Wolves defender Okogie turns attention to scoring

LAS VEGAS — Minnesota Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie put the league on notice right away for his advanced defense during his rookie season. Okogie played like a time traveler, perfectly timing a dribble to get a steal or block a shot, and always had his hands in the passing lanes.

There has to be a dimmer switch, though, right? Surely Okogie can’t have the same beyond-serious defense in this year’s Las Vegas NBA summer league that he did during in the regular-season?

Think again.

More Timberwolves coverage

In the closing seconds of the Timberwolves’ first summer league game against Cleveland, Minnesota was leading by eight points and essentially had the win wrapped up when Okogie got called for his fourth foul. Most players would have grinned, shook their head, shrugged it off and took the victory, especially in a summer league game … but that’s not how the defensively prideful Okogie ticks.

He immediately ran up to the referee who made the call and lengthily pled his case, with reenactments so intense it looked like he was doing a pregame leg drill. The second-year guard was so concerned with the foul that it almost felt like the Wolves were the team about to lose the game instead of the Cavaliers. Okogie wasn’t arguing just to argue though; there’s a reason he disagrees on an irreversible foul so passionately.

“A lot of times when I’m playing different guys, especially as the game goes on, I start to study their tendencies, start to study their moves, and even before they do their move, I kind of defend them going into their move,” Okogie said right before he started shuffling his feet and recreating the play yet again. “I knew that particular player was going to drive, so I acted like I was going to contest the shot and I dropped back. He was literally dribbling and I was backing up and they called a foul and I talked to the ref, ‘Look bro I knew he was going to do that’s why I literally dropped back.’

“I think that dialogue is important,” Okogie said. “I mean it is summer league and it doesn’t really matter, we were up, we were winning the game. It doesn’t even matter if it was a foul or not, but just to have that relationship and talk to the ref so that next time he sees what I’m talking about. And you never know when you’re going to see that ref again. Obviously, it was in a positive and respectful manner, but I still had to get my point across.”

Although Okogie’s defense has never been in question (his defensive rating through four games in Las Vegas is 88.5, with 100 being average and lower than that being better), he only averaged 7.7 points per game his rookie season and the Wolves are looking to add more to his offense production. Okogie is up for the challenge.

“My role is to bring energy, that’s what I do. I’ve definitely started working on my shot, work on my handles, work on my playmaking so I can give more to the team,” Okogie said. “Give the team that energy and that spark … The summer isn’t over, there’s still time for improvement, still room for improvement … I’ll definitely continue to make strides before the season starts.”

One of the main focal points for the Wolves during this year’s summer league is to give Okogie as many offensive opportunities as possible.

“He’s (Okogie) our main guy, the ball gets in his hands a lot,” Paublo Prizioni, the head coach of the Wolves’ summer team, said. “We want him to grow as a player; we want to put the ball in his hands as much as we can. We want him to make mistakes; because that’s the only way he’s going to learn. If he makes mistakes, hey we support you.”

Improving Okogie’s scoring role this season started well before the Wolves got to Las Vegas. This offseason he elected to spend the majority of his time in Minneapolis so he could get an early start on training, with an emphasis on attacking the rim and drawing fouls.

Through the first four games of summer league, though, Okogie is struggling from the field, shooting 30.6%. However, he’s still averaging 12.5 points in just 22.3 minutes of play by shooting a sizzling 23-of-27 from the free-throw line.

“I go back and forth (to his hometown of Snellville, Georgia) but mostly I stay in Minnesota to stay close to the organization, get my work in more and to get acclimated to the city even better,” Okogie said. “I shot tons of free throws in college (6.8 attempts per game). My rookie year it was kind of different (2.2 attempts per game). It was a rookie mindset, but I think now I’m definitely trying to get more out of my personal abilities.”