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Cleveland Cavaliers notebook: Isaac Okoro and Darius Garland deserve hype

Plus some words on An

Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

This week in the notebook, as we get towards the end of the season: Isaac Okoro and his chances of making All-Rookie, Darius Garland’s improvement and the Anderson Varejao discourse.

Isaac Okoro’s All-Rookie hopes are tricky

There is not a direct numbers-based case for Isaac Okoro to make either of the All-Rookie teams. He’s 13th in points per game at 9 per game, shooting 42.5% from the field and under 30% from three. Okoro also rates out as a negative as rated by any catch-all metric you want to pick from: BPM, VORP, PER, etc.

The reality is that that probably hurts him. In talking to a few people around the league - a front office analytics person and scouts on a few teams - Okoro is on some shortlists, but not a look for first or second-team All-Rookie. For everyone I talked to, the offensive issues are just too much to overlook.

I get that. What Okoro turns into offensively will have a lot of impact on what kind of team the Cavs turn into in a few years. It’ll be hard to build with him as a core piece if he can’t improve his shot and tighten his handle. As the season winds down, it is good to see him getting some time running pick-and-roll and get live reps in that area. It’s something Okoro says he’s happy is happening.

“Me and J.B. talked, I think it was yesterday and we were just talking about putting me in more pick-and-rolls. I love that. That’s all I wanted all along,” Okoro said on Tuesday after Cavs-Suns.

Still, even considering all of the warts: Okoro deserves a real look for All-Rookie. The defense he’s playing as a rookie is simply outrageous for a 20-year-old. As Dan Devine detailed at The Ringer, and has been discussed a lot this year, Cleveland threw Okoro into the deep end and he’s doing well. Even if players are scoring on him, he’s often playing defense right — hand in the face, not fouling, not being baited by jab steps or pump fakes — and the shot making is just too good. That’s just life in the NBA defending elite scorers night after night. He also has a steal rate and block rate both around league average among wings as a rookie. That’s remarkable.

“What I am surprised by is at such a young age how he’s just never fazed. The moments just aren’t too big for him,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said earlier this week. “Tonight we asked him to be aggressive and help carry the load on the offensive end, then, ‘By the way, go guard Devin Booker and Chris Paul.’ And never once did he flinch, did he bat an eye, he just went out and competed”.

If you squint, you’ll also see some offensive success that indicates he’s not a total loss on that end. He’s becoming comfortable at using his strength and size on drives to get inside and often get fouled. Per Cleaning The Glass, Okoro gets fouled on 13.8% of his shot attempts — better than 90% of the NBA’s wings.

So will Okoro make All-Rookie? I doubt it. He’s got fair competition vs. the likes of Detroit’s Saddiq Bey, Chicago’s Patrick Williams and others on the wing. And that’s before you even dive into a glut of deserving guards who Okoro is competing against. This is somewhat quietly an interesting rookie class.

Still: He deserves a look and there’s a real case that he deserves one of the 10 spots. If I had a vote, he’d get one. His rookie season is more impressive than the box scores indicate.

Darius Garland should get Most Improved Player buzz

Speaking of awards, I also think Darius Garland should be on a list of Most Improved Player candidates. He is not going to win the award, nor does it seem likely he’ll get real buzz for a top-five finish. Knicks forward Julius Randle seems like a lock to win the award. Detroit’s Jerami Grant and Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. have stronger, more established cases than Garland too.

But Garland should be on the big list of options before it gets whittled down to the top-five or so candidates from 10 or 15 names. He’s made significant leaps across the board, but particularly as a playmaker and passer. There were fair concerns after his rookie season about what he is, but those have to be wiped away now based on how he’s played in year two. There are still warts he’s figuring out — he still relies on a floater too much and, ideally, he’d be more willing to take three-pointers. Garland still turns the ball over too much. His defense is still an issue, particularly when he’s defending the point of attack.

But overall, there’s very little to complain about. From year one to year two, he went from a VORP of -1.7 to .1. In BPM, he went from -5.6 to -1.6 — a massive leap in impact.

To me, it would not be a shock if he’s not a real contender for this award in the next few seasons, provided the Cavs have some level of success and he continues to grow.

Let’s talk about Andy

The discourse around Anderson Varejao is rout for reasons that are unclear to me. Some find it weird that the Cavs signed him at all. Others are happy to have him back to (likely) retire as a Cavalier.

The reality is that it’s probably somewhere in the middle. It’s oddly timed to be sure. It’s not as if they couldn’t have done this before earlier in the year or the two years that Varejao was out of the NBA after looking washed up in his stint with the Warriors. (It’d be good to get answers from upper management about this, but that’s a whole other can of worms.)

The signing also is relatively harmless and isn’t costing anyone meaningful minutes. Varejao is likely to come in, sell some jerseys and be a good vibe for the last few games. They could do worse things with the roster spot in a season that is winding down and heading towards a high draft pick.

So, ultimately, I don’t think this matters much. It’s a fun/random footnote at the end of a weird season. If issues stem from it in someone’s opinion, it’s like that those issues were already there. This was just the thing that made the issues be discussed now for whatever reason.