’s first three games and that clutch game-winner were indicative of what the freshman would provide the rest of the season for the Tigers, who ended up 25-6 and ranked No. 20 in the country and were poised for another deep NCAA tournament run, before the coronavirus pandemic shut it down. Scouts couldn’t help but notice, too, that the solidly built (6-foot-6, 225 pounds) wing was more than willing to take on any defensive challenge, and the way Pearl plays, that could mean checking a point guard one possession and a post man the next.
Thus, it was no surprise when, on March 20, Okoro became the second presumptive lottery pick from the Southeastern Conference — Georgia’s Anthony Edwards was the other — to declare for the NBA Draft. Okoro hasn’t yet hired an agent.
Just a day before, Pearl told NBA.com Okoro was “strongly considering,” staying in the Draft, based on his projections. Pearl learned long ago Okoro could live up to projections.
Heading into this season, Auburn had some serious holes to fill from the Final Four team, including small forward Chuma Okeke, a 2019 first-round pick of the Orlando Magic, and guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Okoro would have a chance to assume an immediate role. Several immediate roles, in fact.
Isaac is incredibly valuable to us on both the offensive and defensive end
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl on Okoro
“He has a chance to be the best defender in college basketball,” Pearl said last summer. “His matchup is not scoring. That’s just like, that guy’s night’s over. He can guard any position. He can guard one through five. He is quick enough to keep a guard in front of him. He is strong enough to guard any center.”
Pearl’s preview of Okoro was accurate. In earning second-team All-SEC honors, Okoro was one of just three players in the league, along with Tennessee’s John Fulkerson and Mississippi State’s Reggie Perry, to average at least 12 points and pile up at least 25 steals and 25 blocked shots. As Pearl said, if the Tigers needed an opponent’s leading scorer shut down, Okoro stepped up.
He delivered on the other end of the floor, too — again just as Pearl expected. Three-point shooting wasn’t Okoro’s forte and it remains a facet of the game he’ll need to improve in the NBA, but he could get to the rim on a whim. Okoro’s 51.4 FG% ranked among the top 15 freshmen in the country, and it was the highest among freshmen who made at least 15 3s (20-for-69, 29%).
On a team that started four seniors, it was Okoro who became Auburn’s most indispensable player. Proof of that came when Okoro missed three games in February after injuring his right hamstring in an overtime win over Alabama. Without Okoro in the lineup, the Tigers lost consecutive games to Missouri and Georgia, teams that finished in the bottom tier of the SEC standings.
Speaking with the press before a home game against Tennessee, the Tigers’ third without Okoro, Pearl made it clear he wasn’t making excuses for those two losses. But …
“Isaac is incredibly valuable to us on both the offensive and defensive end,” Pearl said. “His man never scores, so put him on whoever you’re going to put him on at Georgia, at Missouri or against Tennessee, and that guy’s not scoring. He’s our best help defender, taking charges, getting vertical, ending possessions with rebounds and things like that, and then offensively he’s a really tough cover, another breakdown guy that can get to the rim, and so we miss him a lot.”
Without Okoro, Auburn fell behind by 17 points in the second half against Tennessee before rallying to win. In that game, the Volunteers’ Jordan Bowden tossed in 28 points, by far his best game in a season in which he struggled with his shot. Okoro would have been the man assigned to keep Bowden in check, and Auburn might not have had to work so hard for the win.
The Tigers, who have never produced a one-and-done player, will definitely miss Okoro if he stays in the Draft. During a conference call with reporters last Friday, Pearl said Okoro will evaluate his situation before making a final decision. But Okoro, known for his work ethic, won’t back away from the challenges of preparing for the NBA, and Pearl wouldn’t stand in his way.
“He enjoyed being here, he enjoyed school, he enjoyed his teammates, his coaches, he enjoyed the training,” Pearl said. “But the circumstances as they present themselves now, where if Isaac has an opportunity to be a first-round pick and certainly has an opportunity to be in the lottery, with this draft not being as deep as next year’s draft is going to be, I think it makes sense for him to absolutely become draft eligible, which he is going to and then go through the process.”
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