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What does the road from here look like for the Cavs’ Isaac Okoro?

Isaac Okoro, deserted road

In the span of just a few years, the Cleveland Cavaliers have put together one of the very best young cores in the NBA. Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen have separated themselves from the pack this year. Garland and Allen, the most lethal pick-and-roll duo in the NBA, were both named All-Stars. Evan Mobley has taken the league by storm, looking like a long-time veteran right out of the gates. He’s the favorite to win Rookie of the Year.

The Cavs’ depth of young players extends beyond that trio, though. Collin Sexton was the most statistically productive up until he suffered his season-ending injury through 11 games. Lauri Markkannen has slid into an unconventional, but effective role as the team’s starting small forward. Dean Wade, Lamar Stevens, and Dylan Windler have the shown the ability to be role-players when needed. That group by itself is a very strong core. However, there’s one more wildcard that hasn’t yet been mentioned, which is Isaac Okoro.

Okoro was drafted to Cleveland following the infamous NBA bubble, and experienced the shortest offseason in league history. He was thrown into the fire from day one, having to guard the opponent’s best player night in and night out. His teammates didn’t offer much help, as he started alongside four sub-par defenders in Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson.

He wasn’t afforded many touches, but as the season winded down and injuries begun to pile up, he received much more opportunities with the ball in his hands. The rookie displayed some genuine flashes, including a breakout 32-point outing against the soon-to-be-NBA-Finals-bound Phoenix Suns. Selected fifth overall in the 2020 NBA Draft, his development would seem to be of high priority for the Cavs. That hasn’t been the case. Despite being the second youngest and second highest draft selection out of the young’uns in Cleveland, he’s sorta been tossed to the side.

Why is that?

Okoro hasn’t had the opportunity to expand his game in Cleveland

Isaac Okoro was one of the few bright spots towards the end of last year for a Cavs team that stumbled to the finish line. Fast forward to this season, and… not much has changed from the Okoro we saw for most of last season. The defense, his main calling card coming out of college, has improved. His efficiency has seen a slight uptick from inside and outside the perimeter. Most other aspects of his game have remained, for the most part, stagnant.

As soon as Evan Mobley came to town, his development leapfrogged Okoro’s on the team hierarchy. And with the team winning games or at the very least, competing every night, developing younger players in general has become less of a priority. JB Bickerstaff hasn’t been able to afford Isaac the touches he needs to improve his offensive game, knowing that they will likely yield negative results in the present. Although the Cavs have had a successful season, they don’t have much margin for error.

The former Auburn Tiger kicked off preseason games as a starter for Cleveland, alongside Garland, Sexton, Mobley and Allen. That frontcourt trio had some very rough offensive limitations from a floor spacing perspective. Opposing defenses didn’t respect any of the three guys from outside the perimeter, and playing them alongside two guards who love to attack the paint, it resulted in some extreme congestion inside.

At the beginning of the regular season, Okoro got substituted at the three for Lauri Markkanen, in favor of a shooting threat and a more unique defensive scheme. He rode the bench for a little, until joining the starters again once Sexton exited the rotation. Still, after filling in for him, he’s been afforded minimal time on the ball, often camping in the corner.

That’s not an ideal role for the team and not an ideal role for him. At least until he gets his jump shot figured out. Teams don’t guard him. And he struggles to attack the space in front of him off-the-catch, because the paint is often crowded. The environment that the Cavs have placed their sophomore swingman in is rather unfortunate for him at the moment. So where do they go from here?

What should the Cavs’ roadmap look like for Isaac Okoro?

The reason Isaac Okoro gets floor time is because of his defense, but there are two sides of the floor. He is developing into one of the better perimeter defenders in the NBA. For him to make a legitimate impact in the future, though, he’ll need to be more than a zero offensively. Given his athletic skills and ability to make quick decisions, that’s not out of the question.

It may be a tad optimistic, but a semi-realistic reference point for the Cavs to follow with Okoro’s development, is the New York Knicks’ RJ Barrett. Both players have similar sizes/builds, and are explosive off-the-catch. They each came into the league with under-developed handles and jumpshots. Because of that and them both being relatively rigid, they’re primarily straight-line/strength-based drivers with the ball in their hands. However, they do a good job of finding the open guy from time-to-time.

Barrett has enjoyed a recent string of strong offensive performances. Okoro’s far from that level, so how does JB Bickerstaff and Company get him there? The jump shot will have to improve, but most of that is out of the team’s control. It’ll just take a lot of offseason time commitment. The main thing the Cavs need to do to put their former lottery pick in a position to succeed, is work on the handle.

The best way to go about doing that is giving him more on-ball reps. It doesn’t have to be much, but it has to be more than what it’s at now. That likely means he should play in more of the minutes without DG on the floor, considering the Cavs are lacking in ball-handlers outside of him. There’s more to it, though.

Before any kid learns to ride the bike, they start out with training wheels. For Okoro to become a more consistent threat with the ball in his hands, he should see more chances handling the ball in spaced out lineups before getting those reps next to lineups featuring groupings such as Frobley. Okoro and Love’s minutes, ideally, should be tied at the hip.

Getting him a few good offensive opportunities a game, and giving him the confidence to be aggressive during those minutes, is key to him becoming a better offensive threat. He’s a hyper-explosive bulldozer at 6’5″, 225 lbs. If you can pair a little bit of skill with those physical tools, then you have a guy who can give you valuable stuff on both sides of the floor.

Can he reach his ceiling in Cleveland?

Soon after Isaac Okoro was drafted, the Cavs rapidly acquired 4 likely long-term pieces alongside their star-studded backcourt (Darius Garland, Collin Sexton + Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley, Lauri Markkanen, Caris LeVert). With him now being probably the seventh most important player in the team’s future, is it possible for Isaac to see his best-case outcome unfold in the wine & gold?

It can happen. It would almost certainly happen with him coming off-the-bench. If the coaching staff doesn’t put much effort into caterings towards his development, then it’s hard to see it unfolding in his favor. The Cavs pretty much have their team locked in for the future, barring a LeBron James re-appearance, but if Koby Altman were to seek out one more high-profile trade, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Okoro be the one biting the bullet as the sweetener.

Regardless, it’s hard to call the Cavaliers drafting of Isaac Okoro at #5 in 2020 a miss. He still has untapped upside that the team’s sooner-than-expected success got in the way of. There weren’t many better options in that range, outside of perhaps Tyrese Haliburton (who requested that Cleveland not take him) and Devin Vassell.

Right now it’s up to JB Bickerstaff and his young hard-nosed defender to walk that delicate line of advancing his offensive game, meanwhile keeping the Cavs on track to pick up wins as the playoffs approach.

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