The biggest surprise of the Timberwolves’ season to date has been the play of rookie forward Josh Okogie, the No. 20 overall pick from the 2018 draft.
There’s no question that when he was selected, the Wolves front office never expected that he would be playing 22.7 minutes per game and starting 27 of the team’s first 57 games as a 20-year-old, but with the trade of Jimmy Butler and the injury to Robert Covington, Okogie has been put into a tough spot where he has excelled.
And he has really been relied on lately. He has started 20 games in a row, averaging 9.1 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.2 steals in 27.9 minutes.
The story of Okogie is even more impressive when you consider that he wasn’t even targeted as a college recruit just three years ago.
Josh Pastner, the head coach at Georgia Tech where Okogie played two seasons, said that he inherited Okogie as a recruit when he took over the squad in 2016 from Brian Gregory.
Okogie had played at Shiloh High School in Snellville, Ga., and was named first-team all-state by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But when he played for Team CP3, an AAU program founded by NBA All-Star Chris Paul, he was a reserve.
“He was a three-star recruit, he didn’t even start on his AAU team, and he wasn’t one of the top-10 players in the state of Georgia his senior year,” Pastner recalled. “You know when I got the job he had already been signed and I kept him.
“He was just an under-the-radar guy and nobody expected him to become what he became. He was just a guy that was undervalued. Nobody talked about him, nobody really knew about him, and he just blossomed.”
When Pastner got a chance to work with his players, Okogie stood out immediately.
“Once I saw him in the first workouts in the summer, I knew he was going to be good,” Pastner said. “I didn’t know he was going to be this good, but I knew he was going to be good.”
Instant impact at Tech
Okogie’s freshman season for the Yellow Jackets was a revelation. He averaged 16.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. His points per game were the fifth-best mark for a freshman in school history and he made the ACC all-freshman squad and started all 37 games.
“You know, it just kind of worked itself out,” Pastner said of Okogie getting early playing time. “Because of that he got a lot of opportunity to grow, was able to play through mistakes, and got a lot better in a lot of areas.”
Okogie’s sophomore season only continued his development, as his scoring went up to 18.2 points per game and his rebounds jumped to 6.3 per game. It was during that season that an unheralded recruit started to look like an NBA prospect.
“He made great improvements,” Pastner said. “He had a tremendous work ethic. He worked his tail off. He busted his chops and just played so hard, all of the time. He’s a great competitor.”
Did he support Okogie’s decision to test the market for the NBA draft?
“I told him that if he was going to be picked in the top 40 that he should go,” Pastner said. “That was my only advice — if he was going to be guaranteed in the Top 40 he should stay in the draft. Obviously the feedback we all got was he was eventually going to be in that range and potential for the first round. It all worked out for him.”
Not surprised at play
While Pastner said that he wasn’t surprised at how well Okogie has adapted to the Timberwolves and the NBA style of play, he said that shouldn’t take away from how impressive it is.
“I mean I will tell you this — I recognize how hard it is to be starting in the NBA as a 19-year-old, 20-year-old, young man. That is very hard to do,” Pastner said. “He’s going to be a future NBA All-Star. I think he is going to be really good for a really long time.”
Pastner said he saw Okogie over the All-Star break when he returned home following his 13 point, four rebound, four assist performance in the Rising Stars Challenge, and he said one of the most exciting things about his play is how much room there is to improve.
“He has to be a better shooter, he has to shoot the three a little better at a better clip, but he will work at it and he will put the time and effort in,” Pastner said.
He said that it is Okogie’s work ethic that can turn a three-star recruit in 2016 to a standout NBA rookie in 2019.
“He had a great inner drive to succeed,” Pastner said. “He was self-motivated. He had a tremendous inner will that he was going to find a way to be successful.”
Sales tax still thrives
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat reports that sales tax collections for Target Field set a record for January in 2019.
Collections were $3.3 million last month, compared to $3.1 million in January 2018, a 6.4 percent increase.
The sales tax collection remains far ahead of schedule and the county has prepaid and refinanced their debt to save $154 million in interest payments.
All signs point to Target Field being paid off by 2027, 10 years ahead of schedule.
The tax has collected $244 million in seven years and one month, and you have to believe Hennepin County will look to continue the small tax and try to find another productive use for that money when Target Field is paid off.
• Brian Dutcher’s San Diego State men’s basketball team defeated Eric Musselman’s No. 6 Nevada squad 65-57 on Wednesday night. Dutcher is the son of former Gophers coach Jim Dutcher while Musselman is the son of former Gophers coach Bill Musselman. It was only the second loss for Nevada this season and a big victory for San Diego State’s NCAA tournament résumé. Doing the halftime commentary on the game for the CBS Sports Network was Minneapolis North standout Khalid El-Amin.
• With the Wolves playing at New York on Friday night in their first game back from the All-Star break, interim coach Ryan Saunders said he used the time to really study what is and isn’t working for the team since he took over for the fired Tom Thibodeau. “You don’t have a whole lot of time to really dive in and kind of formulate exactly philosophies and everything you want to do in such a short period of time [after taking over],” he said. “So I’ve been using the time really to dive in and simplify in terms of moving forward.”
• Pro Football Focus predicts that Vikings free-agent defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson will end up with the Buffalo Bills.