Undecided if he should begin his professional future until he participated in May’s Chicago draft combine, new Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie says the transformation from collegiate to NBA player all came home when he entered an elevator the other day and someone sized him up by asking if he plays basketball.
“Then they were like, ‘What team do you play for?’ ” he said Tuesday. “I almost said, ‘Georgia Tech’ because I played there the last two years. It felt good to say ‘Minnesota Timberwolves.’ ”
And funny, but in January somebody else asked him what NBA player he compares himself with and he answered the Wolves’ Jimmy Butler.
Now he’s here, preparing to play alongside a player who once was drafted 30th overall in 2011 and worked to become a four-time All-Star.
“It’s crazy, I said that months ago,” Okogie said. “To finally be here, in an organization like this, is certainly a blessing.”
The Wolves introduced Okogie and Ohio State forward Keita Bates-Diop on Tuesday at Mayo Clinic Square and after a news conference, both players posed with their new jerseys alongside Wolves coach/president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden.
Okogie will wear No. 20 — the position he was selected overall in last Thursday’s draft — after he wore No. 5 in college, which is Wolves center Gorgui Dieng’s number.
The 48th pick Thursday, Bates-Diop will wear No. 33, the same number he wore with the Buckeyes. The Wolves chose both players because each can shoot the three-pointer and defend multiple positions.
Okogie projects himself to be the kind of player Butler is, one who plays both ends of the floor.
“[Butler is] offense and defense,” said Okogie, who made himself a first-round pick by the way he tested, played and interviewed at the Chicago combine. “A lot of guys just worry about scoring. Some guys just worry about defense. But the fact that he can do both at a high level is something I find appealing ...
“I feel I can learn a lot of things from him, just the pride he brings to the game at both ends of the court. That’s something I want to do myself. I feel I have a lot to learn and I’m ready to listen.”
The way Thibodeau tells it, Butler kept his mouth closed and his ears wide open during his rookie season in Chicago long ago.
He sees some of Butler in Okogie, who was born in Nigeria but raised east of Atlanta.
Like Butler, Okogie wasn’t highly recruited in high school. In fact, Butler went to junior college in Tyler, Texas, before Marquette signed him. One national recruiting service ranked Okogie the 219th best player in the country. Few, if any, had him ranked among the nation’s top 150.
“It’s very hard to predict,” Thibodeau said. “Jimmy always makes a joke where he was ranked in high school. I don’t quite remember where it was, I think he said he was 88th in his state. Players get better and they grow. Sometimes, guys are ranked high and for a number of different reasons they don’t develop the same way. You try to look for the characteristics that allow them to develop and usually it’s the drive, the intelligence to go along with the talent. We think those guys [both Okogie and Bates-Diop] possess those characteristics.”
Okogie is an athletic, attacking guard whose coaches preached defense’s value. He might be undersized — measured 6-4½ in his sneakers in Chicago — for an NBA shooting guard. But he has a 7-foot wingspan that helps set him apart.
“Most definitely, that wingspan helps a lot,” said Okogie, who’s young for his class and won’t turn 20 until September. “You can be in two places at once. The thing about defense is you certainly don’t have to be there to be there. I can have my hand in a passing lane and still pay attention to my man.”
Like Butler before him, Okogie has reached the NBA something of the hard way.
“There are some similarities,” Thibodeau said. “The strength, the way he’s come on, where he was ranked coming into college and what he was able to achieve. Then there’s that all-around game, the ability to guard multiple positions, to score different ways, to get to the [free-throw] line. Jimmy’s way onto the floor as a rookie was his defense and then his ability to get to the free-throw line.”
If Okogie finds his way onto the floor as a rookie, it, too, likely will be because of his defense. His ability to catch and shoot the ball as well as draw fouls and shoot free throws at a high percentage (82 percent in college) won’t hurt, either.
A Timberwolves player for almost a week now, Okogie hasn’t spoken with or met Butler, but that soon should change.
“Not yet, not yet,” he said, “but I’m looking forward to it.”