PORTLAND, Ore. – It was about 40 minutes before Saturday’s game, Josh Okogie said, when coach Tom Thibodeau told him Robert Covington wasn’t going to play because of right knee soreness and Okogie would be seeing significant minutes.
The rookie’s reaction?
“I’m always ready,” he said.
Okogie certainly appeared that way, running around the court like a video game character with an endless supply of stamina in his 26 minutes.
He shot 3-for-5 from the field for just eight points in the Wolves’ 113-105 loss as he tried to pick up the slack on the defensive end with Covington out. Okogie’s gave the kind of effort his teammates have come to expect – and they seem to respect him for it.
“Josh came out and hooped,” guard Derrick Rose said.
Added Karl-Anthony Towns: “The thing about Josh is for a rookie, especially, he’s a true professional. He understands how to be a true pro. He keeps himself ready. … When his number was called, he was ready to do whatever it took to give the team a chance to win.”
That included a stunning play in the fourth quarter in which Okogie got caught in the air, threw the ball to himself off the backboard, caught it and made the putback.
“Jumping in the air, it’s hard to pass so I kind of just passed it to myself,” Okogie said.
It was the kind of play that displayed the full Okogie experience. He made a mistake in jumping into the air with the ball without a purpose, but he made up for it with his athleticism and pure hustle. It had his teammates on the bench in awe or in delirium. Rose said it was “unreal.”
“We all thought he was going to go dunk it,” Towns said. “We were more surprised he didn’t get a chance to dunk it than making it. He’s such a talented player, and you expect highlight moments like that. When he comes in the game, it’s a highlight waiting to happen.”
Okogie certainly expects that of himself whenever he enters a game. Saturday marked his first meaningful minutes in a game since Nov. 14. Thibodeau has relegated Okogie to the bench since Covington and Dario Saric came from the 76ers. Since then, it’s been a lot of learning and practicing for Okogie.
“The game is the easy part,” Okogie said. “Whether I play or not, I do the same thing every day. … I could miss 20 games. The 21st game you put me in there, it’ll be like the last time I played.”
Okogie said he has been a sponge while in practice or on the bench, trying to absorb as much information as he can from teammates and coaches while trying to pick up on tendencies from opponents.
“I always sit next to the coaches. I ask questions, [see why] other players do what they do and pick up the kind of stuff they’re doing,” Okogie said. “Whenever I’m thrown in, I’m always locked in. I’m always putting myself in a position where if I’m ever called on to play I’m ready.”
It’s a quality the Wolves seem to appreciate.
“He’s a pro,” forward Taj Gibson said. “Whatever you throw at him, he’s ready for the occasion. Just wish we could’ve pulled out a win for him.”