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Josh Okogie’s career-best stretch could earn him big spot in Suns playoff rotation

The Phoenix Suns need grit, activity and defense, with a little bit of offense, from that 5th starter spot

Phoenix Suns v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Several players have stepped up this year to keep the injury-riddled Phoenix Suns firmly in the playoff race. The Suns are 33-29, sitting in 4th place in the West after 62 games, despite getting only 79 total minutes over 7 games from their preferred starting lineup all season.

2022 All-Stars Devin Booker and Chris Paul missed so much time to injury they couldn’t even be considered for this year’s mid-season award, so the Suns had to get consistent help from unexpected places.

Torrey Craig, a 32 year old career backup forward, stepped into a full-time starting spot and has posted career-highs in several areas including starts (49), minutes (25.8 per game), shot attempts (6.6), three point percentage (40.5%) and total offensive rebounds (117). He’s on pace to set career highs in just about every category.

Damion Lee, a 30 year old career backup shooting guard, has played the 4th most minutes on the team this season and setting a career high in three-point percentage himself (43.8%).

Ish Wainright, a 28-year old former football player, spent the last two seasons on a two-way contract with the Suns (basically, a half-way NBA deal), played himself a fully guaranteed two-year contract with the Suns by becoming a real-deal “three and D” swing forward.

But the shining light of the Suns development program might be Josh Okogie, a 24-year old washout from the Minnesota Timberwolves, who had to accept a minimum-salary contract this past summer after his $11 million, 4 year rookie contract expired.

The 6’4”, 213 pound Okogie is incredibly athletic and physical, blessed with a 7-foot wingspan and the motor to be one of the best defensive players in the league. But his offense was so non-existent — damaging even — that he simply couldn’t stay on the floor for a Wolves team that needed all kinds of defensive help to shore up the deficiencies of stars Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. And they just let him go after the season.

Okogie was at best a mildly interesting add to the Suns roster last summer. The Suns had no ready spot for a shooting guard who couldn’t shoot in their rotation.

If he couldn’t make threes even when wide open (career 27%), how could he beat out other shooting guards like Landry Shamet and Damion Lee for minutes behind Devin Booker? Or, was he strong enough to fill in for Mikal Bridges as a defensive specialist in certain lineups?

The stumble

His Suns tenure began just as you’d expect. After 23 games, Okogie was shooting just 30% from the field and an abysmal 5% on threes (1 of 18). He’d appeared in 19 of the Suns first 23 games, but was averaging only 6.2 minutes per contest until he got 26 minutes in the 38-point blowout of the Spurs that lifted the Suns to a 16-7 record.

As you know, that’s when the Suns season took a terrible turn. and the Suns went through a 5-17 stretch as injuries decimated the lineup. On the plus side, guys like Craig, Okogie and Lee got their chance to breathe, let their bodies get into a flow, and find their best selves despite all the losing.

The climb

Okogie’s minutes jumped from 6.2 to 17.4 per game, playing in 20 of the next 22 games. He shot 45% overall, including 37% on threes, highlighted by this sequence against the Rockets.

After making only 1 three-pointer in his first 19 games, he drained at least one three in 11 of his next 20. Highlights from that run include half a dozen 10+ point scoring outbursts and a pair of 9+ rebound games.

Nothing to write home about, but we all know that Okogie’s defensive pressure and offensive rebounding efforts are game-changing as long as his offense is sustainably reliable.

Then the Suns best players began to return. Cameron Johnson got back healthy, as did Chris Paul and, eventually, Devin Booker. You’d think their return would spell the end of Josh Okogie, but he was only getting started.

The leap

As the players around him got better, so did Josh Okogie.

During this 12-5 run by the Suns to pull back into 4th in the West, Okogie is playing the best basketball of his career. Even while playing through a broken nose that’s had him wearing a plastic facemask the past few weeks. It’s working so well, in fact, he should probably consider wearing it the rest of the year.

His minutes during this 12-5 stretch have climbed from 17.4 to 25.1, good for 7th-most on the team. In 13 appearances (4 missed due to injury), Okogie is posting 11.9 points while making 42% of 4.0 three point attempts per game.

His last six games — as he gets big minutes as the small-forward bridge between the Mikal Bridges era and Kevin Durant era — are his most impressive.

He’s getting 35.4 minutes a night, and has scored at least 11 points in 6 consecutive games, the longest stretch of double-digit scoring in his whole 5-season career. These six-game averages are just unreal: 18.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.0 steals with 53/48/71 shooting splits.

A six-game sample might not be very big, but it’s the best six-game run of a five year career that was filled with opportunity on the talent-starved Wolves, where his longest streak of double-digit scoring was four games (twice).

Okogie’s game is, and always has been, about a lot more than scoring. He’s a dynamo at on-the-ball defense, using his 7-foot wingspan and leaping ability to block jump shooters and disrupt passing lanes. Just look at these defensive highlights from his age 20 and 21 seasons in Minny — quite familiar, right?

He’s going crazy on offensive rebounding too. Here’s a comment from ESPN’s Zach Lowe last Friday on just how crazy that is.

Okogie, meanwhile...holy hell. This dude is 6-4, and he’s snatching 10.9% of Phoenix misses. That’s 17th in the league — ahead of Anthony Davis, Deandre Ayton, and Domantas Sabonis. Okogie is on pace to be the first player in 33 seasons listed at 6-4 or shorter to crack 10% in offensive rebounding rate.

He’s actually a good enough ball handler to bring the ball up the court at times and good enough to drive into the teeth of the defense for an always-off-balance banker that sometimes goes in and sometimes even draws a foul call (you know, those things that get you free throws? I know, I know, you haven’t seen Suns players try that much before).

But if you can’t make wide open threes, you can’t play minutes in this Suns lineup. Especially when Kevin Durant takes the floor later this week. That’s why the offensive numbers are so important.

Maybe you want a larger sample size? Since January 1, a span of 20 games played, he’s making 42% of his threes on 3.3 attempts per game (the 3.3 attempts per game makes it a lot more real that those bigs who throw up 1 a game and get credit as a ‘stretch big’).

Still not far enough back? Okay fine. Since December 5, a span of 33 games, Okogie is making 40% of 3 attempts per game.

Sure, it’s possible we’re experiencing a season-long blip in a bad-shooting career. It’s also possible that the 24-year old Okogie is still developing, and any advancements in skillset are here to stay.

What’s next?

Well, now the minutes get squeezed. Some fella named Kevin Durant is about to take the floor and soak up 36 minutes of those swing forward minutes a game.

That leaves 60 minutes (48 at the other forward + 12 backing up Durant) for other guys. Mostly that will be Okogie and Craig, but others will get time in the rotation too including Ish Wainright, T.J. Warren, Terrence Ross and Damion Lee. Ish, Craig and Okogie lean defense, while Warren, Lee and Ross lean offense.

Suns head coach Monty Williams might have a big drop-off individual talent from his Big Four to the rest of the rotation, but he’s very deep in playable players. Every single guy on the roster has proven himself one way or another, with the exception of new acquisitions Darius Bazley and T.J. Warren.

Williams will spend the next six weeks mixing and matching lineups to narrow down 12 available players to the final 5 or 6 rotation spots around the Big Four.

My guess is Josh Okogie will end up at the top of that list. And that would be quite the rise from play-in castoff to starting on a contender next to Kevin Durant and Devin Booker.

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