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Isaac Okoro’s struggles have paved the way for his recent success

Okoro’s a key piece for Cleveland with how he’s been playing of late.

Chicago Bulls v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ biggest roster question is small forward. That’s with the Cavs having picked Isaac Okoro fifth overall in 2020 and hoping he’d solidify that spot.

Isaac Okoro scouting report when drafted was pretty cut and dry in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer summarized Okoro perfectly pre-draft: “Superb defender with a perfect skill set for the modern positionless game but needs to improve his jumper to have more value on offense.”. This remained the case for about 2.5 years of Okoro’s career.

He’s shown flashes over his career, but nothing proved to be sustainable. At times, it seem the Cavaliers had accepted the fact that Isaac was never going to become a true starting three. This idea seemed cemented by the fact he was played out of a pivotal Brooklyn play-in game due to defenses seemingly viewing him as a non-factor almost daring him to shoot.

The trend seemed to be continuing into this upcoming season with Caris LeVert named the starting three after the departure of Lauri Markkanen. This signaled that the Cavs’ brass did have a preference of offensive pressure with LeVert over the elite defensive value that Isaac brings to the table. With two non-shooters in Allen and Mobley, having a third could have had the potential to create a log jam of sorts.

Fast forward to more than halfway through the season and the Cavaliers now have inserted Okoro in the starting lineup and instead LeVert resides in the primary sixth man role. While this is in part due to the lack of scoring punch off the bench this year, it is equally in part to Okoro’s strides offensively as well.

The three-point shot which has alluded Okoro’s game though his first two seasons is trending towards a tried and true strength of his game this season. Okoro’s shot map is not hard to interpret where a bulk if not all his shot volume comes from. Currently in the 2022-2023 season a majority of the shots come from the paint (46%) and corner threes (37%). Both of which have decent efficacy as well — he’s up to 67% in the paint and 37% on corner three-pointers.

Where things truly get interesting with Isaac is when you delve into the shooting stats from the three-point line. Isaac’s three-point stats looked eerily similar to last season when you delve into the numbers before the new calendar year. As of Jan. 1, Okoro is converting on 46% of his threes on roughly three attempts per game. This according to cleaning the glass places him in the 86th percentile in the league.

Where Okoro thrives offensively is in transition. Okoro ranks in the 90th percentile in transition points per possession. The Cavs who currently rank as the best team in this regard as well. The Cavaliers being the number one ranked defense in the NBA would create many face break opportunities on a night to night basis. He’s always the one to sprint along the base line and create a passing lane for a ferocious jam. Okoro’s athleticism has always been one his main attributes as a basketball player and it always showed defensively. But it’s now helping him on offense.

It was never an issue with Okoro to be a good option to attack the glass but, he never had the ability to generate gravity to pull defenders out from the paint to try and challenge a potential three. Now, we are seeing defenses bite on closeouts which Isaac can use his strength to blow past defenders and attack the rim. Another feature that is unlocked from the three-point threat has been Isaac’s underrated vision has been able to be displayed. It doesn’t show statistically as he is averaging 1.1 assists per game, but, he does have a knack for generating the pass that leads to an assist ala the hockey assist.

It is nice to see that Isaac has grown this season as many (including myself) have voiced their concern that he was simply never going to generate the shot necessary to be on the floor in big moments. While it is not the Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard level jump many people were praying for, Okoro has still shown signs of growth both in his shot and his confidence.

The Cavs’ are going to need players to make perimeter shots outside of Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell if they want to beat the upper crust of the Eastern Conference. If Okoro makes the leap into a viable three-and-d player, than the Cavaliers have a solid chance of making a playoff run.