Born in Nigeria and raised east of Atlanta, new Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie possesses what he calls a “great American accent” and knows enough phrases to speak to his parents in their native African languages.
When the Wolves made him the 20th player selected in Thursday’s NBA draft, every one of them failed him when coach/president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau called with the news.
“Coach Thibs called me and I had no words,” Okogie said by telephone from Atlanta. “The amount of emotion I wanted to express, I couldn’t express in words. I couldn’t even talk. I can’t even talk now.”
The Wolves could have packaged that 20th pick with backup center Gorgui Dieng and his big contract to get some salary-cap relief or traded down for an extra pick, but they stayed put and selected the attacking, athletic 6-4 shooting guard with a 7-foot wingspan.
With their second-round pick (No. 48 overall), the Wolves drafted Ohio State forward and Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop, whom many draft analysts had pegged as a first-round prospect.
Thibodeau cited both players’ versatility, wingspan, two-way play and their ability to play multiple positions in a league that increasingly is becoming positionless. He said the team’s scouting staff discussed at length selecting Bates-Diop with that 20th pick.
“With Keita, we were very surprised he was still there,” Thibodeau said. “Sometimes it just works out that way.”
The Wolves chose Okogie after five other wing players — one of the Wolves’ most glaring needs — were selected directly before Okogie. Miami’s Lonnie Walker IV fell to the 18th pick before San Antonio plucked him and Atlanta took Maryland’s Kevin Huerter with at 19 before Utah followed the Wolves and chose Duke shooter Grayson Allen.
Wolves General Manager Scott Layden said they explored moving both up and down from that 20th spot, but found ascending too expensive and descending too risky after they had identified Okogie as a prospect who “would be a good player for a long time.”
Gathered in Atlanta to watch the draft, Okogie’s family, friends and some of his Georgia Tech teammates mobbed him when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called out his name. They jumped up and down, many holding cellphones high to capture a moment that Okogie later tweeted, “Best moment of my life.”
Later by telephone conference call, he called the night “surreal.”
“It has just been great, to see all the hard work I put in when nobody was paying attention,” said Okogie, who turns 20 in September. “I know how hard I worked for this. It has been great, and I’m very blessed to be in this position and just ready to work.”
Intent on finding wing defenders with toughness, defensive moxie and a dependable three-point shooting stroke in the draft, free agency or both, the Wolves selected Okogie and kept him after they explored many other options.
They chose him after Okogie sandwiched two successful collegiate seasons around a role on last summer’s USA Basketball under-19 team coached by Kentucky’s John Calipari.
But he wasn’t certain he was NBA-ready until he went to May’s Chicago draft combine and impressed with his physical testing and his play. A workout at the Wolves’ Minneapolis practice facility earlier this month helped seal the deal.
“This has been a long process, a lot of decisionmaking,” Okogie said. “I didn’t know if I was going to stay in the draft or go back to school. But I felt like I was ready. I’m a guy able to risk it all to live the life you want to live because I knew I was ready and I was really confident. The Timberwolves were confident in me as well.”
Okogie gave up the piano, the violin and finally, in ninth grade, the tuba to focus on basketball. That decision took him all the way to the NBA and a starting rookie salary of more than $2 million, to a team that includes the versatile player Okogie sees himself becoming: Jimmy Butler.
In a January interview with Georgia Tech’s website, Okogie was asked if there’s an NBA player with whom he compares himself.
“I have to say somebody like Jimmy Butler,” he said. “Somebody who takes pride on both ends of the floor. Somebody not only being an offensive threat, but guard, rebound, push the ball, defend the other team’s best player.”
Now he’ll find himself playing beside Butler, the 2011 draft’s 30th overall pick who made himself into a four-time NBA All-Star guard.
Did Okogie believe he made the right decision, ditching the tuba to concentrate on basketball?
“I don’t know,” he said after a pause. “That’s a tough question, but I would like to think so.”