Amico: Defense name of Okoro’s game, and trait Cavs desperately need

Auburn small forward Isaac Okoro brings up the ball during a game against Mississippi.

It’s much too soon to make any grand proclamations on whether Isaac Okoro was the right pick for the Cavaliers at No. 5 overall in the draft.

The book on Okoro is that he’s an excellent defender who doesn’t need the ball to make an impact — and that second part is a good thing, because he can’t really shoot.

Those aren’t my words. Those are the words of many of those who saw Okoro play last season at Auburn.

“He’s a winner,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl told ESPN.

And hey, the Cavs could sure use a little more winning, right? Right.

Okoro is 6-foot-6 and will presumably play small forward in the NBA. He spent just his freshman season at Auburn, averaging 12.9 points and 4.4 rebounds in 28 games. He shot just 29 percent on 3-pointers, but that makes his 51 percent shooting overall all that more impressive.

That means Okoro shot 61 percent on everything inside the 3-point line.

“He can get downhill, he can score on contact,” Pearl said. “He’s gonna do what the coach asks him to do.”

Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff may envision Okoro filling the lane alongside young guards Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr., offering another man to finish off the fast break. Throw power forward/center Larry Nance Jr. in there, and you’re talking about a team that can run and gun and have tons of fun.

I’m not suggesting the Cavs will ever use that lineup, or that they even should. But you get the picture. Suddenly, the Cavs have become a team with its fair share of athleticism and an ability to play at a quicker pace. (By the way, you can add rookie-to-be Dylan Windler as someone who also fits that mold.)


Now for the real reason Okoro offers some promise. It’s because the Cavs were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to defending the perimeter last season.

Let’s put it another way — Tristan Thompson was perhaps their best perimeter defender. And that’s not meant as shot at Thompson. He takes great pride in how he fares when he gets switched onto opposing guards.

But you don’t want your best defender of wings to be defending them only because he got switched onto them. As a center, Thompson’s main responsibilities were supposed to happen under the basket. In theory, anyway.

Worse, with unrestricted free agency looming, Thompson may not even return.

Pearl and other draft experts stressed that Okoro is not only great on switches, but that he is versatile defensively. He came into the draft with a reputation as someone who can “defend one through four.”

That means he’s a good position defender and can match up with opposing backcourt players. It also means he’s strong enough to take on some power forwards.

At least, he could in college.

The Cavs clearly believe he do the same in the NBA. They’re not desperate for a scorer as currently constructed. Sexton and Kevin Love can fill those roles, with perhaps Garland, Porter and Windler taking the next steps in that department.

What they really needed was someone reliable to defend out on the perimeter. Last year, opposing swingmen drove right past the Cavs and into the lane at will.

Granted, the Cavs have Andre Drummond and his 6-foot-10, 270-pound frame standing there to swat and alter shots. But the Cavs’ big men shouldn’t have to do all the work defensively.

If Okoro comes as advertised, he will immediately help plug that leak. (Or geyser, as it were.)

If he can add more beyond that, he will prove to be an excellent addition and fit.

About the Author

Sam Amico
Sam Amico is the founder and senior writer of Amico Hoops. He has covered the NBA on a full-time basis for both Sports Illustrated and FOX Sports, and has been a regular contributor to CBS Sports, the Boston Herald and

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