Josh Okogie has already had some experience defending San Antonio guard DeMar DeRozan, and because of that, Okogie can list off some of the ways DeRozan attempts to gain an edge. Okogie has been taking mental notes.
“He has a lot of pump fakes when he comes off pick and rolls,” Okogie said. “He likes to swing through with his arms extended to draw fouls. For me, have to stay solid, stay on the ground, don’t jump until he jumps.”
Okogie has been getting a crash course in defending some of the top scorers in the NBA since Robert Covington has missed the past seven games because of a right knee bone bruise. Okogie has started each of those games, the rookie’s longest stretch of consecutive starts. With Covington out indefinitely, Okogie figures to keep getting major minutes, including Friday at Target Center against DeRozan and the Spurs.
Okogie has seen his minutes fluctuate throughout the season. He started occasionally under ex-coach Tom Thibodeau. He was also relegated to the bench for a stretch and also earned minutes as a reserve. His boundless energy has helped endear him to fans, but when you play a starter’s workload, you can’t always play as hard as Okogie does on every possession, or else fatigue will set in. It’s a line Okogie has been trying to walk.
“When I don’t start, and I’m coming off the bench, my mentality is to kind of bring energy, utilize all the things that I have efficiently, and try to do all I can in the short stint in minutes,” Okogie said. “And then when I’m starting, I think my role is to be kind of a dog. I do things to be able to bring energy and to guard the other team’s best defender and just to make it hard for them.”
Okogie has averaged 30.6 minutes per game and the Wolves have gone 4-3 in those seven recent games he’s started. The Wolves have a 105.4 defensive rating (105.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) when Okogie is on the floor over those games, which would rate among the league’s best if it was able to hold for 48 minutes. The Wolves have the 18th best defensive rating overall since Covington went out. One concern with Okogie is his volume of work, the so-called rookie wall, since he has never played this many games at this high of a level in his career. Okogie dismisses those concerns.
“This is the best job in the world,” Okogie said. “I’m definitely not going to hit a wall. I love this game. I wake up every day ready to work. So, I don’t see a wall coming any time soon.”
The offense is a work in progress as well, as Okogie is shooting only 37 percent for the season. But if he hustles and plays defense, the Wolves will live with the lack of offense.
Interim coach Ryan Saunders said one challenge for Okogie is to process the game differently when he’s playing more minutes.
“You need to be able to think the game faster as opposed to just always being in constant, 125 percent energy,” Saunders said. “He’s doing a much better job. Every day, he gets better and better.”
And the Wolves ultimately don’t want to sap their first-round pick of his energy.
“We don’t want Josh to change,” Saunders said. “He’s energetic and he goes hard. So we don’t want to change him as a player necessarily, just fine tune some things.”
Like learning the tendencies of who he is guarding on a nightly basis. With Covington still mending, the Wolves will be leaning on Okogie for the foreseeable future.