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3 highlight plays embody how Josh Okogie has become legitimate X-factor for Suns

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
December 28, 2022

December hasn’t been kind to the Phoenix Suns, but amidst their 5-9 record and mounting injury woes, Josh Okogie sure has been. In fact, he’s been nothing short of an X-factor handily exceeding his contract value during one of the team’s most trying stretches of the season.

Landing in Phoenix on a veteran minimum deal, Okogie’s first brush with free agency after spending four seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves didn’t go as expected. But Chris Paul was happy to have him on the Suns, given their prior relationship through AAU Basketball, and from his point of view, it’s thrilling to watch someone he considers family earn his spot in the rotation.

“It’s so cool for me to see ’cause of that relationship, but to see how good he is, how good he’s playing and how hard he works,” Paul said. “I’m the guy that, when he was in Minnesota, I was like, ‘Why he ain’t playin’ more?’ So just to see the fight and the hunger that he has is cool.”

A personal relationship with Okogie isn’t necessary to appreciate the energy and effort he’s brought to this shorthanded squad, of course. Glancing at the stat sheet for the last month — 9.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.6 blocks per game on 44.9 percent shooting and 32.3 percent from 3 — doesn’t quite do the trick either.

That is, until one notices the Suns have been a team-high +74 in his minutes for the month of December.

The next-closest player (Bismack Biyombo) is a +36. Plus/minus can be a flawed stat, but in this case, the numbers match what the eye test and proper context suggest.

“It’s crazy, because I’ve been talking to Josh the whole season just telling him just be ready and when he get his opportunity, be confident,” Torrey Craig said. “Early on, he was kind of hesitant and you could tell he was thinking a little bit. Now he’s just playing free and he’s just being J-O, man. He’s been huge for us.”

It hasn’t been the smoothest transition, as Okogie struggled to carve out minutes early on. But games like Tuesday — when he filled in for an injured Landry Shamet with 12 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals and a block in Phoenix’s 125-108 win over the Memphis Grizzlies — prove he’s pushing past the adjustment process.

Over the Suns’ last few difficult weeks, the 24-year-old guard has been a continual bright spot, forcing coach Monty Williams to try and find him minutes. That’ll be a lot harder when Devin Booker, Cam Payne and Shamet are healthy, but at this point, Okogie is doing everything in his power to prove he’s worthy of the opportunity come playoff time.

“He’s unique in that we haven’t had a guy like him — his size, his athleticism that can play downhill but can go get you offensive rebounds and then go on the other end and guard some of the best players in the league,” Williams said. “So we’re just trying to figure that out within our system and not take away from what we do well, but we just feel like I need to do a better job of taking advantage of his skill-set.”

The question is, how has Josh Okogie been leaving his mark on the game in moderate minutes off the bench? Three of his best highlights of the season illustrate the best traits he’s brought to the table.

Highlight No. 1: The offensive board and 360 putback

In a blowout win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 19, Okogie had another one of those plays that got his teammates up off the bench in a hurry.

As if the leaning, awkwardly stretching offensive rebound over Patrick Beverley wasn’t enough, his double pump-fake followed by a spinning 360 layup had the crowd in an uproar and Cam Payne doing pirouettes on the bench.

“Honestly, man, I can’t explain that,” Okogie said with a slight smile. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know what I was trying to do, I’m just glad the ball went in.”

Having the presence of mind and balance to finish off that kind of offensive rebound with flair was not lost on anyone.

“We’ve been seeing this man on the O-glass for quite some games now, but the finishing? Yeah, that one caught me out of my seat,” Deandre Ayton said. “I didn’t know he was gonna do that. Usually I see people who do 360 layups, they have some momentum. He did it off verticality! I don’t know what type of bounce you got in your legs to do that.”

Everyone was rightly paying attention to the stylish finish, but the reason the play stuck in people’s minds was how it stemmed from another gritty hustle play. It’s what Okogie has been providing throughout his Suns tenure.

According to Cleaning The Glass, Okogie ranks in the 99th percentile at his position in offensive rebounding percentage on his team’s missed shots. The Bball Index also places him in the NBA’s 95th percentile in offensive rebounds per 75 possessions.

Over the last month, he’s led the Suns with 34 offensive boards, which is the 13th-most in the league over that span. In their Dec. 17 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, he snagged three clutch O-rebounds that helped Phoenix maintain composure and extend their lead in the final few minutes.

“Josh is just one of those guys that has a huge impact on the game on both ends,” Williams said afterward. “I thought the offensive rebounds he got were about as impressive as any play that happened tonight. He just kept going, and you could just see him spring off the ground and go above everybody to get it.”

All season long, the Suns have been more aggressive attacking the offensive glass. Williams, Booker and the rest of the team have cited how demoralizing it was in the 2021 NBA Finals to force a miss, watch the Milwaukee Bucks get an offensive rebound and earn easy second-chance points as a result.

Phoenix is trying to battle that weakness by crashing the boards, and Okogie is a perfect fit on that front. Whether it’s putting those misses back up and in himself, kicking it out to let the Suns’ ball movement find the open man, or simply buying his team more time, Okogie’s instincts, leaping ability and relentless mindset are leading the charge on the O-boards.

“He’s a worker, he’s not gonna give in,” Booker said. “Those plays hurt, them offensive rebounds.”

Highlight No. 2: The dagger drive-and-kick going downhill

Offensive rebounds weren’t the only clutch plays Okogie made in that aforementioned Pelicans win.

With just over a minute left in the game and the Suns up by 2 points, Booker was blitzed on a screen set by Okogie. Booker handled the double-team as masterfully as he’s done all season, finding Okogie on the short roll with a jumping bounce pass.

Okogie turned, engaged the help defender with a dribble, and then found Chris Paul open for 3. The Point God drilled his fifth triple of the night, and the Suns got a quality win over one of the top teams in the Western Conference.

Booker took care of the hard part, but the decision to use Okogie as the screener in the first place illustrated Williams’ intention to harness that downhill mentality.

“We’re trying,” Williams said. “We’re trying to figure out ways, as I said a few games ago, I have to figure out a better way to coach him and his skill-set.”

There’s not enough data with Okogie as the roll man yet to judge how effective he is there, but it’s a smart adjustment given how often he attacks the paint.

Okogie has never been a particularly efficient finisher around the basket, but he takes 43 percent of his shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass, which ranks in the 84th percentile at his position. He likes to use a change-of-pace Euro step when he gets into the lane, throwing opponents off by decelerating, bodying his defender with a shoulder that may as well be a stiff arm and getting a shot up after creating separation:

Not only is Okogie’s downhill mentality of breath of fresh air on a midrange-heavy team, but so is his willingness to embrace and seek out contact. According to Basketball-Reference, he’s second to only Bismack Biyombo in free-throw rate on the Suns roster, and that was before he attempted eight more free throws Tuesday night.

Okogie said he’s been wired to get to the foul line since he first started playing basketball.

“I’m a physical player and I seek contact and I feel like when I go to the hole, I feel like I have to get fouled,” he said. “So that’s just how I play.”

Sometimes that approach can result in wild misfires when defenders contest well enough to avoid the whistle, but Okogie can make opponents pay without finishing off the play himself.

His low assist numbers will never scream “playmaker,” but Okogie ranks in the 92nd percentile in drive assist rate. He’s gotten really comfortable feeding bigs in the paint when he drives, or locating 3-point shooters out on the perimeter. It’s the embodiment of the Suns’ “paint-to-great” philosophy, and it’s another reward of Okogie’s downhill mindset.

Those flashes have prompted Williams to try using Okogie as a screener more often, utilizing his physicality and ability to make secondary reads when attacking the basket.

“It’s cool,” Okogie said of being the roll man. “Any way that I can be effective on the court, I’m open to do it. And it’s fun.”

Highlight No. 3: The Jalen Green double-stuff

After spending four years playing alongside Stephen Curry on the Golden State Warriors, Damion Lee has seen his fair share of incredible plays. But even he was astounded by what Josh Okogie did to poor Jalen Green and the Houston Rockets two weeks ago.

“That’s one of the best plays I’ve ever seen in person,” Lee marveled. “Easily one of the top-three plays in NBA season so far.”

(You probably know the play already, but in case you forgot, or simply wanted to relive it:)

Okogie said his mindset was that the shot clock was winding down, so he anticipated Green’s jumper and snuffed it out. He’s not a believer in letting guys get off clean looks, even if they’re desperation heaves.

But that may have been selling himself short, and his teammates weren’t willing to do the same. Those dynamic, almost violent blocks deserve more credit than that, especially since so many of them have come on jump shots.

“We was talking about it the other day, you don’t see that too often in this league,” Craig said. “Most guys go for the block or the quick swipe-down, but he just like grabs, like cups it or something like that. But he makes amazing defensive plays.”

Mikal Bridges, who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year, said he’s been a fan of Okogie’s from afar since his rookie year. Watching him block James Harden’s step-back 3 at the apex was the first time Bridges confronted the idea that Okogie was capable of defensive plays that even he couldn’t make.

“I’m also jealous too,” Bridges joked. “I wish…like, I do it a little differently. His is just so forceful, man. It’s wild, but it’s real dope to see.”

Of course, that stuff on Green’s jumper and subsequent stuff on the other end wasn’t some flash in a pan; Okogie has been making lightning rod defensive reads all season long too.

After battling against Okogie as the Timberwolves’ primary defender for years, Paul joked with his longtime friend that it’s been nice to see he’s “finally gotten better on defense.” But even the 18-year veteran and future Hall-of-Famer is left awestruck by some of the plays he makes.

“It’s crazy what he be doing,” Paul said. “Seriously, I done played and seen a lot of basketball, but what he does is unique, and he does it almost like with a straight face. So he’s just a great guy to have on your team.”

He may spend the majority of his time on primary ball-handlers and shot creators, but Okogie’s versatility has been put to good use thanks to his burly physique and 7-foot wingspan. Against the Pelicans, for example, it was Okogie who drew the Zion Williamson assignment down the stretch.

“He’s making it tough on you every time,” Booker explained. “I had a short training camp with him, but he was doing the same thing with me in training camp, just making it tough, making it tough every day. So he’s that caliber player where he can go out there and slow down any top primary scorer in the league, and I truly believe that.”

The Jalen Green double-stuff might have included a highlight dunk on the other end, but Lee didn’t mince words about what makes Okogie a unique defender. For a guy who’s played alongside Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, Lee’s praise carries significant weight.

“It’s funny, almost all the guys I know that are really special, elite defenders, they all have an unorthodox way of playing defense,” Lee said. “The stuff that they do, you’re not technically teaching that in a camp, but it’s just instinct. And I feel like it’s just innate things. Josh, whether it’s a soccer background, whether it’s just his love for playing defense and guarding and getting stops, that stuff is huge for not only him, but for our team.”

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