It may not be the NBA version we’re all craving, but basketball is finally back. The first round of the FIBA World Cup is almost wrapped up, with a multitude of the NBA’s best internationals making waves for their country.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins followed the trend of skipping international duty to prepare for their upcoming season with the Timberwolves, leaving Nigeria’s Josh Okogie as the lone participant out of Minnesota.
His D’Tigers were victorious in just one of their three games in a group that included Argentina, Russia, and Korea — falling short of advancing to the next round. They were just pipped by Russia to open their campaign and struggled to get going against South American powerhouses Argentina, but regained some respect with a 42-point hammering of Korea to finish off their tournament.
Even among his team’s struggles, Okogie has been a shining light for the squad. In just 22.7 minutes per game, the 21-year-old averaged 14 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.3 blocks. Perhaps even more encouraging for Wolves fans, he did his work efficiently, knocking down 12/26 (46.5%) field goals and 8/15 (53.3%) from behind the FIBA 3-point line.
It was an admittedly small sample size and the international game has many tangible differences to NBA basketball, but there were certainly some things to take away from Okogie’s performance.
As usual, his defensive output was top-notch. I mean, they don’t call him Non-Stop for no reason. No matter what the score or how long is left, Okogie is a bundle of energy whose technique is quickly starting to catch up to his enthusiasm.
Athleticism is one of the biggest chasms between FIBA and NBA hoops, and Okogie’s ability to move laterally and chase his man off their spots stood out in all three games. He was clearly a level above most of his opponents athletically and made the most of that gap every opportunity he got.
You can see it on display below, as his quick side-to-side movement and hounding attitude completely clamp Argentina guard Facundo Campazzo, resulting in the steal and breakaway bucket.
As we’ve come to expect with the zestful defender, Okogie was prone to some highlight swats. None more brutal than this obliteration of former NBA veteran Luis Scola.
Making a splash defensively has been Okogie’s hallmark in his short NBA career thus far, but he’s yet to have the same sort of impact on the offensive end. For all his hype and potential, his debut season was nothing short of a train wreck on the ball. His shooting percentages were disastrous from the field (38.6%) and from the 3-point line (27.9%), he struggled with the increased pace at the highest level, and he often seemed out of control when dribbling and attacking the rim.
It’s not quite the same level of competition he will be facing when he suits up for his sophomore season in the Twin Cities, but Non-Stop has looked increasingly comfortable in his World Cup debut.
We all know he has an unflappable motor, but knowing when to go all out and when to stay under control has been a bugaboo for him. In his small Nigerian sampling, he looks like he has ironed out some of those creases.
It wasn’t uncommon to see him burst out in transition like a gazelle running from a hungry lion, only to lose control of his dribble or barrel into a rim-protector and force up a wild shot. In the two examples below, that wasn’t the case. First, he weaves through multiple defenders in a broken floor situation and finishes with composure, then he uses a tighter handle to beat his defender in the backcourt and dishes off a pinpoint dime, instead of steaming into the paint and trying to score himself.
If Okogie can add that same kind of tranquility to his game for the upcoming NBA calendar, it will be huge for the Timberwolves. They desperately need self-creators on the court to help Karl-Anthony Towns carry the scoring burden. Nobody expects Okogie to vault himself into the elite category of ball-handling wings, but minor improvements will be very much welcomed from the fan base and coaching staff.
While the game slowing down for him would be an invited bonus for Okogie, nothing would be more important than refining his outside jumper. Minnesota lost 3-point splashers like Anthony Tolliver and Dario Saric this summer, replacing them with guys like Jarrett Culver, Jake Layman, Jordan Bell, and Noah Vonleh. While those incoming players have well-rounded games that should mesh well, none of them are proven shooters.
In a league that sees good shooting teams succeed, it’s vital Minnesota see some internal development from their returning players. Slated to play heavy rotation minutes in either wing position, Josh Okogie’s shooting uptick might be the most pivotal. If his China run was anything to go by, he looks to have made some lengthy strides.
Shooting upward of 50 percent is an unattainable figure over an 82-game season, so don’t expect anywhere near his FIBA numbers, but there are still some things to take away from his hot-shooting tourney.
Plays like this are exciting. He uses the pump-fake to get his man off-kilter and jets off his quick first step, before stepping back and nailing the triple. Keep an eye on his immaculate footwork and shot preparation after the step-back, that’s a great sign for someone who struggled with those things last season.
If his role from last season is replicated, it’s more likely he will be doing a lot of catch-and-shoot work. Of the 60 long-range shots Okogie made last season, 95 percent of them were assisted. That’s why being able to come off screens, get shot-ready quickly, and knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers like this is such an exciting revelation.
It’s easy to get excited about Okogie’s future. If he can string together the flashes he shows offensively and marry them with the unrelenting defensive pressure he provides, he is going to stick in this league for a long time. Gaining experience in international hoops and spending the majority of the summer in Minnesota working his tail off will go a long way to making that dream a reality.
There is obviously still plenty of work to do, but he’s one of the most intriguing pieces heading into the 2019-20 season.