Joining a completely new NBA environment after spending four years in the same place requires an adjustment. That’s especially true for Josh Okogie, who went from playing consistent minutes during his time on non-contending Minnesota Timberwolves teams to struggling for playing time on a Phoenix Suns squad with title aspirations.

Now in his fifth NBA season, Okogie is averaging career-lows in points, minutes and shooting percentages across the board. On a roster this deep, it’s hard to guarantee minutes for any reserve, especially one shooting 33.3 percent from the field and 3-for-23 from deep.

But Okogie’s first brush with free agency prepared him for a different role, as long as it meant being on a winning team. That adjustment process is something he’s acknowledged since the start of his time in Phoenix.

“It kind of showed me, like, ‘Okay, the work’s never done,'” he said at Media Day. “I never thought it was done, but it just showed me, ‘Okay, whatever year it is, whatever the situation is, you just gotta keep working.’ And when the opportunity presented itself with the Suns, I just thought it was a no-brainer. A team like this, who was trying to win, that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Lately, however, thanks to a glut of injuries to the Suns’ guards and wings, Okogie has gotten more run, and he’s made the most of it. Something that coach Monty Williams hoped for back in training camp is starting to come to fruition.

“I think he can be a guy that comes off of our bench and just goes in and shuts somebody down,” Williams said. “He’s a guy that hasn’t found his niche in the league just yet where it’s consistent, but that doesn’t mean it can’t, and we hope that over the course of time, he makes it hard on me to keep him off the floor.”

Over his last six games, during which Phoenix has continued to miss Chris Paul, Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder, Okogie has done that, averaging 5.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.2 steals in 15.2 minutes per game. In the last three with Torrey Craig sidelined, Okogie stepped it up to 7.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.7 steals in 19.0 minutes per game — all while being a team-high +10.3.

Here’s a look at how he’s become a steady bright spot during an otherwise dreary stretch.

Defense is still Josh Okogie’s path to playing time

Defense being Josh Okogie’s primary path to playing time is nothing new. He believes he’s always had the tools to be a good defender, but he didn’t really put them together until he played for coach Tom Thibodeau as a rookie. When Okogie saw how much havoc he could wreak on that end, he knew it was something he needed to build on.

“For me, it was just more so, like, ‘I’m not gonna get on the court scoring,’ you know what I’m saying?” Okogie said. “‘Cause we had so many people who could do that on the team. So he needed me to be on the court to play some defense and lock somebody up.”

It’s been Okogie’s calling card ever since. Catch-all metrics are always flawed in some way, but the difference between Okogie’s Offensive Box Plus-Minus 2.0 (fifth percentile) and his Defensive Box Plus-Minus (92nd percentile) is the story of his career thus far.

Even in limited minutes with the Suns, his value as a ball-hawk, disruptor and all-around playmaker on the defensive end is clear (as expected):

  • 99th percentile in passing lane defense
  • 98th percentile in steals per 75 possessions
  • 98th percentile in deflections per 75 possessions
  • 89th percentile in blocks per 75 possessions
  • 95th percentile in rim defensive field goal percentage vs. expected

Devin Booker spoke to his friend D’Angelo Russell — Okogie’s former teammate — about the Suns’ new arrival, and he summed it up perfectly.

“He said you’re gonna enjoy playing with him,” Booker recalled. “He’s gonna guard, he’s gonna make your job easier. That’s what we need out there.”

Simply put, Okogie is a terror the Suns can deploy at any time when they need to bolster their sixth-ranked defense.

Aside from racking up deflections and steals with his athleticism, anticipation and 7-foot wingspan, Okogie has been a surprising rim deterrent at 6-foot-4. According to NBA.com, opponents have shot 10.4 percent worse against Okogie than they normally would from less than six feet.

Mikal Bridges, who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year and is often tasked with the Suns’ most difficult defensive assignment, said it’s nice having a guy behind him who’s on the same wavelength.

“Josh is just a freak, and he has that defensive mind where he just reads things and has that ball-hawk skills,” Bridges said. “It’s just fun playing with somebody just like that.”

Okogie first felt that defensive chemistry with Bridges and his new Suns teammates from their runs together over the summer.

“Me and ‘Kal was on a team a couple of weeks ago, and we were on defense and we were just causing all types of havoc,” Okogie said. “I looked at him, he looked at me, and we were just like, ‘Yup. It’s gonna be a long year for opposing offenses.’ But it’s just cool being able to have that kind of swag with your teammates.”

Williams has admitted he wants to try and find minutes for a lineup that sees Okogie and Bridges sharing the floor, but when Craig and Landry Shamet are both healthy, those opportunities are limited.

The similarities between the Bridges and Okogie became apparent in early practices, when Bridges recalled throwing a pass that he knew only he would be able to intercept…until Okogie picked it off, proving his elite defensive instincts were right on par. The differences between the two, however, may need to be what earns Okogie his minutes.

“He’s strong,” Bridges explained. “He can just sit down and guard strong and get up even more and be able to get up and go. I use my length more.”

That defensive physicality is something that only Craig brings to the table on the perimeter, and it’s been sorely lacking with Crowder sitting at home.

“This is my way, just how I’m naturally built, just physical,” Okogie said. “That’s how I play, I play physical. Obviously they got a lot of guys on his team, since I’ve been around these last couple months, who take defense serious. And that’s something I can resonate with.”

A downhill mentality

Defense is his primary asset on the court, but the way Okogie has deployed himself on the offensive end — and the way the Suns have utilized him lately — is the difference between being a one-way player and becoming a legitimate bench contributor. It’s all about putting his burly strength to proper use.

As a career 26.9 percent 3-point shooter, Okogie will never be a floor-spacer. But by utilizing him as a screener and encouraging him to constantly get downhill? That harnesses Okogie’s skill-set to maximum effect.

“Lately, he’s been attacking the basket more instead of settling for 3s, even though we believe he can make those shots,” Williams said. “He’s made ’em in practice a ton, but we love when he attacks the basket, ’cause he’s so big and strong he can get to the free-throw line.”

Okogie will still settle for the occasional jumper, but for the most part, everything he’s been doing lately is about putting pressure on the paint. He likes to utilize that strength with a slow-motion Euro-step, bumping his way through defenders caught off-guard by the change of pace:

Okogie has shot 7-for-11 overall on drives (63.6 percent), and his increased vigor with getting downhill has placed him in the league’s 86th percentile in percentage of shots at the rim that are unassisted.

“He just infects the game with his physicality, and that, to me, is something that you need in regular season, playoffs, postseason,” Williams said. “You need it all the time, and he’s that kind of player. He looks like Bo Jackson, he ran like 20 miles per hour in our testing field this summer. So he’s a guy that can move that weight around.”

As early as the preseason, Williams noted his ability to get to the basket and “finish with force.” It’s easy to see why; through his first four seasons in the league, Okogie ranked in the 95th percentile, 92nd percentile, 91st percentile and 82nd percentile in his percentage of shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass.

Unfortunately, he’s never been particularly effective with the “finishing” part. Okogie’s made just 12 of his 23 attempts near the rim this season (52.2 percent), and last season, he ranked in the eighth percentile in rim shot-making, per The Bball Index.

Fortunately, he’s countered that hitch in his game by distributing to the Suns’ crashing bigs when he gets into the paint:

Sporting a career-high 12.0 assist percentage, Okogie can barrel into the lane, absorb contact as he draws out his final two steps on the gather, and dump it off to a rolling big man once he’s gained the interior defenders’ attention.

Despite not being much of a facilitator to this point, Okogie now finds himself in the 77th percentile in drive assist rate. The recent change in philosophy on offense appears to be working, since all 15 of Okogie’s assists this season have come within the last nine games.

That downhill mentality has also translated to the Suns’ new emphasis on crashing the offensive glass. Okogie ranks in the 85th percentile in offensive boards per 75 possessions and the 97th percentile in contested offensive rebounding percentage.

The guy who is “built like a linebacker” is embracing the contact, and it’s something his new teammates will hopefully pick up on soon.

“Josh is one of those guys that’s gonna bring it every day, and he’s been doing that in practice and we just push each other,” Booker said. “Coach always says we always say we have to bring the same physicality that we bring to each other to the opposing team. We get real competitive, we get real chippy in here, and I think that makes everybody better.”

But is it enough?

The question is, has Josh Okogie done enough to carve out a spot in the rotation once guys start getting healthy again?

Williams has often said the least favorite part of his job is making decisions that could negatively impact players’ careers. There’s no doubt Okogie fits that description, especially now that Shamet has returned from his concussion and Craig has been upgraded to questionable for Wednesday’s game against the Boston Celtics.

“All those guys are in such a tough spot,” Williams said. “Sometimes I play him, sometimes you don’t, that’s a hard place to be. For him, it’s been the availability of other guys that dictates his minutes.

“It’s hard to bust your tail every day and then not know if you’re gonna play. I always feel like a heel every time I don’t play one of those guys, but it’s just hard to play 10 [players].”

However, this injury-riddled stretch is the perfect time for evaluating what the other guys can and can’t bring to the table, and the Suns have been able to get a much better understanding of those borders with Okogie’s helpful minutes.

Okogie seems to understand the nature of his reality too, and it’s not necessarily new either. After the Wolves hired Chris Finch as head coach, Okogie’s minutes dwindled to 10.5 per game last season. But Minnesota won 46 games and made the playoffs.

“He was very mature,” Finch said. “He was the voice of our locker room and oftentimes the voice of our organization through some pretty tumultuous times in Minnesota. We were really proud of him through all of that. He would always have his teammates’ back, supported them. Whether he’s playing or not playing, he was same every day, always positive.”

On a veteran minimum contract that will allow him to compete for a championship, the 24-year-old is often one of the last players to leave the practice floor, and difficult as it may be, he’s embraced his role. Williams has told the team he believes they’re one of the deepest benches in the league, so whether it’s “going at the starter’s heads” in practice or trying to keep pace with them in games, it’s become a point of pride for Okogie.

“I take pride in being able to do whatever coach asks me to do,” he said. “[If] that’s coming in the game rebounding, coming in the game defending, coming in the game making extra plays, being energetic on offense, attacking the rim — whatever coach needs me to do, that’s what I take pride in.”

After four years and only one winning season with the Wolves, Okogie settled for less money and fewer minutes to be a part of a winning organization. He’s not checking in and drastically altering games, but for a team slammed by the injury bug, he’s made the most of his increased opportunities — and that’s all the Suns could ever really ask for.

“It’s definitely a breath of fresh air, but moving to a team that’s a contender and has championship aspirations, I feel like it’s just everything that I resonate with,” Okogie said. “I’m a winner, I love to win. I put winning at the forefront of everything that I do.”

Author

Gerald Bourguet serves as PHNX's reporter, writing savant and podcast co-host for all things Phoenix Suns. He's been a basketball fan since the day he could say "Michael Jordan," graduated from the Walter Cronkite School at ASU in 2013 with a BA and MA in sports journalism and has been covering the NBA ever since. As a credentialed media member since 2015, Gerald dealt with his Suns-related depression through his writing...until the Bubble Suns changed everything. Now, the Artist Formerly Known as Zewio is just as excited to cover winning basketball as Suns fans are to enjoy watching it.

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