The Whiteboard: Cavaliers should feel good about Isaac Okoro

Mandatory Credit: David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports /

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When the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Isaac Okoro with the fifth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, it felt like a good fit. Unfortunately, as is always the case for teams with a checkered past in the draft, this latest pick was also immediately put under the microscope.

Sure, Okoro was perhaps the best defender in the entire draft class, but would his offensive shortcomings make him unplayable? The scrutiny was understandable, given how one-sided most of Cleveland’s youngsters had proven over the years.

Three games into the preseason schedule is far too early for anyone to be doing victory laps, but the Cavs should feel pretty good about what they’ve seen out of their first-round rookie so far.

Let’s start with the obvious: The Cavaliers desperately needed defense, and Okoro will bring that in spades as he gets more comfortable. He’ll still be prone to making the typical rookie mistakes from time to time, but those are to be expected with the jump to the NBA bringing an entirely different speed to experience and new rotations to master.

Once he’s acclimated, Okoro’s ability to lock down multiple positions will be instrumental, especially playing alongside a porous backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Don’t forget, the Cavs posted the worst defensive rating in league history in 2018-19, and they were the worst, worst and second-worst defense in the NBA over the last three seasons.

So yeah, the defense alone makes him a great fit with this young group, especially if he earns that starting spot at the 3.

It’s the offensive end, however, that should have Cleveland feeling excited about this pick. Through three preseason games, the Auburn product is averaging 14.3 points and 2.3 assists a night while shooting 61.9 percent from the field and 62.5 percent from 3-point range. Both of those percentages lead the Cavs thus far.

To be fair, these are small sample sizes we’re dealing with. Aside from the fact that it’s only been three games (and preseason games at that), Okoro has only attempted 21 shots and eight 3-pointers in that span. Sure, he’s made 13 of those 21 shots and five of those eight triples, but that doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a sharpshooter. His eight turnovers compared to seven assists are worrisome, as are his shooting percentages of 28.6 percent from 3 and 67.2 percent from the free-throw line last season at Auburn.

With that being said, as much as preseason trends are not guaranteed to hold once the real action starts, that doesn’t mean they’re irrelevant either. What’s the point of even watching preseason basketball if it’s all meaningless? Sometimes, results in preseason or NBA Summer League do serve as indicators of what’s to come, and Okoro has shown far too much on the NBA court to be written off, even if the 3-point shooting doesn’t hold.

In his preseason debut against the Indiana Pacers, Okoro stepped up big for the Cavs late in a close game, scoring 16 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter — including the game-winning and-1 with 0.3 seconds left. It should also be noted that his stout defense and strong contest on T.J. McConnell’s fadeaway jumper is what set up the fast break for that game-winning bucket.

Okoro followed that up with 15 points in another win over the Pacers, and even in a loss to the New York Knicks Wednesday night, where his team lost by seven points and coughed up a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, he still finished as a plus-3 in the box score.

Even on a limited number of field-goal attempts to this point, Okoro is boosting his scoring output by getting to the foul line. Through three games, he’s attempted a team-high 16 free throws and made 12 of them (75 percent). His next-closest teammates have attempted 10. His strength and body control has been apparent on straight-line drives to the basket, and Okoro doesn’t shy away from contact, displaying the ability to finish around the rim.

Between his multi-positional defense, speed in transition, unexpected scoring, intelligent passing and ability to get to the free-throw line, Okoro is already proving he’s a jack-of-all-trades who can help these young Cavaliers in multiple ways. His awkward long-range release still looks like a fisherman shouting “Kobe!” while casting his line, but he’s a tough, versatile defender on one end and a dangerous transition threat on the other end, where he can either attack the rim or keep the ball moving in the half-court.

He’s living up to expectations on defense, surpassing them on defense and making sons out of Pacers on the court. It may only be preseason, and his offensive impact will likely regress a bit once the games start mattering, but even so, Cavaliers fans should feel very good about what they’re seeing from Isaac Okoro, a potential dark horse for Rookie of the Year.

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