2020 NBA Draft: Isaac Okoro Will Test How We Evaluate Position-less Prospects

In baseball, the term “five-tool player” gets thrown around to describe those who can hit, hit for power, run the bases, field well and throw well. In essence, they possess all the tools to be effective in every facet of the game.

In basketball, I’ve been developing a similarly versatile nomenclature for those skill sets that all elite players are great at: finishing, shooting from 3, passing, defending the perimeter and defending the interior. There are many other auxiliary skills like rebounding, creating your own shot and making free throws, but to be an all-around skilled player, those above tend to be the five categories we see most frequently.

Auburn Tigers freshman Isaac Okoro has three, and maybe four of these tools.

He’s a very strong finisher at the basket (64.2 percent). He’s an elite interior defender for his size and has shown some fantastic on-ball defense as well. There are flashes of him being a competent passer and playmaker, fusing self-awareness with vision.

But man, Okoro really struggles to shoot.

As a freshman at Auburn, he was 11-45 (24.4 percent) on catch-and-shoot opportunities in the half-court. He was 28.6 percent from 3-point range overall and a mundane 67.2 percent from the charity stripe.

Jan 18, 2020; Gainesville, Florida, USA; Auburn Tigers forward Isaac Okoro (23) makes a three point basket against the Florida Gators during the second half at Exactech Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this year, my TBW colleague Dan O’Brien wrote about Okoro’s defensive aptitude, calling him “one of the best defensive freshmen” he’s seen. I fully concur that Okoro is highly skilled in those areas and has enough success as a finisher and passer to be solid on offense.

But of the aforementioned five tools, the one Okoro lacks could be most important to his success.

A large part of the perimeter touch conversation revolves around where Okoro is slotted positionally. While I don’t believe in the traditional positional labels, he’ll nonetheless be a byproduct of the system he’s placed in and the players he surrounds.

As we go through his strengths and areas he needs to improve, we’ll sift through Okoro’s skills to see just where on offense he can be most successful, how that impacts his positional versatility and what that means for his draft stock.


Okoro’s appeal comes in how he defends, both on-ball and off-ball, as well as the physicality he plays with.

Sometimes he looks like a bull in a china shop, and the effectiveness of that is in the eye of the beholder: If you’re worried about the china, you don’t love that.

But if you have the imagination and ability to take the bull and put him in his natural environment, then you wind up with a bull.

Okoro is already an excellent one-on-one defender on the wings.

He moves his feet well while using his rugged frame to bump drivers without fouling. He possesses quick-twitch movement that allows him to cut off angles laterally while providing quicker recovery time than most. The 6’8″ wingspan doesn’t hurt matters, either.

Wings and guards in the SEC who tried to drive baseline on him quickly found themselves out of real estate, as he’d cut the ball off while funneling it to the short corners. I’m not sure if Okoro is quick enough to guard the quickest NBA point guards, but he should be in prime shape to lock down 2 through 4 in isolation situations.

Those positions tend to be most important for isolation defense, especially when it comes to postseason success.

We can harp on analytics and the 3-point shot all we want, but elite wing scorers like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Kevin Durant still operate in the mid-range through isolation situations. Their effectiveness in those areas not only bucks the analytics trends but mandates that an opponent combines strength, quickness and anticipation to match up with them.

Okoro has shown glimpses of those skills with how he defends the elbows.

Mar 7, 2020; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Volunteers guard Jordan Bowden (23) brings the ball up court against Auburn Tigers forward Isaac Okoro (23) during the first half at Thompson-Boling Arena. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

He’ll be strong enough that those guys would struggle to displace him with their back-to-the-basket moves. He’ll be quick enough to move his feet and contest their off-the-dribble arsenal.

Experience in switching at Auburn has increased his off-ball awareness and IQ, two traits someone of his size and aptitude needs. If he can work himself into the position where he’s rotating off-ball to save his teammates from those mismatches and negate them himself, Okoro will be an incredibly valuable player.

The strength and quickness are great, but Okoro is a very violent, choppy athlete. While he has some powerful slams and can rise up, he’s not the graceful, gliding leaper that many top stars are. Instead, he plays with a power and freight train-esque launch that is horrifyingly effective.

He does require a bit of a launching pad to unlock his vertical burst, but he’s an above-average athlete.

Offensively, Okoro’s best and most translatable skill is his finishing ability. But scoring at the basket can manifest itself in many different ways. For Okoro, I actually diverge from the common path and believe his best role isn’t as a face-up slasher but as a small big who stays in the corners, roams the baseline and spends most his time inside the arc.

A few reasons for that belief: Okoro is a tremendously gifted offensive rebounder. To take that skill away from him would be to handcuff his impact on the game and cage his high motor.

He’s got quick feet and is good at adjusting to finish around contests that come at the last second. Sticking him in the dunk box won’t negate that skill. There’s upside to using him as a screen-and-roll 4-man where he dives into the post, catches and finishes and can use some of his passing ability on the short roll.

Improvement Areas

No surprise here.

The chief focus for Okoro remains his outside shooting. If this improves, he’ll certainly be more functional than just a finisher on offense. He’ll be someone who can (somewhat) justify having the ball in his hands.

But there are flaws to playing through Okoro on the perimeter beyond his shot, which is why I hesitate to include his passing in one of his positive tools. He makes good reads, but he’s a high-risk, high-reward playmaker. For a guy who won’t go out there and get 15 points of his own, that’s a really scary thought and could remove the ball from his hands long-term.

The face-up scoring and getting to the rim at Auburn is one thing, but he’ll need to diversify his game and add consistency if he’s to be anything of a creator.

Okoro’s physical mechanics on his shot aren’t grotesque when alone in a gym. The release point is a smidge low, but he’s solidly fluid and has all parts of his body connected to the release.

The issues begin when he doesn’t have time to release his shot.

Synergy measures catch-and-shoot attempts in two categories: guarded (a defender within four feet on the attempt) and unguarded (no defender within that distance). When Okoro was guarded during his freshman season, Synergy measured him as going 1-for-14. Yup, that’s seven percent.

It’s not like this was a rare, small sample either: Almost one-third of his jumpers were unguarded. Only eight players in all of Division I were worse on that many attempts.

Depth perception and confidence to stick to his mechanics go out the window when he feels the defense rushing towards him. His follow-through goes off the rails, with his right hand pushing outward instead of flicking down. He skies shots and becomes a tad hitchy. He tends to thumb the ball a bit, which sends its accuracy off the mark.

For me, the true test of shooting acumen comes in examining a player’s misses. If they are slightly front or back rim, or rattle within the cylinder and go in-and-out frequently, it’s usually the sign of a good, consistent shooter. Missing left-to-right shows mechanical and aiming issues and is worrisome.

Okoro isn’t quite good enough as a driver and playmaker to be a spot-up-and-re-penetrate guy.

Feb 29, 2020; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Nick Richards (4) reaches for the ball against Auburn Tigers forward Isaac Okoro (23) in the second half at Rupp Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

He drives into gaps that don’t exist and is such a “full steam ahead” athlete that he can’t nimbly avoid the trouble once he spots it. He either gets the ball swiped away as he’s surrounded by two defenders or he picks up a charge. He proved he’s not a mismatch post option early in the season: Auburn coach Bruce Pearl ran a lot of mismatch post-ups for him in non-conference play but completely abandoned them by the time SEC competition rolled in.

Trust the college coach when it comes to leveraging a player’s strengths if he’s one of the best on the team: that coach’s paycheck depends upon it.

The foul trouble Okoro finds himself in also matters: He played with four fouls in about 30 percent of his games.

The curse of being such a great athlete and an instinctual defender is that sometimes he gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Those ticky-tack fouls catch up to him and, to be a prime fourth-quarter defender, must be negated going forward.

The best on-ball defenders aren’t such huge risk-takers.

Overall Analysis and Draft Prediction

Feb 12, 2020; Auburn, Alabama, USA; Auburn Tigers forward Isaac Okoro (23) pressures Alabama Crimson Tide forward Alex Reese (3) during the first half at Auburn Arena. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know P.J. Tucker is only 6’5″? Regardless, the Houston Rockets forward played 28 percent of his minutes at the center position in 2020, according to his Basketball-Reference page. Height won’t dictate his position as much as his skill and toughness will.

Okoro is like a baby P.J. Tucker. Also standing 6’5″, he’s undersized but super strong, incredibly competitive and plays with high-IQ on defense.

Since joining the Houston Rockets for the 2017-18 season, Tucker has logged more than half his minutes at the 4 or the 5, an adjustment that has led to a resurgence in his thirties. (He hadn’t played more than 16 percent of his minutes there prior to joining Houston.)

Let’s not wait as long for Okoro.

With a 6’8″ wingspan, strong slashing ability and the requisite strength to bang down low, the fluidity of positions in the modern NBA should allow Okoro to be slotted based on his skills, not his size. The long-term path for success not only lies in the development of a reliable jumper but also in how he’s surrounded by shooting.

Here’s where my pessimism comes in: I’m incredibly bothered by the effectiveness of his shot when it’s contested. 1-for-14 just won’t cut it. We’re getting to the point where shooting is a skill that anyone under 6’10” absolutely needs to have.

If Okoro can’t become competent here, then I’m not sure how to justify him getting action in the final minutes of a close game.

Okoro’s draft range is likely in the 8-to-18 area, with the back-end of the lottery heating up. Thus, hearing his name come up as a potential top-five pick leaves me scratching my head.

I wouldn’t take Okoro until outside the lottery, and even then I’d need confidence from a workout setting that his jumper is workable. In a year like this, I’m not sure if those workouts will happen, making Okoro a potentially unfortunate victim of the circumstances we’re in.