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Josh Okogie is Part of the Solution, Not Part of the Problem

In order for the Wolves to take a step forward, Josh Okogie needs to be a building block, rather than on the trade block.

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

You can’t build culture without continuity.

From the moment he came into the league in 2018, Josh Okogie has been a constant in Minnesota as an energizing presence on the court and as a leader, both in the locker room and in the greater Minneapolis community. There’s a reason that Okogie, who was drafted by the Thibodeau regime - a crew that Wolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas has not been shy about criticizing - is the only player outside of Karl-Anthony Towns to survive the roster metamorphosis that has played out since the Rosas was hired on May 1, 2019.

On the court, coming out of Georgia Tech as a raw 19-year-old, Okogie was touted for his potential as a “3-and-D” role player who shot the ball extremely well in college (38.0 percent on 4.2 attempts per game in his sophomore season) and brought toughness and and energy on every defensive possession. Understandably, that combination was intriguing to a defensive-minded executive and coach like Thibs.

In his first two seasons in the NBA, he has struggled to find his footing on the offensive end of the floor, particularly from behind the arc. Through 136 games, the Lagos, Nigeria native has shot a meager 27.4 percent from downtown; last season, Okogie shot just 27.6 percent in unguarded catch-and-shoot situations, which entrenched him in the 13th percentile, among some of the league’s worst shooters.

However, there is reason to believe that Okogie’s shooting will improve in his third season. In August, Okogie spent a week working with one of the NBA’s most sought-after private trainers, Chris Matthews, a.k.a “Lethal Shooter.”

Matthews has played a large role in Anthony Davis’s development as a shooter, and works closely with fellow Lakers Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Dwight Howard.

Last month, Okogie showed off his retooled shot in a highlight video from an open gym run in Miami.

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While it’s not quite on the same level as the legendary Andrew Wiggins summer workout tapes, it is encouraging to see Okogie shoot with a smoother, more compact motion and let it fly with confidence both off the catch and off the dribble. The trigger is quicker and his shot motion overall looks more effortless than it was last season. Workout videos are better than nothing, but ultimately mean nothing unless it translates to live NBA action.

In addition to highlight videos, there is empirical backing to why I believe the heart and soul of the Wolves will take a step forward in 2020-21. Last season, among all players who logged at least 1,000 minutes (an average of 16.1 minutes over the roughly 62-game season), only 66 players took at least 80 percent of their shots either at the rim or from 3. Per PBP Stats, just 29 of those 66 players had an expected effective field goal percentage of at least 55 percent based on the shots they took.

For reference, here is what league average for expected eFG percentage (XeFG) and actual eFG percentage (eFG) are:

  • 2019-20 League-wide mean expected eFG percentage: 52.6 percent
  • 2019-20 League average eFG percentage: 52.9 percent

Perhaps surprisingly to some, Okogie was one of those 29 players. Okogie took 83.9 percent of his shots either at the rim or from 3, and registered an impressive XeFG of 55, which illustrates both his smart, analytics-friendly shot selection and the defense’s willingness to leave him open. Among those 29 players, Okogie had the second-largest difference (7.9 percent) between his XeFG and his actual eFG percentage, trailing only Terrance Ferguson.

Data from pbpstats.com | Table by @jrborman13 in GT

It is important to note two things here, as well:

1) Ferguson attempted less field goals than any of the 28 other players. Okogie’s 398 attempts was the median number of the group, which is a sizable sample.

2) Very few of these players are non-shooting guards or wings that defenses left open and, therefore, inflated their XeFG percentage. The median 3-point percentage in the group is 35.8 percent.

When you factor in his retooled shooting stroke and the statistical support for his 3-point percentage improving, it is easy to understand why Okogie is primed for a step forward from deep in year three. If he does become a better shooter this upcoming season, look for Okogie to also increase his frequency and effectiveness at the rim, too. The more shooting gravity he develops, the easier it will be for him to attack close-outs and (hopefully) use jab-steps off the catch to create open space for Okogie to get his own shot off. The young wing developed his game off the dribble in his sophomore season, which included an impressive arsenal of passes on the drive, under the basket, and after receiving a pass on a cut. Those elements of his game will continue to develop with time and work in the gym, and Okogie clearly is willing to put in the time.

On the defensive end of the floor, Okogie is the team’s premier stopper who has a proven track record of stepping up to the plate against some of the NBA’s offensive juggernauts (note these stats all come from www.bball-index.com).

The NBA is a superstar’s league, often driven by offensive studs on the perimeter. Whenever you have a player who is able to make life difficult, especially at just 22 years old (and with a ton of room to grow) on a contract that will pay him just over $7 million over the next two seasons, you do everything in your power to keep him around.

Marcus Smart is the heartbeat of the Boston Celtics. Lu Dort almost single-handedly turned the tide of the First Round of the Western Conference Playoffs for Oklahoma City with his defense on James Harden during Russell Westbrook’s absence. PJ Tucker is one of the NBA’s most important role players. OG Anunoby has become one of the brightest spots of Toronto’s perennially contending core. Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope played pivotal roles for the Lakers en route to their NBA Championship.

The common theme? All of these players are vocal leaders, possess never-ending energy and strong defensive acumen, and each of their teams suffer greatly without them in the lineup. Okogie brings the first three things to the floor every single night he laces ‘em up. The jury is still out on the latter, because he has missed just eight games in his young NBA career.

Minnesota Timberwolves v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Minnesota ranked 20th and 28th in defensive rating and points allowed per game, respectively last season, and allowed the fifth-most free-throw attempts in the league. If the Wolves want to improve on those marks moving forward - and tread water in the playoffs - it needs to balance out Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell with strong, athletic wings that are capable of switching up and down, defending without fouling on and off-ball, and communicating effectively at all times. Okogie is the only current Timberwolf capable of doing all of those things consistently, which has only enhanced his leadership role within the organization.

Over the past two off-seasons, arguably no one has been in the gym at Mayo Clinic Square more than Josh Okogie. His commitment to doing everything in his power to improve as a player, as well as his positive energy, are infectious. Once players were allowed back into the building in July, Okogie has been a constant. His work ethic and passion have permeated the organization and been a shining example for younger or less experienced players such as Jarred Vanderbilt, Jacob Evans III, Jordan McLaughlin, Naz Reid, and Jarrett Culver. From workouts at Bde Maka Ska, to team outings at Top Golf or on boat rides, to getting it in at Mayo Clinic Square, and everything in between, Okogie has been there for all of it, giving all of himself to the organization on a daily basis.

Perhaps where Okogie has grown the most since his arrival in Minnesota in 2018 is as a leader in the Greater Twin Cities community and beyond.

After George Floyd was tragically murdered in South Minneapolis on May 25, Okogie attended a press conference in downtown Minneapolis on May 31, standing alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, Jamie Foxx, former NBA player Stephen Jackson, and Black Lives Matter leaders.

Okogie was also a speaker at a massive, city-wide protest in the aftermath of the tragedy, which was organized by former Minneapolis South and Ohio State basketball star PJ Hill.

The 22-year-old volunteered at multiple team-sponsored food drives, providing food and supplies to those in need with Timberwolves Head Coach Ryan Saunders and Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph.

Later in the summer, after Breonna Taylor was murdered by the Louisville Police Department, Okogie traveled to Louisville, Kentucky - a community he had no prior ties to - with Jarred Vanderbilt and former Rockets assistant coach Irv Roland to volunteer in the community at events organized by Tamika Mallory, a prominent Black activist and founder of Until Freedom.

The fact that Vanderbilt traveled with Okogie speaks volumes about Okogie. His leadership in the weight room and at team programs over the summer helped forged a bond between him and Vanderbilt that they took off the floor into a community in need, some 700 miles beyond the doors of Mayo Clinic Square. That speaks volumes about who Josh Okogie is as a man, a leader, and a teammate.

As Gersson Rosas and Sachin Gupta begin to put their plans in action with shaping the Timberwolves roster, it is imperative they correctly view Josh Okogie as a solution to building a winning culture and to their defensive shortcomings, rather than a problem for an offense projected to be among the league’s best next season.

Beyond his on-court production, the Timberwolves franchise can ill afford to trade away its most vocal leader, on and off the floor.

Rosas has spoken repeatedly about the culture he wants to build in Minnesota. When asked about the opportunity for team-building during the Wolves Bubble Camp last month, Rosas said, “... it [the culture] doesn’t translate to winning, I know it’s something that’s hard to quantify, but the continuity that we’re building, the connection between staff and players and the environment, those things are really important to us.” (full quote here)

Rosas and company have flipped 10 players since they arrived in Minnesota 18 months ago, easily the most in the NBA. For an executive that publicly promotes building a culture through continuity, his actions simply do not align with his words on that front. While that is understandable from a roster-building perspective, moving forward, his actions need to begin aligning with his public statements if he wants his words to hold any weight with current Timberwolves, or prospective Wolves that he hopes to bring into the fold in the future.

You can’t build culture without continuity.

At 22, with two seasons under his belt, there’s a reason why Okogie is the second-longest tenured player on the Wolves roster. With no true veteran leadership outside of James Johnson and Jake Layman, Okogie’s on and off-court leadership is just as valuable as his on-court production. If the Timberwolves organization were smart, it would do everything in its power to empower its most crucial role player. If the team’s front office truly cares about building a winning culture, it shouldn’t trade away the player who has proven he will do whatever it takes - on and off the floor - to help it build a culture of winning, leadership, and engaging the local community, which has been absent in Minnesota since Kevin Garnett was traded in 2007.

Josh Okogie is way bigger than basketball. You won’t find many 22-year-old athletes willing to donate as much energy, time, and money to support causes and efforts they believe in as Okogie has since last season ended. You can talk about it, or you can be about it; Okogie is absolutely about it. Whether it is off the court, or on the court in practice or in a game, Josh Okogie is going to do whatever he can to make not only the Timberwolves organization, but also the community he now calls home, better than he found it, and the Wolves better do everything in their power to help Okogie make it happen.