Detroit Pistons draft preview: Auburn’s Okoro projects as a defensive game-wrecker
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History says it’s a virtual certainty a future All-Star, perhaps even a future MVP, will be available when the Pistons go on the clock to make the seventh pick in the 2020 NBA draft.
It’s too early to judge the 2018 and ’19 drafts – though early returns suggest form will hold as young players like Tyler Herro (13th pick in 2019) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (11th pick in ’18) already appear on an All-Star track – but go back a decade and every draft has produced players who either already are or will be multi-time All-Stars or even MVP winners who were taken with the seventh pick or beyond.
The 2017 draft has already produced All-Stars in Donovan Mitchell (13th) and Bam Adebayo (14th). Jamal Murray, a breakout star of the NBA’s Orlando bubble, was the seventh pick in 2016. Devin Booker was the 13th pick in 2015 and Nikola Jokic went 41st in 2014.
Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th pick in 2013 and three-time All-Star – and three-time NBA champion – Draymond Green was the 35th pick in 2012. His Golden State teammate, Klay Thompson, was the 11th pick in 2011 when two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard went 15th. Paul George was the 10th pick in 2010 and two-time MVP Steph Curry was the seventh pick in 2009.
So when Dwane Casey said in early October, after months of digesting video of top prospects, he was confident the Pistons would get a foundational piece at the seventh pick, he had history – and faith in the eye of new general manager Troy Weaver – in his corner.
Leading to the Nov. 18 draft, Pistons.com will profile 12 candidates to hear their name called when the Pistons announce the pick. Next up: wing Isaac Okoro.
FIRST-ROUND CANDIDATE: ISAAC OKORO
ID CARD: 6-foot-6 wing, Auburn, 19 years old
DRAFT RANGE: Ranked 7th by ESPN.com, 6th by The Athletic, 6th by SI.com
SCOUTS LOVE: If there’s a player in this draft with the chance to become a defensive game-wrecker for the opposition, Okoro seems at the head of that line. Powerfully built at 225 pounds and already strong enough to stand up in the NBA despite his age – with the certainty that he’ll become incrementally stronger as he matures and takes advantage of NBA strength-training supervision – Okoro projects as an elite defender. That’s the overwhelming appeal at this stage and in an era where versatile wing defenders with the heft to defend the post in downsized lineups are eternally coveted. Given Okoro’s size-strength-speed makeup and his Georgia upbringing, it’s no small miracle he isn’t lining up as an SEC tight end or terrorizing opposing quarterbacks as an edge rusher. It’s that same combination of athletic traits that makes him a likely top-10 pick in the NBA after a freshman season in which Okoro averaged 12.9 points and 4.4 rebounds as a freshman – as the only non-senior starter on a 25-6 team that had designs on a Final Four berth before the NCAA season was shut down during major conference tournaments. Okoro will draw high marks for character, as well. He led his high school team, McEachern in Powder Springs, Ga., to a 32-0 record and the state championship in becoming the first school in Georgia’s highest classification to go unbeaten in 24 years.
SCOUTS WONDER: Okoro’s offensive outcome is less certain than his defensive upside. He shot less than 30 percent from the 3-point arc in his only college season while playing with veteran teammates. Okoro attempted only 8.5 shots a game despite being second on the team in minutes (31.5), taking 2.5 triples a game. That means it’s a relatively small sample size – 70 attempts from the 3-point arc for his college career – that scouts have to examine to determine what Okoro’s ceiling might be as a shooter. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl encouraged Okoro to become more assertive offensively, understanding his team’s potential was tied to his freshman pushing his vast boundaries, and it sometimes led to reckless charging calls or shaky ballhandling decisions. But Okoro also showed an intriguing potential as a rim attacker, too, where his explosion and strength should pay huge dividends as he refines his ballhandling and becomes more experienced in his responses to help defenders.
NUMBER TO NOTE: 5.6 – That’s how many rebounds Okoro grabbed per-40 minutes, which ranked just sixth on Auburn’s team among its main rotation players. That’s a curious number, potentially worrying, for someone with the physical tools Okoro possesses.
MONEY QUOTE: “Then it’s all over. He’s an NBA player right now, but if he starts to get to the point where he can see it and make it, then he’s an NBA All-Star. He’s Victor Oladipo times two.” – Auburn coach Bruce Pearl on what Okoro can become if he develops more of an offensive mindset and a consistent perimeter shot
BOTTOM LINE: Being an impact defender is good enough to get Okoro drafted in the lottery in a year without clearly identifiable future stars atop the draft. Convince some team’s personnel department that he can also become an impact scorer and it’s justifiable to take Okoro in the top five. If you can project Okoro to become a more adept ballhandler and believe the 3-point shot can be elevated to the league average of around 35 percent, then Pearl’s vision of future NBA All-Star doesn’t sound out of reach. The rosiest projections for Okoro have him on a Kawhi Leonard/Jimmy Butler track, settling in first as a defensive stopper who passes through a phase of complementary offensive piece to featured performer in short order. The other end of that spectrum is another player the Pistons took with a mid-lottery pick, Stanley Johnson, who after an impressive rookie season plateaued and failed to develop an identifiable offensive strength. While there is no guarantee Okoro will last until the Pistons pick at No. 7 on draft night and the lure to take a playmaker will be strong, Okoro’s upside – and the premium placed on strong wing two-way players in today’s game – will make him and a similar player, Florida State’s Patrick Williams, options for them.