An item of note ahead of next month’s NBA Draft: The Knicks have spent a lot of time gathering information on Isaac Okoro.
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl told SNY in a phone interview that “they’ve been very inquisitive.”
“They’ve talked to strength coaches, trainers, assistant coaches – they’ve done their homework. And they’ve liked Isaac from the jump,” he said.
Okoro, a 6-6 forward, is seen as one of the top defenders in the draft. With the Knicks needing defenders, could Okoro and the Knicks be a match on draft night?
Pearl doesn’t expect Okoro to be available at No. 8 for New York. In this instance, Pearl’s prediction doesn’t seem like a coach simply pumping up his player. It’s reasonable to think that Okoro will get taken in the top seven.
But if Okoro is available at eight, Pearl says “they better gobble him up.”
Here’s a look at a few things Knicks fans should know about Okoro heading into the draft…
Okoro, 19, averaged 12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and two assists per game as a freshman. He was named to the SEC All-Defensive team, All-Freshman team and second team All-Conference.
Per NBA.com, he ranked in the 86th percentile in points per possession and in the 80th percentile in points per possession in transition.
As mentioned above, Okoro is known as one of the best defenders in the draft, and the numbers support that thought. Okoro allowed 0.48 points per one-on-one possessions, which is in the 90th percentile, according to NBA.com.
“He’s quick enough to keep point guards out of the paint – he can really move his feet. And if he has to get switched on to a center, he can chest him up,” Pearl said. “That’s rare. Sometimes, he reminded me of Andre Iguodala with the way he impacted games.”
Omar Cooper has known Okoro for years. He coached Okoro with his Georgia-based Athletes Of Tomorrow AAU program. Cooper now co-represents Okoro in a partnership with YMPAA’s Adie Von Gontard.
Cooper believes Okoro’s consistent focus on improvement will help him succeed at the next level.
“Every time we go into the gym to train, he’s using every minute to get better,” said Cooper, the owner and head of LifeStyle Sports Agency. “He’s so focused and calculated – like a baby taking his first two or three steps. He’s completely locked in on what he’s doing in that moment. He doesn’t get worried about the destination – he’s focused on every step.”
Cooper also notes that Okoro isn’t interested in the lifestyle perks that come with playing in the NBA (money, fame, etc).
“Two things matter to him outside of God: family and basketball,” said Cooper, the father of top 2020 guard Sharife Cooper. “He’s not interested in the spoils of life. He’s a guy that’s interested in working hard in the gym and helping others outside of the gym.”
Pearl noticed the same attributes during his time coaching Okoro.
“(Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau) would be the perfect coach for him because Isaac is going to be so coachable. He will come in on Day One and say, ‘what do you want me to do?’ There’s no pretense. He’s a rare kid. There are no distractions off of the court – he just wants to be a great teammate and he wants to win. Isaac will be no maintenance (in the NBA).”
FIT WITH THE KNICKS
ESPN NBA Draft analyst Mike Schmitz believes Cooper can be a good fit in New York.
“He has the toughness, unselfishness and versatility to play a role immediately on the wing. Should the Knicks elect to make RJ Barrett their primary ball handler and playmaker, pairing him with a defensive wing such as Okoro to hound point guards could make for a tough backcourt,” Schmitz wrote.
Schmitz writes that Okoro “was one of the most impactful defenders in the college game and has All-NBA potential thanks to his excellent lateral quickness, high intensity level and sound technique.”
He adds that Okoro has “plenty of room to grow offensively” but shows strong promise as a ball handler, passer and as a wing who can attack the rim.
Schmitz notes that there are concerns about Okoro’s perimeter shot. Okoro made 29 percent of his threes and 67 percent of his free throws.
Pearl acknowledges that Okoro has to improve his perimeter shooting to stand out in the NBA.
“That’s the only issue with Isaac – that’s it,” Pearl said. “He’s got the work ethic (to improve his shot) and he’s made so much progress. He was such a dominant downhill player for the first 18 years of his life it was like he didn’t need to shoot it. Because he could just drive by you, score through contact, post you up… because he was a winner, he wanted to be productive and he never really had to develop that.
“The end of his high school career and obviously last year, with us, we forced it and I thought he did well. But you’ve got to do better than doing well to be a great pro.”
Pearl doesn’t sound concerned about Okoro’s outside shot. He cited Okoro’s winning pedigree (he went undefeated as a high school senior) and inner-drive (Okoro wasn’t named a McDonald’s All-American and knows the names of all of the players selected for the game several times during a recent phone interview).
“It bothers him. He goes to work every day to prove a lot of people wrong – to prove that they missed on him,” Pearl said.