Considering how well this new rendition of the Phoenix Suns was over the off-season and free-agency period, there was plenty of conversation regarding who should be and would be the fifth starter. Before their preseason game against the Pistons, Duane Rankin of Arizona Central asked head coach Frank Vogel just that:
"I love his game."— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) October 8, 2023
Frank Vogel as he'll start Josh Okogie along with Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal and Jusuf Nurkic.
Said starting last season with Durant, Booker part of decision.
Likes he can guard point guards and bigger wings. #Suns pic.twitter.com/A1GFoVF6lp
On why he’s starting Okogie, it was interesting what he highlighted.
“Familiarity of last year.” “Defensive versatility.” “Can guard other teams primary ball handlers.” “Point guards, as well as body up with some of their big wings.”
It was also interesting to hear the last full quote.
“We have the ability to slide him from guarding 4-men, to guarding point guards. That versatility in the starting lineup is something that I value. I love his game overall. His toughness, his energy, his motor.”
Amidst a four-man lineup (Booker/Beal/Durant/Nurkic) that is as skilled and versatile offensively as any other starting lineups four best players across the league, having a wrench like Okogie in there helps to connect all the pieces.
Where his most impactful value will be provided, of course, is on the defensive end.
That skilled foursome needs a player who is rough, rugged, and even dogged on the defensive end. Okogie embodies all of that, and then some. Add to that, he’s the Suns best screen navigator, and best guard defender (spent 62.6% of his defensive minutes matched up with guards in 2022-23’s regular season), and everything just better connects with him guarding opposing teams’ best guards — plus his versatility to switch and be active in any defensive context.
Specifically with Jusuf Nurkic — a player who certainly has limitations defensively — a way to make his life easier is to pair him, defensively, with someone of Okogie's archetype as a defensive tandem. The less Nurkic has to switch, or commit to a perimeter player, the more value he can provide in size and deterring shots around the basket — ultimately keeping the defensive shell intact.
Let’s dive into some of the film from Sunday vs Detroit, as there were tidbits to glean from their time spent together.
As the Pistons got into their “77” double drag action — one that is certainly not unfamiliar to Suns fans. Notice Okogie and his screen navigation, sticking to the hip of Cunningham as he works through the double screen part, downhill.
Okogie’s connection to the ball handler is a clear sign to Nurkic that the ball is taken care of — keeping things out of a “late switch” or “triple switch” scenario, as the Pistons empty the strong side corner to manipulate space for the roller. This is solid on Nurkic’s end as, while aided by Durant's positioning, Duren has to loop around into the roll — serving as an inadvertent jab at/stunt off positioning.
My critique, however, would be the slightest bit of overhelp on Nurkic’s end, as he backpedals to keep leverage on the roller. That there is his responsibility. So, to have that slight contest from a distance, where he reacts to Cunningham’s up fake, ultimately conceded the pocket pass on the long roll.
That’s nitpicking, but to concede the middy floater to Cunningham, vs. the catch in the restricted area, speaks for itself in terms of which outcome the Suns would desire.
Contested twos, especially around the free throw line >>> any other shot.
Now, Nurkic’s value in size and physicality are displayed to ultimately get the stop, but keeping the ball away from the roller — especially after a very solid screen navigation rep from Okogie — is most important.
Nurkic does an excellent job against middle pick-and-roll here, splitting ball and roller without overly committing either way.
That’s an in addition to, however, as this is the picture-perfect shrinking of the floor by the Suns.
From Beal’s hand help and presence at the nail, to Booker not overreacting to his match-ups “lift” from the corner, to — the most important part — Okogie hounding at the point of attack.
Notice how there isn’t much contact as he navigates over, firstly. Then, he keeps a hand near his hip to stay attached, but also to make his presence felt even while fighting to get back in front.
Lastly, notice his hands going up to stay out of foul trouble (an issue he had vs. Murray in the playoffs discipline-wise) then keeping them in sight, ultimately deterring a shot attempt and forcing a pass out.
This is all also really good because Beal is early with his nail help, so, rather than stepping into his nail help from where he started, he’s already in position — creating a one-way closeout back to the perimeter, conceding zero advantages to play off.
Okogie then finishes the play off how he started it.
Here’s a rep that left more to be desired.
Navigating a high volume of screens on-ball is the toughest thing to do on the floor defensively, next to navigating off-ball screens. Okogie is fairly solid doing so, but on this rep, you can see the reaction he generates, even slightly getting hung up (credit to Duren for a better screen).
Nurkic is forced from splitting at the middle line in splitting the ball and the roller, to fully committing to the ball as Okogie fights to get back in the play. That pins Nurkic behind schedule in terms of where he wants to be leverage-wise before getting into a three-step vertical contest.
You can see from this rep how if one domino falls, it leads to the next doing so — emphasizing the necessary sharpness in this defensive context from Okogie and Nurkic.
Here the Pistons flow into a step-up screen, with the strong side emptied — enabling as much real estate for a natural 2v2 as can be created on the floor, away from help.
Navigation here isn’t terrible from Okogie, as you can see he does stay connected. However, Nurkic, for me, is far too reactionary in this rep.
For my liking, a “jab at” with one foot (something Bismack Biyombo is good with) or a one-handed stab at the ball — something to momentarily occupy Cunningham’s processing from when to pass, while also buying time for Okogie to recover — would have been far more effective.
Being “too” passive in drop concedes too much opportunity, and when the screen navigator needs to have a half-second of time bought, being an athlete in space is mandatory.
Lastly, here we see Okogie simply win this entire possession off defensive activity at the point of attack.
The shift to influence to keep the ball in the outer third of the floor keeps Killian Hayes from using the screen and throws the entire rhythm of the possession off. Kudos to Bates-Diop for being peeled in early at the nail, for a one-way closeout on the contest.
In all, we could see just how interconnected Okogie and Nurkic will be with drop coverage likely again being the defensive base of the Suns, with Nurkic at center.
We can also see that there indeed is a template for making drop coverage work for the Suns in this new rendition, with Okogie spearheading the general effectiveness of it.
There will be challenges along the way, inevitably, but finding rhythm and synergy there, early, will be imperative.