Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie is in his third NBA season, and to explain how he has improved at defending players like Phoenix's Devin Booker, whom Okogie guarded effectively in two games last week, Okogie deployed a timely metaphor.
"It's kind of like the vaccine, you know what I'm saying? You put the dead cells into you, and then your body learns how to fight them, and then if it sees them again, it gets better at fighting them," Okogie said. "So it's like the same thing with the NBA. As you see these players more and more, I don't want to say it gets easier — because at the end of the day, great scorers are going to be great scorers — but you kind of learn their tendencies."
It especially helps when you can face the same opponent on consecutive nights, as the Wolves did with Booker and the Suns. Okogie held Booker to one point in the fourth quarter of the Wolves' victory Thursday and limited Booker to 6-for-18 shooting on Friday, a defensive performance that included chasing down Booker twice on breakaways and forcing a miss. Not an easy task, especially considering Booker is playing perhaps the best basketball of his career.
Wolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns said Okogie was the unsung hero of Thursday's game, on a night when Towns and Anthony Edwards each scored more than 40 points.
Okogie is an atypical player in the NBA because he makes his reputation on defense, and while he has been a defensive force since his rookie year, his institutional knowledge of guarding some of the game's best players has been expanding the more reps he gets at guarding them.
"I know when I'm guarding a certain player, 'OK, if he's in this area on the court, he wants to get to this package or this spot,'" Okogie said. "And you might make a great play, anticipate it, beat him to the spot and he might still make it, but at least you know you kind of figured that player out."
Wolves coach Chris Finch said it was "silly" of him not to put Okogie on Booker sooner in Thursday's game.
"Most of these guys get to the league by being gifted offensively," Finch said. "There's not a lot of guys who will guard their way to the league. What we want is everyone to develop a two-way mentality. We want them to have a high care factor about defense, understand what we're trying to do and make as many efforts as they need to to win the battle on the defensive end."
Okogie has had his share of struggles on offense — he is shooting just 22% from three-point range this season — but his defense could still make him a potential trade chip ahead of Thursday's deadline.
Okogie saw the whole roster get turned over before the deadline a season ago. Only he, Towns and Jarrett Culver were left after Wolves President Gersson Rosas made a flurry of moves.
"It was crazy," Okogie said. "Everybody pretty much left, well, got traded, and that's just how the business is. I'm a firm believer in God, so whatever God got planned for me is what he has planned for me."
Okogie is on his third coach in three years with the Wolves, and there has been a lot of change in the organization from the day he was drafted. His defense has been one of the few constants.
"If it's for me to stay here, then so shall it be," Okogie said. "But I'm ready for forever. I would love to be here. This is all I know, so I'm glad to call myself a Timberwolf."