April 26, 2019, 5:27 pm
Welcome back, Hoop Ballers, to our offseason International Spotlight weekly feature. This week we will looking at what went wrong for French guard Elie Okobo, who ended up having a disappointing rookie season after being hyped by many (including me) as a potential second round steal in last year’s NBA draft.
Okobo had a great second half of a season in France last year playing for one of the best teams in one of the top-5 European leagues. He scored 44 points in a game against AS Monaco that put him in the radar for good and teams were even expected to reach in the middle of the first round in order to get him.
The French guard was eventually the first pick in the second round by the Suns, who proved how high they were on him by giving him a four-year, $6 million contract, with the first two years guaranteed. Okobo had a chance to go higher but his intention to come over this season kept some teams away from drafting him and his performance in his rookie year seems to have validated the concerns about his lack of experience entering the draft.
He played in 47 games this season, shot 39.3 percent from the field and 29.5 percent from downtown, while averaging 5.7 points, 2.4 assists and 0.6 steals in 18.1 minutes per game with 16 starts. Most importantly, both he and De’Anthony Melton showed that they were absolutely not ready to start, hitting the rookie wall and failing to make a case about a point guard job that was entirely up for grabs almost the entire year.
Poor Summer League Showing
After an impressive debut in Summer league against the Mavs, the French guard struggled the rest of the way as Shaq Harrison was able to keep the starting job and look much more ready than the rookie. Okobo showed an explosive dribble and a sweet natural step-back jumper, but he made just 4-of-17 shots for the summer and averaged 2.3 points, 2.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in just 14.3 minutes. You can blame fatigue for his underwhelming performance as he was coming of a long season where he led his team in scoring in a tough French league. Regardless, as we approached the start of the season the big elephant in the room remained as Brandon Knight, Shaq Harrison and Elie Okobo were all expected to take turns with the starters while the Suns failed to acquire a legitimate starting point guard.
The Suns and Their Lack of Direction
The Suns entered last year’s offseason looking for (surprise!) a new head coach and they reportedly had advanced talks with COY candidate Mike Budenholzer (who has done a tremendous job with the Bucks this season) but failed to meet his financial demands. David Fizdale reportedly opted for the Knicks job while Igor Kokoskov, who wasn’t even one of their first two choices, got the gig and was quickly labeled as the right guy to develop all the young talent in Phoenix.
The Suns drafted Deandre Ayton instead of rookie sensation Luka Doncic and fired general manager Ryan McDonough, the person responsible for bringing in Kokoskov, nine days before the start of the season, leaving the rookie head coach hanging with a roster lacking a true starting-caliber point guard. Igor kept his face straight and during media day he said that all four Suns point guards “could start at any time,” even though he wasn’t ready to name one a starter. Isaiah Canaan, Shaq Harrison, De’Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo entered the season vying for the starting spot and a roster spot, while Kokoskov’s style never synced up with what the Suns required which led to mounting frustration and on-court incidents with players showing a complete lack of respect for their coach.
Amid this chaos, Elie Okobo was thrown into the fire and failed miserably but it sure wasn’t his fault as he came to Phoenix as a young player that could develop down the stretch, but was suddenly asked to play big minutes and win in an environment lacking any clear structure and vision. Okobo had only nine appearances in the G League where he averaged 18.1 points, 7.4 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game as the Suns opted to keep him on the bench for most of his season as the third-string insurance point guard while giving him the sporadic start, proving how badly the organization actually hurt their own on-court product.
A Score-First Guard
Standing at 6’3”, Okobo is a left handed explosive combo guard with great size and length for the position and someone who can spread the floor and run the pick-and-roll effectively. His shooting numbers were consistent in Europe as he slowly learned how to be effective on both sides of the floor while often following instincts that allow him to play off-ball as well. He struggled in the NBA though, shooting below 30 percent while launching an impressively high 2.5 triples per game. Okobo entered the starting lineup occasionally and had a few good stretches during the season but he never seemed comfortable as he had to adjust to playing with a bunch of different teammates.
His stroke is fundamentally sound and he has a quick release but he was often trigger-happy, lacking the patience to execute the game plan. Look at him using a nice pick from Ayton but launching an off-balance shot instead of attacking the rim and using his explosiveness against Rudy Gobert.
The Frenchman has a tight handle and is a fluid athlete who plays above the rim regularly and he was able to showcase this regularly in a league dominated by the best athletes in the world. His athleticism was evident, especially when playing off-ball where he attacked the rim by changing speed and blowing past defenders. Look at him slowly manipulate Russell Westbrook and cut to the rim at the right time to finish with the easy dunk.
Learning the Point Guard Position
Okobo is another late bloomer who can score with multiple ways but he is still learning how to play the point guard position after spending the early part of his career being an off-ball guard. He has shown that he is able to play within a system and has a good shot-making ability overall, being able to attack rotating defenses and either hit shots off the dribble or drive and kick to his teammates. The lack of experience is still showing up as he makes too many head-scratching passes and doesn’t always trust the system, even though his vision is very promising and he usually knows where his teammates are no matter where he stands on the floor.
Look at James Harden intercepting a lazy pass from the rookie. Okobo has developed some bad habits in his career as he committed an absurd 2.7 turnovers in 26 minutes of action last year in France and he will have to learn how to be more careful and protect the ball.
Kokoskov’s offense was predicated on passing, cutting and decision-making with multiple options. Without a reliable veteran point guard Phoenix tried to offset the lack of an on-court general by having multiple ball handlers which led to 15.6 turnovers per game for the year, third worst in the Association. Kokoskov was forced to run a different set of plays for everyone that handled point guard duties and he stuck with simple actions for his rookies. Fortunately, Okobo was already extremely familiar with the pick-and-roll as he had proved to be able to get to the rim and finish with a smooth touch while the Suns ran 21 percent of their offense with this action. Still, Okobo averaged 0.68 points per possession as the pick-and-roll handler, far below the league average of 0.85 as reality settled in and he wasn’t very comfortable attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line (just 0.9 attempts). Look at him drive to the basket and get blocked easily by Jamal Murray while Mikal Bridges is wide open in the corner, waiting for the pass that never comes.
His quickness combined with his pull-up ability makes him a tough cover though, while he can hit the long jumper and use a quick first step to punish aggressive closeouts and big men who switch onto him. Here is him taking advantage of a solid screen from Richaun Holmes, patiently reading the situation and throwing a timely lob pass to the big man.
Okobo had a career-high 11 assists and zero turnovers on February 2nd against the Hawks, becoming the only rookie in the NBA this season with 10-plus assists and zero turnovers in a game. Kokoskov repeatedly emphasized on how he believes Okobo can become a solid point guard in the league but this might actually take a while considering the organization wants to put the ball in Devin Booker’s hands.
Historically Bad Defense
The Suns allowed 116.8 points per game this season, tied for third worst in the league with the Pelicans while they had the second worst defensive rating in NBA history. Deandre Ayton showed a lack of fundamental understanding of team defense as he ranked 50th out of 72 centers in ESPN’s Defensive RPM metric, which is a player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions.
Okobo is by no means a perfect off-ball defender and he plays with a poise but he struggled as well, finishing 85th out of 102 point guards in DRPM. From a physical standpoint, he has everything he needs to succeed in the NBA level on the defensive end and he is rarely caught sleeping, while his length and speed help him to cover ground quickly and prevent opposing players from being left open. A good muscular body, decent size at 6’3” and an impressive 6’8” wingspan helps him disrupt the passing lanes and he knows how to move his feet and use his above-average speed for your typical NBA point guard. He had 5 steals against the Clippers in a game back in December showing some much-needed tenacity against Pat Beverley and Montrezl Harrell.
But while Okobo plays hard, the adjustment for a rookie playing point guard is always tough and the Suns prioritized the development of Ayton while giving big minutes to guys like Kelly Oubre, who is a capable defender but usually lacks consistency on the other end of the floor. Here is a possession emblematic of the problems the Suns had all season long. Chris Paul and Clint Capela run a high pick-and-roll while keeping an eye on Eric Gordon, who is stationed at the corner waiting for the pass. The Suns are a step behind on communicating, switching and rotating as the veteran Rockets pick them apart and Paul delivers the pass as Josh Jackson prepares to help but forgets how Gordon is one of the top 3-point shooters in the league.
A New Coach and More Stability?
Igor Kokoskov is widely respected around the league, especially by NBA players, due to his player-development skills, an asset critical for a young Suns team that struggled with maturity the last couple years. Unfortunately, as a head coach in Phoenix, the reality proved completely different and the organization failed him hard even though the team and Elie Okobo showed signs of progress in the second half of the season.
Okobo didn’t meet the expectations in his rookie season but other than learning the defensive schemes in the NBA there are really no other red flags in his game and he just needs to keep working on his game and have a clear role next season. As for the summer, he is hoping that he will make the final cut, and get to see China as a member of the French national team. His senior national team debut already happened after he played three games in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers and I’ll be monitoring his offseason along with many other international NBA players who will be competing at a very exciting global tournament.
Thank you for reading this article and please make sure you check us back again next week and throughout the offseason as more player breakdowns are coming up. Stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of April 26th.