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Isaac Okoro is overshadowed by the depth of young talent on the Cavaliers roster, especially after an extremely active offseason for the team. But figuring out how to help the second-year wing improve could be key for the Cavs as they look to make a collective leap.
Okoro absolutely delivered on his defensive potential in his first season. Most rookies are incredibly ineffective defensively, even those who are destined for greatness at that end. The learning curve at that end of the floor and athletic differences between college and professional players are so large that it simply takes longer to catch up. But ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus estimated Okoro to be a dramatic positive on defense last season in roughly the same tier of effectiveness as highly regarded defensive wings like Jimmy Butler, Lu Dort and OG Anunoby.
And he did that often acting as the Cavaliers’ first option on the best perimeter scorers from opposing teams, regardless of position — the four players he guarded on the most possessions last season were Russell Westbrook, Khris Middleton, Terry Rozier and Devin Booker. And, perhaps most impressively, his defensive impact wasn’t characterized by high-impact disruptions. His steal and block numbers weren’t particularly notable and he was near the bottom of the Cavs’ roster in terms of deflections per 36 minutes.
In short, Okoro is already a versatile defender whose impact is well above-average, driven by his ability to be a suffocating deterrent within a team structure. But then there is his offense.
Okoro finished his rookie season shooting 42.0 percent from the field and 29.0 percent from the 3-point line. By the estimates of Real Plus-Minus his negative impact on the offensive end more than out-weighed his defensive positives, pushing his overall value into replacement-level territory.
This wasn’t entirely a surprise. In his one season at Auburn, he made 28.6 percent of his 3-point attempts with nearly as many turnovers (55) as assists (57). His ability to contribute positively on offense was the biggest question in his pre-draft profile. The fact that he didn’t solve that problem while playing heavy minutes for one of the worst offenses in the league last season should dampen the enthusiasm about his upside.
How can the Cavaliers help Isaac Okoro find a niche on offense?
The most obvious solution is more about skill development than system structure. Okoro simply has to become a more reliable outside shooter. He made just 29.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season, the third-worst mark among the 141 players with at least 150 attempts last season. If he can’t nudge his percentages at least up into the low 30s, it’s going to be really hard for him to play meaningful minutes on any truly competitive iteration of this team.
The other piece of the puzzle is figuring out more opportunities for Okoro to work as a secondary creator. In a pre-draft scouting report here at The Step Back, Trevor Magnotti identified passing and driving as key areas where Okoro should be able to contribute at the next level:
This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily — Okoro is incredibly decisive attacking the basket out of spot-ups, and his ability to dissect a defense in advantage situations is what makes Draymond Green such a threatening offensive weapon.
For one, Okoro is an elite finisher, converting 76.6 percent at the rim this season. His touch and ability to extend over the top with length makes him a useful pick-and-roll option, and he has the strength to draw and power through contact, posting a solid 43.9 percent free throw rate. His handle has also made promising improvement this season, helping him turn his footwork into a weapon to clear space in a crowd.
But most importantly, Okoro’s passing in these situations is what could help him be a breakthrough offensive support player reminiscent of Green. Okoro has both good technique as a passer, executing simple reads with good passes to the shooting pocket.
In Cleveland’s offense last season, Okoro was just didn’t get a ton of these kinds of opportunities. He ran a fair amount of pick-and-roll with the ball in his hands but working as the primary ball-handler against a set defense doesn’t play to his current strengths. He’s too poor a shooter to create an advantage when defenders are comfortable simply sagging back into the paint and giving him space. But using him as a screener instead of a ball-handler, something that almost never occurred last season, gives him a chance to receive the ball in the middle of the floor with a numbers advantage or a defense that’s already rotated. In that scenario, his driving, finishing and passing ability become much bigger weapons.
In theory, Okoro also has value driving out of spot-up opportunities, attacking closeouts and creating finishing or passing advantages that way. But because his outside shooting is so bad right now, he doesn’t get the kind of hard, aggressive closeouts that he can really exploit. That should hopefully change as his 3-point percentages improve.
Another way to get more out of Okoro would be to simply speed up the pace. He’s fantastic in the open court and his lack of shooting becomes less of an issue when the defense is scrambling to match up, giving him additional opportunities to get himself to the basket or find an open teammate. However, the Cavaliers played at one of the slowest paces in the league last season with the second-longest average offensive possession length of any team.
The lingering question though is how much the Cavaliers are willing to sacrifice for Okoro’s development. Their frontcourt has only gotten more crowded after they traded for Lauri Markkanen and drafted Evan Mobley. Markkanen spends a fair bit of team on the perimeter but Mobley should be operating around the basket on offense a lot early on, as well incumbent center Jarrett Allen. And both Mobley and Allen are likely to cramp spacing a bit if they are off the ball but not involved in the action as a screener, which could cut into Okoro’s chances to experiment with that role. In addition, speeding up the pace significantly may not be worth it overall, if Cleveland is trying to leverage teams with their size.
This all gets much simpler if Okoro just comes into next season with a reworked jumpshot that opponents have to pay attention to. But if not, we can add identifying roles and goals for Isaac Okoro as one of many important, complicated problems the Cavs need to solve.
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