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What Phoenix Suns can expect from defensive daredevil Josh Okogie

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
July 27, 2023

It remains to be seen who will be the Phoenix Suns’ fifth starter on opening night next season, and it’ll be an even longer wait to find out who the fifth starter is come playoff time. The answer might be the same, but given what the Suns have in Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, it could very well fluctuate.

Last season, Okogie became the fifth starter after the Kevin Durant trade. Phoenix went 8-0 in those games with a healthy KD, but in the playoffs, their lack of continuity became an issue. More glaring, however, was the Suns’ inability to make opponents pay for overloading their defense toward Durant and Devin Booker.

James Jones’ stellar offseason reflected his focus on addressing those areas of need, with many of Phoenix’s free agents being scattered to the wind. Josh Okogie, however, was one of two free agents the Suns retained, re-signing on a two-year contract (with a second-year player option) using his non-Bird rights.

At NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, Okogie told PHNX Sports how excited he was to return to the Valley.

“For me, in free agency, I was kind of looking more long-sighted in terms of a team that I can grow with,” he said. “And I felt like there was no better place for me than Phoenix, and it really made it that much easier to know that they were as excited in me as I was in them. We just wanted to foster a relationship going forward in my career.”

When the deal became official, Jones echoed those feelings in his statement:

“Josh plays with relentless energy. His grit, intensity and athleticism are vital to the success of our team. He consistently makes winning plays on both ends of the floor. He is truly unique.”

Jones’ words weren’t just lip service either. In an interview with AZ Central‘s Duane Rankin, the Suns GM doubled down on Okogie’s importance, saying he had a “tremendous impact on our team last year in a specific role that we think can grow.”

That aforementioned role was being a defensive pest at the point of attack for the starting unit. As it so happens, the Suns still need a fifth starter to complement their core four, and their need for someone who can defend opposing point guards is arguably just as high now that Devin Booker and Bradley Beal are taking over in the backcourt.

The question is, what can the Suns expect from Okogie in Year 2? And can he fill that fifth starting role better than the incoming Keita Bates-Diop? Just like we did with KBD, Eric Gordon, Bol Bol, Jordan Goodwin and Toumani Camara, it’s time to take a look at expectations for Josh Okogie next season.

Josh Okogie brings vital point-of-attack defense

Booker has drastically improved as a defender over the last few years, and Beal playing on a contender again should revitalize his focus on that end. Having a defensive-minded coach like Frank Vogel won’t hurt either.

But in order for the Suns to be firing on all cylinders offensively, they probably won’t want to task Booker or Beal with defending opponents’ best guard — especially when it’s guys like Stephen Curry, Ja Morant or De’Aaron Fox. This is where Phoenix’s need for a defensive stalwart at the point of attack comes in.

A majority of the Suns fanbase seems to think that responsibility to will go to the new arrival, Bates-Diop. But as we covered earlier this week, for all his defensive versatility, KBD is relatively unproven when it comes to guarding opposing point guards. San Antonio Spurs writer Tom Petrini shied away from the possibility of sticking Bates-Diop on opposing point guards, mentioning that positions 2-4 were more in his wheelhouse.

That’s not to say that KBD won’t get a chance to prove himself in training camp, or that the Suns will start Okogie anyway. But offensive firepower won’t be a problem for a starting lineup with Booker, Beal, Kevin Durant and Deandre Ayton. The question is whether they’ll be able to defend at a high enough level to win a title, and there’s no doubt about Okogie’s contributions in that regard.

When he started wearing a face mask to protect a broken nose, Okogie became the Phantom of the Footprint Center. But he just as easily could’ve been known as the Phantom Menace for the defensive havoc he wreaked on a nightly basis. Okogie was a nightmare on and off the ball, using his athleticism, lightning-quick hands, brute strength and pure defensive instincts to straight-up bully opponents.

Just watch how he sticks with these leading ball-handlers before making a play on the ball, either poking it away, swatting the shot or at least contesting to force a miss. Okogie tailed opponents like he was Peter Pan’s shadow, only if that shadow were even more of an asshole about it:

The numbers back the tape up. According to The BBall Index, Okogie checked out as an elite ball hound. He ranked in the 99th percentile in on-ball perimeter defense, 98th percentile in ball-screen navigation, 97th percentile in off-ball chaser defense, and 91st percentile in both deflections and steals per 75 possessions.

Unlike KBD, Okogie spent the majority of his time on point guards (77th percentile), primary ball-handlers (77th percentile) and shot creators (79th percentile). That makes him a great theoretical fit with Phoenix’s starting five, and Vogel will surely give him a look given what he can do defensively.

“I’ve had a couple of conversations with coach,” Okogie said. “He’s excited, I’m excited. I think we’re on the same page when it comes to how fired up we are about defense. So I ain’t gonna lie, I’m ready to get things going.”

Whether he was on the ball (79th percentile in pickpocket rating) or on the weak-side (89th percentile in passing lane defense), Okogie routinely made plays to force turnovers. But he was also a sneaky-good rim deterrent, holding opponents to 3.6 percent worse shooting at the rim than they’d normally shoot.

Okogie used superb timing, astonishing leaping ability and his 7-foot wingspan to challenge opponents at the peak. He ranked in the NBA’s 93rd percentile for rim points saved per 75 possessions and contested a surprising number of shots there. Between that and his ability to stick with ball-handlers before rising up for blocks on jumpers, Okogie built quite a highlight reel of jaw-dropping stops:

In the playoffs, Okogie was borderline amoebic…in the first round, at least. According to, he smothered Norman Powell, holding him to just 7 points on 1-of-8 shooting in 16 minutes when Okogie guarded him. The same was true for Russell Westbrook, who managed just 2 points on 1-of-6 shooting in 6 minutes against Okogie.

But in the second round, switching back from Torrey Craig to Okogie in the starting lineup didn’t pay dividends. Whether it was Okogie’s lack of rhythm from being demoted in the first round or just Jamal Murray simply being too good, Okogie struggled to contain the Denver Nuggets guard. Murray scored 24 points on 11-of-20 shooting in just under 18 minutes against Okogie, adding 7 assists as well.

NBA’s defensive matchup data isn’t perfect, but it was clear he was unable to stifle Murray’s flurries. The Suns held Murray to his least efficient playoff series during Denver’s championship run, but Okogie’s defense wasn’t good enough to keep him on the floor…mostly because of his main deficiency on offense.

Can Josh Okogie make enough 3s?

Simply put, the Suns couldn’t trust Okogie offensively against Denver, especially when Murray kept scoring anyway. One of Phoenix’s biggest Achilles heels in the Nuggets series was their corner 3-point shooting, and Okogie was one of the worst offenders.

As a team, the Suns shot just 22.4 percent from the corners in that second-round matchup. Okogie went 0-for-6, and he shot just 2-for-14 from beyond the arc overall in the playoffs. He was playing spotty minutes, and one of those 14 attempts was a last-second heave from mid-court before the end of a quarter, but those results didn’t inspire a ton of confidence.

What’s worse is how little LA and Denver cared about his open 3s as the series progressed. He just couldn’t knock down the wide-open, uncontested looks the Nuggets were more than willing to concede:

It wasn’t just some shooting slump either. Okogie is a career 29.1 percent shooter from long range and had never shot better than 30 percent from deep in a season until last year. In his first Suns campaign, Okogie made a career-best 33.5 percent of his triples, but it was a fairly low bar to clear in order to set that new career high.

Okogie is aware of that and has been working hard on that area of his game this offseason.

“Just looking back, that was probably my best year shooting the 3-ball, and I just want to keep getting better,” Okogie said. “I want to be better at that. I didn’t start off this season doing well at all, in terms of the 3-point line. I’m working hard on it now, but if I can have how I played in the latter part of the season, play that [way] in the beginning and kind of sustain that throughout, I think that I’m gonna be good.”

Okogie has a point about not starting the year off well. For the first two-and-a-half months, he was awful on a limited number of attempts. As he got more opportunities in January and February, he suddenly looked like a knockdown 3 point shooter. But in March, April and the playoffs, he fell back down to earth:

  • October-December (32 games): 12-50 3P (24% on 1.6 attempts per game)
  • January-February (20 games): 28-66 3P (42.4% on 3.3 attempts per game)
  • March-April (20 games): 26-81 3P (32.1% on 4.1 attempts per game)

To stay on the floor come playoff time, Okogie will need to make more than 33.5 percent of his 3s, and he’ll need to do better than the 31.5 percent he shot from the corners. It’s the biggest question mark about his playoff viability as a starter or a bench player.

Rim pressure on multiple fronts

However, even if Okogie continues to struggle as a 3-point shooter, that’s not to say he’s unable to contribute offensively. Okogie only ranked in the 66th percentile in drives per 75 possessions, but that’s a decent mark for a guy with such a low usage rate.

The Suns routinely fell short when it came to putting pressure on the rim or getting to the free-throw line, but Okogie regularly helped in those categories. He ranked in the 90th percentile in the percentage of shots made at the rim that were unassisted, and he placed in the 92nd percentile in drive foul drawn rate.

Okogie was pretty good at moving the ball on drives too, making simple passes to cutting bigs or stationary shooters on the perimeter when the defense collapsed. He ranked in the 83rd percentile in drive assist rate, so whether he was attacking the rim himself or setting up teammates, that downhill mentality was a welcome fit.

Unfortunately, his efficiency among the trees remains an area for improvement. As we wrote about last year when looking at his Minnesota Timberwolves film, Okogie utilizes a slow-motion, drawn-out Euro-step to throw off defenders when he gets in the paint. It’s a very Kyle Anderson-esque move, relying on Okogie’s bowling ball strength to bulldoze a path to the rim.

When it works, he has enough room to finish. When it doesn’t, he forces up some tough, wild shots that struggle to find the mark. Okogie shot just 52.3 percent at the rim last season, ranking in the 28th percentile in that category. He also placed in the 24th percentile in rim shot quality and the 14th percentile in contact finish rate.

On the bright side, that’s not the only rim pressure Okogie provides. He and Torrey Craig were the Super Crash Bros. with how they attacked the offensive glass, and Okogie’s ability to generate extra possessions came up big in several close games.

Okogie is a madman on the offensive boards, ranking in the 82nd percentile in offensive rebounds per 75 possessions, the 80th percentile in put-backs per 75 possessions and the 99th percentile in offensive rebounding conversion skill. Even for those who aren’t high on advanced statistics and percentiles, Okogie’s poetry in motion on the O-boards paints a violent, beautiful picture:

It remains to be seen whether Okogie can do enough to secure the starting job. Keeping him in the starting five raises questions about his playoff viability if his shot doesn’t improve.

But for an 82-game regular-season grind, the Suns need someone to guard opposing point guards. Okogie can eat up those minutes, and even if he doesn’t wind up keeping the starting job come playoff time, starting him for the regular season might be preferable to trotting out bench lineups where he and Jordan Goodwin occupy the same role of “non-shooting, tenacious backcourt defender.”

The Suns’ roster featured more moving parts than almost anyone this summer, but every contender changed to some degree. In order to find the right equation and challenge those teams, Phoenix’s biggest lineup question may come down to whether Okogie’s shooting or KBD’s point-of-attack defense is good enough to win the starting job.

“Every team is gonna have to make adjustments,” Okogie said. “I think that we have the personnel that just wants to win, and I feel like we have a great mixture of talent but still unselfish guys who are willing to make things work and guys who are like me who are willing just to plug in the holes wherever they are.”

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