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NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Minnesota Timberwolves

Josh Okogie is Trending Upward

Things are starting to turn around for the sophomore Wolf.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It was a quiet All-Star weekend for the Minnesota Timberwolves. There was no Karl-Anthony Towns jamming and splashing triples in the main showcase. There was no Andrew Wiggins around to win the Rising Stars Challenge Most Valuable Player award. No Kevin Love to scrape past Kevin Durant in the 3-point Shootout. There wasn’t even a Zach LaVine to defy every law of gravity in the Slam Dunk Contest.

There was but one Wolf present in an event over the annual exhibits: Josh Okogie. The Nigerian national came off the bench for Team World in the Rising Stars Challenge, registering 5 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists and a steal in a tick over 16 minutes. After bursting onto the scene last year with his hustle and defensive acumen, the 20th pick in the 2018 draft has watched his star fizzle throughout a rough Timberwolves season. However, his inclusion in the game is a reminder that there is still plenty of youth and growth to burn in Okogie’s tank.

We all know he can act as Ryan Saunders’ point of attack defense hell hound, but lately, he has been showing more and more glimpses of his ability to contribute on the other end of the court. The 20-year-old has scored 10.5 points per game in his last 15 outings, compared to 7.8 a night in the 36 games prior. More importantly, he is hitting 46 percent of his field goals in that stretch, much more efficient than the ghoulish 38.7 percent he was connecting on beforehand. Unfortunately, his 3-point percentage has somehow missed the already low bar he had set (19.1%), but it remains an encouraging sign that he has been able to up his field goal percentage in spite of the consistent shooting woes.

One of the chief reasons Okogie has been able to survive without an iota of 3-point gravity is his incessant movement without the ball. While better shooters have a tendency to stay spotted-up and wait for the pass to come to them, Okogie rockets around during offensive sets, getting a head of steam toward the rim and seeking out the pass himself.

The play below personifies his role in the offense. As his other teammates stay stationary and wait for Karl-Anthony Towns to fight through a vicious double-team and rifle a pass to them, Okogie takes full advantage of a ball-watching Kyle Lowry. He jets around Lowry, into Towns’ line of sight and to the most efficient spot on the floor. With his defender clawing to make up for his mistake, Okogie embellishes the contact and draws the hoop and harm.

On the season, Okogie is shooting 62.5 percent and registering 1.35 points per possession on cuts. They’re not elite numbers, but they are good enough to rank him in the 64th percentile league-wide. Primarily, that has come in an offensive scheme and with personnel that has left a lot to be desired. With little to no shooting on the court so often, defenses have left the perimeter open and made a point of stopping cutters, making life exponentially harder for a slashing type like Okogie.

With the completely reshaped Timberwolves squad, things should become a little easier for Okogie. Players like Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez — both of whom are both shooting over 40 percent from deep in their short Timberwolves tenure — will do wonders for floor spacing and allow Okogie more room to cut. Add D’Angelo Russell and his ability to find cutters with pinpoint accuracy to the mix and voila, Okogie is in paradise.

His aforementioned ability to draw, sell and finish through contact is another way the sophomore increases his efficiency offensively. Even devoid of high-quality touch around the rim or on his jump shot in open play, he has a knack for getting his defender in the air before knocking down the circus shot. He has 12 ‘And 1’s’ for the season, which is second on the team behind Karl-Anthony Towns.

Here, he gives De’Andre Hunter the business. After awkwardly spinning in true Josh Okogie fashion, he executes the perfect pump fake and leans into the foul before hitting the off-kilter mid-range jumper. In situations like this, it seems his unpredictability and lack of control benefit him.

Even when he isn’t hitting shots after fouls, he is still Minnesota’s best foul-drawer. His free throw rate (48.4%) is by far the highest on the team and his 79.1 percent charity stripe conversion rate suggests his shooting stroke is better than he has displayed. He will never be a top-tier offensive talent unless he drastically improves his shooting and ball-handling abilities, but it’s important that he is finding other ways to impact the game.

On the other end of the floor, he has taken on even more responsibility with Robert Covington’s departure. He was always one of many options as a point-of-attack defender, but now he is the primary option on high-scoring guards while the coaching staff looks to hide Russell on a less damaging opponent. Okogie still needs to get better as an overall off-ball team defender, but he is a workhorse on the ball with an innate ability to stick out a hand and come away with the orange. Theoretically, he should be able to help Minnesota’s awful pick-and-roll defense more than he hurts it.

He pesters Devonte’ Graham along the baseline and stays on his hip all the way to the top of the arc in this clip, before yanking the ball away from him and setting up Beasley for the lob dunk.

He has always been quick on his feet and good with his mitts, but it’s the reps he gets facing first-rate offensive initiators that have his positioning and know-how trending in the right direction.

Unlike the last clip, this theft of Paul George is born purely out of one and a half seasons of exposure and observation. He jumps into position quickly but realizes that George’s change of direction will leave him on the back foot, so he throws out a hand, strips the ball and ends the play in a typical Okogie way.

On both ends of the floor, it’s obvious Okogie has a lot to master. However, with new teammates that enhance his game offensively and a role defensively that allows him to learn, grow and flourish on the job, he is in the perfect position to succeed. There will certainly be growing pains, but one of the few beauties of lost season is it allows for those mistakes without costing the team valuable wins.

Maybe one day he will begin to knock down shots and dribble without the frying pan hands in the future. But for now, he is making do with what he has in his tool belt and that should be reassuring for fans who had begun to lose hope in him.