The 31st pick in this year’s draft may not have the same immediate impact as Ayton and Bridges, but he does bring a unique skill-set to the table. How will Elie Okobo compliment the Phoenix Suns’ current roster, and what will his future on the team look like?
Relatively unknown to most NBA fans, 20-year-old French point guard Elie Okobo was a late riser on NBA draft boards. He gained popularity following a 44-point performance for Pau-Lacq-Orthez where he shot 8 for 11 from 3, leading scouts to view him as a potential strong scoring punch off the bench.
The Phoenix Suns saw enough potential in him to grab him with the first pick of the second round, and he rewarded them with an encouraging stint in the Las Vegas Summer League.
A quick glance at the box scores shows less than stellar shooting percentages throughout the Summer League, although something to be expected for any rookie guard. What really stood out was his play-making abilities when surrounded by NBA caliber players.
For a Phoenix Suns team so deprived of quality passers that the acquisition of Elfrid Payton was looked at as a serious upgrade, Okobo’s 37% assist percentage as tracked by basketball.realgm.com is something to get excited about.
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Even the most optimistic fans know this is not sustainable, but the Suns have been looking for a strong play-maker to help maximize Booker’s scoring potential.
Coach Igor Kokoskov has stated in the past that for the most part, he will not be playing Booker at point. This leaves the 1 spot open long-term as the team searches for a player to pair next to their franchise cornerstone for the next five or more years.
Knight is expected to bounce back this year after being almost irrelevant over the past two seasons due to a drop off in play in 2016-17 and a torn ACL last season, and he should not be set in any long term plans for Phoenix. He is 5-6 years older than the team’s young core, and it is never safe banking on a player coming off a torn ACL.
Harrison has proven he belongs in the league with a strong defensive presence and tenacity driving to the basket and making plays. However, he is still a player only effective with the ball in his hands and without the ability to space the floor, he is not a strong pairing to start next to Booker.
This leaves Okobo as the most likely current candidate to start once this team hits its prime.
He projects as a scoring punch with strong play-making skills, crucial to help maximize the skill-sets comprising the team. Anyone who watched a single Summer League game saw the team’s shocking inability to dish the ball to Ayton in the post, which limited the amount of damage he could do outside of pick and rolls and as a lob threat.
Playing with Booker will solve this problem for Ayton, but Okobo can take that responsibility while Booker sits or plays off the ball. As Okobo improves as a passer and shooter, having him bring the ball up the court would force the defense to have to defend Booker on the wing, Ayton in the paint, Mikal Bridges in the corner, and the threat of a Josh Jackson cut to the basket.
Offensively, Okobo can add a dynamic that threatens the defense by forcing them to focus on either Booker or Ayton off the ball, as either of them one -on-one in open space is a mismatch against most opponents.
His weakness comes defensively.
It would be foolish to build a backcourt where neither guard projects as a plus defender. Becoming an above average defender is in the range of possibilities for Booker, but chances are he will never be a strong defensive asset.
It seems far more likely that the front office will look to surround Booker with players that mask those deficiencies, evident by the selections of Jackson and Bridges, as well as the signing of Trevor Ariza. Placing a defensive liability at point would decrease the value brought by the versatility of Jackson, Bridges, and Ariza, and would leave opposing offenses still with multiple options to exploit on defense.
While only 6’2”, he does have a 6’8” wingspan, and a certain quickness to his game. This gives him the tools to become an above average defender as well, but a lot of work must be done in that regard. When watching film, one can see that he is not always engaged as a defender and has to work on his consistency on that side of the floor.
Jackson Hoy does a great job breaking down Okobo’s defense in his article which you can read here.
There is a strong chance Okubo’s future in Phoenix may be shaped by his ability to improve on defense, provide consistent effort and use his quickness and wingspan to offset the challenges of guarding at 6’2”.
Even if he becomes a strong shooter and play-maker for the Suns in the following years, it is hard to imagine the Okobo becoming the future starting point guard if he cannot put it together defensively.
Still, he could carve out a strong career as a backup guard providing an offensive punch, which has legitimate value in this league. He could also be a good piece to dangle in a trade for a star, as the Suns have been brought up in trade talks for stars in the past like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and Kawhi Leonard, but apparently never had all the right pieces to pull of a trade.
It is easier to picture Okobo becoming a fan favorite with his 3-ball and fancy passing. In a league dominated by teams which can pass and score like the Warriors and Celtics, Okobo seems like a strong fit for the modern day NBA.
If Coach Kokoskov can maximize his potential on defense, he could fit seamlessly into the starting point guard role for the Phoenix Suns in the future. However, that is one big “if”, and may keep Okobo as a backup guard for a team with one of the brightest futures in the league.