Isaac Okoro is going to be fun. What he is on offense won’t be clear until he gets several games under his belt, but he profiles as something the Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t really had. He’s 6’6” with a 6’8.5” wingspan, an almost 8’5” standing reach and weighs in at 225 pounds. Okoro’s size, and potential to defend all over the floor, makes him the type of prospect Cleveland hasn’t ever had.
What last season was like
In his one season at Auburn, Okoro had a season that profiles very similarly to a lot of good NBA players. (Names on that list include Justise Winslow, Keldon Johnson, P.J. Washington and, gulp, Kawhi Leonard.)
Overall, what makes Okoro an interesting prospect popped at Auburn. He defended at a high level, showed off his strength and skill and started to showcase a little bit of playmaking. His high block percentage (3%, 23rd in the nation), eFG% (50.8%, 20th in the nation) and steal rate (2.1% against Tier A teams, per KenPom) indicate that he’s a good play. His steal rate isn’t so high that’s it’s an indicator of future stardom like it’s been for some, but it’s a sign that he was doing well at that level.
What his role could look like
The first question about Okoro’s role is simple: Will he start or not? Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has made it clear that Okoro will have to earn that spot and he’ll certainly have chances in preseason games and in practices that only the team will see the extent of.
Secondly, it’ll be interesting to see how the Cavs deploy Okoro. Will they throw him to the deep right away and give him the assignments that teams give their best defenders: James Harden, LeBron James, Luka Doncic, etc. Even if it’s when he enters the game (assuming he comes off the bench), the Cavs giving him that assignment would say a lot. Otherwise, they might bring him along more slowly.
Offensively, Okoro is going to have to prove to NBA defenses that he can stick open three-pointers. Until he does that, his offensive ceiling is limited. Whereas he might given a lot of responsibility on defense, Okoro is probably going to get brought along slowly on offense. Expect a lot of cutting and spot-up shooting from Okoro as he acclimates to the league. From there, he can be asked to do more.
Key stat to watch
Per KenPom, Okoro 28.6% on three-pointers at Auburn. He only took 70 shots, so that’s not exactly a huge sample size. Still, three-point shooting is the biggest question mark about Okoro’s game.
Regardless, Okoro also shot 67.4% on free throws. Models done by actual smart people indicate that free throw shooting is highly predictive of three-point shooting at the NBA level. Okoro’s percentage is below the number of players who became good three-point shooters at the NBA level. So, for his rookie year, it’ll be interesting to see how he shoot free throws as a rookie. Even if he doesn’t shoot three-pointers at a high level as a rookie, a higher free throw percentage would offer some hope that he’s going to improve over time.
Of note: The Cavs do believe that they can improve shots. They’ve had success in the past, most notably with Collin Sexton. Now, Sexton is a really good shooter whose next step is making pull-up three-pointers to keep the defense honest. But when he came into the league, he was uncomfortable taking three-pointers and dribbled into long two-pointers at times.
Okoro, though, is going to require more work. At Alabama, Sexton shot 33.6% on three-pointers and 77.8% at the free throw line. That’s a much better starting place vs. where Okoro is starting from.
The prediction for Okoro is two-fold. First, he’ll be starting at small forward by the end of the year. Secondly, he’ll cement himself as either the Cavs’ best or second-best perimeter defender by the end of the season.