If you were to summarize Isaac Okoro's rookie campaign with the Cleveland Cavaliers in one word, the best way to describe it would be unprecedented. Off the top, Okoro spent most of his nights playing in arenas with virtual fans and crowd noise being pumped in due to COVID-19. But, when on the floor, he spent time defending the very best of the best including LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden and so many countless others.
More often than not, Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff would give Okoro the defensive assignment of the opposing team's best perimeter player. Granted, part of that was out of necessity due to the team's starting backcourt of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton being an absolute mess defensively so Okoro had to perform a ton of cleanup.
There's also that Okoro was legitimately great on defense for the Cavaliers last season and showed more often than not that Bickerstaff's faith in him was justified. When it was all said and done, Okoro averaged 9.6 points on 42.0% shooting to go along with 3.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.4 blocks per game for his rookie season. He also took home NBA All-Rookie Second Team honors, the most recent Cavalier to do so since Sexton.
Okoro's rookie season showed a good baseline of why Cleveland took him fifth-overall in the 2020 NBA Draft as well as tons of potential for him to continue growing. In fact, out of all the young players currently on the Cavaliers roster, Okoro shows the most promise overall. With Cleveland looking to compete for the play-in tournament next season, and hopefully the playoffs, they will need to have Okoro take a major step in his development in order to make that happen.
That's where things can get a little tricky when talking about what exactly that will look like for Okoro next season. Sure, Okoro was an absolute stud defensively his rookie season. But, in terms of perimeter shooting, he wasn't the greatest for a Cleveland squad that's already bad three-point shooting, connecting on 29.0% of his 3.2 attempts per game. That, and it's hard to truly gauge where Okoro's career is headed due to the fact we only have one year's worth of tangible statistics on him.
But, there are other players throughout NBA history that we can draw comparisons to based on what we know about Okoro. Those players are Gerald Wallace, Justise Winslow, Jimmy Butler and Andre Iguodala. Statistically speaking, Wallace's and Butler's sophomore season and Iguodala's and Winslow's rookie seasons best compare to Okoro right now. This group will provide insight into what Okoro's floor, ceiling and absolute apex could be long term. It also can give us an idea of what Okoro needs to improve on as well in order to surpass his baseline expectations going forward as well.
NBA journeyman Gerald Wallace could be the baseline for Cavaliers forward Isaac Okoro's career.
Speaking of Okoro's baseline, that's where Wallace and Winslow come into play. During the 2002-03 season, Wallace averaged 13.9 points on 49.2% shooting, 8.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes. Winslow, meanwhile, averaged 8.1 points on 42.2% shooting, 6.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.1 steals per 36 minutes during the 2015-16 season. Okoro's rookie season falls right in the sweet spot between Wallace and Winslow – where he averaged 10.7 points on 42.0% shooting, 3.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.0 steals per 36 minutes.
The other common thread between these three players is that none of them were impactful shooters on the perimeter. We already know Okoro connected on 29.0% of his attempts but for their careers, Wallace connected on 31.2% of his 1.6 attempts per game while Winslow has hit on 32.4% of his 2.3 attempts per game.
Knowing all this, if nothing really improves for Okoro he will likely be a solid roleplayer that will have stops with other teams in the league. His primary role will be to act as a lockdown option on the perimeter and a slashing wing that provides tertiary playmaking. That's what Wallace was throughout his career and that got him All-Defensive honors and an All-Star appearance. It's early to say if that's the case for Winslow but for the fifth-overall pick in a relatively mediocre draft class, that's not a bad outcome for Okoro's career.
But, that scenario also isn't the end all be all for Okoro's future prospects either. There's a solid foundation already in place here and it's safe to assume that Cleveland's player development staff, one of the best in the NBA, will help Okoro finetune his shot so he can become more of a perimeter threat. Ditto for his playmaking as well, which is something they already have explored during this year's Las Vegas Summer League.
If things continue to trend upward, and all signs point to that happening, Okoro has a very good chance of hitting his apex as a player that's a hybrid between Iguodala and Butler. To be clear, Okoro won't be a carbon copy of either of those players where All-Star appearances, All-Defensive honors and NBA championships are the norm. But, it certainly feels possible based on the theoretical trajectory of Okoro's career that he could approach that sort of status one day.
If he does hit that apex, Okoro will still likely not be the greatest three-point shooter but won't be a total liability on the perimeter either. The more important development is that Okoro should be able to become a steady playmaking threat for Cleveland, much like Butler and Iguodala have in their respective careers. That ability for Okoro to act as a primary creator to compliment Darius Garland (more on him next week) would be a huge boost for the Cavaliers and finally satiate the seemingly unending hunger for playmaking on this roster.
This is, of course, entirely hypothetical though. Although it should be worth mentioning again that it's also hard to totally pin what Okoro will become just based on his rookie season, we have a good scope of what he is and what he should become based on players similar to him. Okoro is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most intriguing player on Cleveland's roster other than Evan Mobley because of his unlimited potential. But, it'll take time, from both Okoro and Cleveland's coaching staff, to properly develop him so that he can reach a Butler or Iguodala-like apex. It helps that with an existing floor similar to Wallace and Winslow, it's also a good place for Okoro to launch his sophomore season.