The Cleveland Cavaliers suddenly find themselves with an abundance of talent in both the backcourt and frontcourt after putting up just 104 wins over four seasons since LeBron James’ departure. However, their four All-Star caliber players, Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, will not determine the ceiling of this up-and-coming squad. Instead, 21-year-old Isaac Okoro will ultimately be the Cavs’ X-Factor.
Over the next four seasons, the aforementioned stars will likely take the floor of Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse together, begging the question, who is the small forward of the future?
That job is Isaac Okoro’s to lose, and it almost feels like a no-brainer. What Garland and Mitchell lack as on-ball defenders, Okoro brings that exact skillset to the table. Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff can feel comfortable throwing Okoro on the opposing team’s deadliest offensive mastermind, despite the former Auburn Tiger standing at just 6-foot-5, especially with the “Twin Towers” in Mobley and Allen playing free safety at the rim.
Cleveland Cavaliers X-Factor: Isaac Okoro
Through two seasons as a pro, Isaac Okoro has quickly adjusted to the defensive side of the ball, with his top-tier lateral movement keeping the quickest of players in front of him. He also maintains excellent balance as a point of attack defender, rarely shaken by side-to-side crossovers or jab steps. He may not be able to completely shut the water off of an all-time offensive talent, but in today’s NBA, who can? What he can do, though, is make that caliber of player work for their buckets on every possession, an invaluable trait that goes a long way, especially through a long playoff series.
Bickerstaff urges these young Cavaliers to push the pace off rebounds, blocks and steals, which are Okoro’s specialty. A menace in transition, Okoro is quick and agile, with the ability and strength to finish with either hand at the rim with contact.
So what’s the problem? A great on-ball defender with low offensive usage should fit right into Cleveland’s stacked starting lineup, theoretically.
The half-court offense is where Okoro’s limitations are highlighted. After shooting 29% from behind the arc in his rookie year, Okoro jumped to 35% in his sophomore season, around the league average. On the surface level, that is music to any Cavalier fans’ ears, but simply looking at percentages may not tell the full story.
Last season, Okoro led the league in defender distance on three point shots, a staggering 9.3 feet, essentially leaving the Cavs to play 4-on-5 offensively. Defenses were constantly sending extra help to blow up Garland’s patented pick-and-roll with Allen, forcing the kick-out to an inefficient Okoro. With Mitchell on the floor next to Garland and Mobley, teams will happily surrender 3-point shots to Okoro until he proves he can consistently knock them down.
If the former Tiger cannot connect on a healthy clip, Bickerstaff will be forced to look elsewhere for his starting small forward down the line. The playoffs are a chess match — every team knows the others’ set plays, how they want to generate looks, etc. From there, it becomes a back-and-forth of weeding out the weakness, forcing teams out of their comfort zones. Despite his supreme defensive ability, Okoro cannot play down the stretch of close playoff games if he still has this glaring weakness in his offensive game.
Through the preseason, Okoro has shown promise from behind the arc, as well as an overall offensive player. Over the final two games, Okoro shot 13-of-18 from the field, including 3-5 from beyond the arc. He displayed confidence in his refined jumpshot, while maintaining his defensive and transition skillset.
Amongst the most talent he has ever played with, Isaac Okoro seems primed for a Year 3 leap, and it could be just what the doctor ordered for the Cavs.