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Timberwolves Film Room: Using Josh Okogie Right

It’s been a tough season for Okogie, but a shift in offensive role has seen him flourish recently.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Okogie’s game is like a temperamental flower — the one that needs just a little bit more attention to reach its full potential. Too much sun and it wilts under the heat, but not enough, and its growth is stagnated, drooping all the same. However, if you can find it the perfect living spot and strike the perfect balance, the bloom is well worth the bother.

Just like our hypothetical plant, the on-court version of Okogie is volatile. Defensively, it doesn’t take much motivation or instruction to wind him up and send him off to gnaw at the heels of opposition ball-handlers like a chattering teeth toy, but he has found settling into his niche much harder on the other side of the ball. By the end of Ryan Saunders’ tenure as head coach, the 22-year-old’s unreliable shooting and overall offensive woes had him playing under 10 minutes a night.

But with Chris Finch’s hire came new life for the ever-energetic wing. And as the pair have gained chemistry, understanding and trust with each other, Okogie has started to slowly turn his offense around. In the past 15 games, Okogie’s true shooting percentage is 65.2 percent, second on the Timberwolves to only Ed Davis in that timeframe. In the 36 games he had featured in prior to this stretch, it had been a dismal 47.3 percent (12th worst on the team). All of this has come while shooting more shots from inside and outside the arc on a nightly basis.

Okogie’s uptick isn’t dumb luck. It isn’t something that was born out of familiarity in his previous role. It’s directly related to Finch instilling major changes into the way his defensive stopper is used within the Timberwolves’ offense.

Before Finch, Okogie was trusted to make shots he couldn’t from beyond the 3-point arc and allowed to torpedo the offense with dribble-drives from above the break that resulted in a turnover or clanked shot more often than not. Now, Okogie is being used in ways that allow him to harness and exert his chaotic nature without heaping too much ball-handling or shooting responsibility onto his shoulders.

One way to do that is to have Okogie play the role of the big man in pick-and-roll scenarios, like he does here. His presence is forgotten about with D’Angelo Russell being accompanied by Mike Conley and the hedging Rudy Gobert, while Karl-Anthony Towns is posted on the high block occupying Bojan Bogdanovic’s time. The shooting threat of Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels on the weak side of the floor forbids Royce O’Neale or Joe Ingles from committing early to tag the rolling Okogie and the result is an easy bucket at the rim.

When surrounded by a quartet of capable shooters, Okogie’s flower can wilt or prosper. It’s all about the actions he is dropped into that swing that pendulum. Previously, we had seen him rendered unplayable because of his inability to knock down open shots. And when there is one weak link, the entire offensive chain becomes easily broken.

Harken back to an early-season loss to the Golden State Warriors, where Okogie was trusted to shoot (and miss) wide open jumpers while Steve Kerr allowed Draymond Green to roam the floor and play free safety. Below you’ll see four straight offensive possessions squandered as Okogie tries to find his range, all the while Golden State is scoring at the other end and pushing the game out of the Wolves’ reach.

So, in order to squeeze as much juice out of Okogie’s defensive value as you can, the coaching staff must come up with more creative ways to ingrain him into the offensive scheme. They can’t allow themselves to be playing four on five on one side of the ball. Without a few summers to really finetune his screening technique, it’s tough to have Okogie run as a ball-screener on a play-by-play basis, so mixing in other looks is imperative.

In the same mold of the Golden State tactic, Brad Stevens and his Boston Celtics tried to stick Tristan Thompson on Okogie in the hope he could leave the Wolves wing and provide rotation help at the rim. But, through Finch’s creative play-calling, Okogie was able to dunk Thompson into the River Styx.

The set is the kind of quick-hitting decoy action that Finch has quickly become known for in Minnesota. The 51-year-old has had success on a number of out-of-bounds plays at the tail end of games with sleight of hand magic tricks that force the opposition into picking the wrong card and being punished with an easy score. This one is from live play, but it’s still as beautiful and just as effective.

In this version, we begin with Ricky Rubio dribbling up the floor to the left slot, with only a corner-dwelling Okogie joining him on that side of the floor. The action is all set up to be on the weak side, with Towns and McDaniels setting double pindown screens for Edwards as he lifts from the corner. The scoring potency in that quadrant of the floor is too menacing for Boston’s defenders to ignore, so all three end up fixated on their man with no inkling of the danger behind them. Okogie leverages his pace advantage on Thompson and bursts around him, leaving the big man one step behind and on somebody’s poster.

Without a consistent jumper and carrying the frying pan hands that prohibit him from keeping the ball on a string, Okogie is a delicate flower to tend to. He needs to be going toward the rim, preferably with speed and without having to take more than two dribbles. Thus far, Finch has succeeded in accomplishing that. According to Cleaning The Glass, Okogie is shooting 60 percent of his shots at the rim (90th percentile among forwards) in the last 15 games, up from 52 percent beforehand. And while he is taking around the same dribbles per touch (1.80 to 1.86), he is doing so in more efficient ways; usually as he steadies himself off a cut or on a transition runout.

Here is another set play that Finch has become fond of. This time, it’s less of a decoy — the first action really is for Towns to come off a baseline screen and free himself for an open corner triple — however, with the gravitational pull KAT’s shooting provides, miscommunication is common between scrambling defenders. That’s where the counteraction kicks in, as Okogie slips his screen and nestles into a comfortable space under the rim for the easy deuce. Again, using Okogie as a rim roller pays dividends.

Of course, there is a more simple way for Okogie to get to his sweet spot inside the restricted area than complex plays or actions designed specifically for him: simple cuts in the flow of the offense. The idea has been that whenever Okogie is able to, he should flee from his standstill position behind the arc and provide a passing target as a cutter.

The second he sees his opponent turn their back and ball-watch, Okogie is diving to the rim with force. With that added incentive to get into the paint, the 22-year-old has seen his field goal percentage from inside the restricted area rise from 55.7 percent in the opening 36 games of the season to 64.9 percent in his last 15.

You’ll notice on a lot of these plays that Okogie is absorbing the contact and still finishing the layup, that’s one area of his offensive game where the 6-foot-4 wing is elite. Last season, 17.9 percent of Okogie’s shot attempts resulted in fouls, this season 16.2 percent have, which ranks in the 96th and 97th percentile respectively among non-bigs.

The other area that Okogie excels in compared to all players his size is his work on the offensive glass. He has registered 32 putback possessions this season, scoring 1.43 points per possession (93rd percentile leaguewide). Among players with at least 25 possessions, Memphis’ Kyle Anderson is the only non-big to score more stick-back points this campaign, per Synergy Sports. Finch has encouraged Okogie to crash the offensive boards, even if it means missing out on a transition opportunity here and there, and it has become an exceptionally efficient way for Okogie to generate points and bolster Minnesota’s offense.

Ideally, Okogie would always live at the rim, but in today’s NBA, that can’t be the case. With Edwards requiring lanes to use his bodybuilder physique to truck to the rim and Towns needing a spaced floor to operate on the block without being constantly crowded by defenders, Okogie needs to be able to occasionally set up camp behind the 3-point line without being a complete detriment to the team’s offense.

The best way to do that is to employ the “bumpers” mantra that Finch stated when he first arrived from the Toronto Raptors after the mid-season coaching change.

Instead of letting Okogie launch from deep from anywhere when he is inevitably given the green light by opposing defenses, his bumpers dictate that Okogie attempt more of his triples from the corner, where he is much more efficient. In the 15 game span we’ve been working around, Okogie is shooting 55.1 percent of his triples from the corner and making 53.3 percent of them, up from 35.3 percent frequency and 21.7 percent accuracy in the games before his recent run.

Okogie isn’t a good shooter, we know that, but that huge uptick in shooting percentage signifies his booming confidence of late. When the Nigerian Clamp God starts percolating around the rim, his entire game rides that wave of self-belief. And the only way for Okogie to percolate around the rim is to run actions to get him there — that’s how you use him correctly.

Josh Okogie’s game is like a temperamental flower. The one that needs just a little bit more attention to reach its full potential. Too much sun and it wilts under the heat, but not enough, and its growth is stagnated, drooping all the same. However, if you can find it the perfect living spot and strike the perfect balance, the bloom is well worth the bother.

Right now, thanks to Finch and his coaching cohorts, he is in full bloom.