Isaac Okoro is entering the final year of his rookie contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers. How he performs this season could make or break his future with the franchise.
Name: Isaac Okoro
2022-23 stats: 76 games played, 21.7 minutes per game, 6.4 points per game, 2.5 rebounds per game, 1.1 assists per game, 49.4% field goal percentage
Urgency has been building for Okoro to become the 3-and-D wing that Cleveland so desperately needs next to the core. And while he has marginally improved each season, Okoro doesn’t appear to be quite there yet.
Thankfully, there will not be as much pressure on Okoro to be a floor-spacer this season. He will likely be replaced in the starting lineup by Max Strus, joining a bench unit that is complimented by capable shooters such as Georges Niang, Ty Jerome and Caris LeVert. This shift in the lineup could actually benefit Okoro but it could also be the first step toward ultimately being phased out of the Cavaliers’ long-term plans.
What Okoro needs to prove
The path forward for Okoro is fairly simple. There will always be a need for his talents as a point-of-attack defender. He was an integral piece of the Cavaliers’ top-ranked defense and it’s why Okoro started in more than half of their games last season despite his limitations on offense. This is his calling card. It’s what will keep Okoro in the rotation.
However, much of Okoro’s job is dependent on what he can bring to the floor offensively. This season, we will find out if Okoro is just a defensive specialist — or someone who is capable of being a dynamic two-way threat. This will determine if Okoro is a prominent member of the rotation or not.
The easiest way for Okoro to cement himself as a mainstay in the rotation is to make a leap as a shooter. This has always been the primary point of contention for Okoro and it will continue to hold him back until something changes. Perhaps, something has.
When playing as a starter, Okoro faced immense pressure to space the floor alongside two other non-shooters in the frontcourt. The onus was on Okoro to stand in the corner and provide shooting or risk being yanked out of the lineup. But now, with Strus as the expected starter, Okoro will no longer be in sink-or-swim territory every time he’s in the game.
Cleveland’s second unit will not need Okoro to be a three-point shooter as strongly as they did when he was sharing the floor with both Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Splitting Okoro’s minutes away from the two bigs should open the floor in a way that wasn’t possible before.
“You’re just clearing the paint for him (Okoro) to do his thing and be successful,” J.B. Bickerstaff told Spencer Davies of Sports Illustrated. “I think one of the underappreciated or undervalued things that Isaac does is he beats closeouts and makes the next right pass really well, so even when he gets to the paint, now you have Max or Georges or whoever on the back side. He does a really good job of finding those guys.”
This shift in Okoro’s role could pay dividends in the 2023-24 NBA season. Okoro is a strong finisher, converting 68.4% of his attempts in the paint. Allowing him to attack the basket rather than spotting up in the corner is something that will bring out any potential Okoro still has with the ball in his hands.
At 22, Okoro is younger than four players who were just drafted in the first round this summer. While his star teammates have accelerated Cleveland’s timeline, it seems many people forget Okoro has plenty of time to reach or even raise his developmental ceiling. The issue is how quickly the Cavaliers need Okoro to do so.
Becoming a traditional catch-and-shoot threat will not be enough for Okoro. He has to flesh out his entire offensive game, from ball-handling to moving without the ball. Growing as a cutter and turning into someone who is trusted enough to run actions as a ball-handler will all be key. A step forward in this department will almost be as impactful for Okoro as improving his three-point shot.
If there is one thing to watch for this season, it’s his overall confidence. Okoro needs to prove not only to the Cavaliers’ coaching staff — but to himself — that he is capable of accepting more offensive responsibilities. Things such as attacking closeouts, pushing the ball in transition or even shooting off of the dribble will show how much confidence Okoro is playing with.
Looming over all of this is the potential for Okoro to regress or stall completely in development. There’s a lot he needs to put together this season and further setbacks could mark the beginning of the end.
Okoro is entering the final year of his rookie contract, becoming a restricted free agent in 2024. Whether or not Cleveland doubles down on Okoro’s potential with an extension this summer will be determined by his success in the upcoming season.