For the past decade, Tech students have been subjected to losing records in ACC play, consistent bottom-five finishes in the conference, and a single “notable” program alumni in the NBA: Iman Shumpert, currently racking up some crazy DNP-Knee numbers on the Sacramento Kings’ bench.
This year started with promise and hope after Josh Pastner’s unexpected NIT Finals run in his inaugural season. Unfortunately, after four mid-major losses, three suspended players, two season-ending injuries and a sex scandal in a pear tree, it’s safe to say that the 2018 Jackets have put together yet another entry in their very own Series of Unfortunate Athletic Events.
The first few weeks of the season started off like any other. Upsets at the hands of the mighty Grambling State and Wright State were written off as classic Tech letdowns and miracle wins over Miami and Notre Dame were small injections of hope. However, it was the faithful few who managed to sit through a seven-game ACC losing streak that were rewarded with the best basketball talent Tech’s produced in a while — and that is not a reference to the play of a rejuvenated Ben Lammers, hobbled early in the year.
A key contributor to the 2016-17 squad’s surprise success was the play of then-freshman Josh Okogie. Okogie and senior forward Quinton Stephens were the only two players on the roster to not only play in every game, but also start every game of the season. He led the team in points per game, finishing No. 2 among ACC freshmen behind top ten pick Dennis Smith, Jr., and was named to the ACC-All Freshman team after leading Tech in scoring throughout their NIT run.
Okogie was pegged to be a key contributor in this year’s success, but his start was initially delayed thanks to alleged contact with controversial figure Ron Bell, so he did not touch the floor in uniform until the Florida A&M game. The long offseason proved to be nothing more than an extended break from business as usual, as Okogie hit the ground running with 19 points in his sophomore debut, racking up double-digit points against every non-UVA team he faced over the season.
While the per-40 minutes numbers show that Okogie had nearly identical measurables to his freshman season in the major statistical categories, the fact that his production levels stayed the same with more minutes and worse teammates shows that Okogie is a known quantity. The million dollar question is, will that be enough to make a career at the highest level of the sport?
Okogie is extremely athletic for his size with a high-motor defensive effort that shows in his steals per game numbers: No. 2 in the ACC this year and team leader on a squad that boasted three players in the top 20 (Okogie, Jose Alvarado and Ben Lammers.) His length and lateral speed fits perfectly in the 1-1-3 Olson defense Tech has run for the past few years, and the potential for a scoring outburst like the 29 points against Duke or 30 against Miami is always lurking just below the surface. On a good day, Okogie is reminiscent of Russell Westbrook’s MVP run: lots of drives to the basket, lots of trips to the line, lots of uncontested defensive rebounds, and lots of scoring.
The truth of the matter is that these days are not standard for Okogie. For every 10 for 23 shooting night, there’s a 5 for 16 effort. The 14.8 2-point attempts per game has a standard deviation of almost 5, and a 33 percent volume variance is generally not the level of consistency that a team expects from their first-round pick. His assist-to-turnover ratio is a ghastly 0.97, far below the “average” 2.50+ generally expected from any respectable guard in the NBA. And despite increasing his freshman 3-point attempt clip from 2.0 to 4.2, a .380 three-point percentage doesn’t scream “shooter” in an NBA where .363 from the extended line is average.
Perhaps the closest player comparison to Okogie in the current NBA is Eric Bledsoe. For years, Bledsoe was an athletic talent with a quick first step and decent jumper that was stuck as a focal piece on a bad team. This year in Milwaukee, Bledsoe hasn’t felt the pressure to carry the offense for a struggling assortment of veteran misfits and teenagers on the blatantly tanking Suns, and since the load has been lightened on him, the 28 year old swingman has posted career highs in field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage (an advanced metric) thanks to his shot flexibility.
In the same way, many of Okogie’s flaws are merely products of his environment. Once freshman Jose Alvarado went down for the season, Okogie assumed the role of primary ball handler and facilitator. While it may seem counterintuitive for his already low assist numbers to take another fall after the loss of the team’s leader in dimes, the harsh reality is that more often than not, the “best” play from a percentage standpoint for Okogie was to just take the shot himself. His penetration skills may not always end in the best finishes, but Okogie is a free throw generating machine, easily topping the ACC in attempts from the charity stripe in both his freshman and sophomore years.
It is unlikely that Okogie will be drafted on June 21, and as such, the team will get one more season to pair him with Alvarado and incoming recruit Michael DeVoe and make a run for the first Tech NCAA Tournament bid since 2010. Okogie’s declaration for the NBA Draft came with the stipulation that he would not be taking an agent, thus retaining NCAA eligibility for his junior year. This is exactly what he needs in preparation for the 2019 draft — a chance to go to the combine, get feedback on how to improve his game over the next year, and the knowledge that he will most likely end up a late first rounder a year from now.
That being said, if Okogie pulls off an amazing combine performance and is told by coaches that he’d likely be a first round pick in this year’s draft, then financially, his professional future is likely too bright for him to consider returning. There is a very real possibility that a general manager out there sees film of Tech’s first 1000-point sophomore in two decades and appreciates the requisite skill necessary to put up these numbers on quality ACC opponents. With his athleticism and production, anything is possible.