Built to Win: Knicks’ prospect Isaac Okoro hates losing

The New York Knicks are intrigued by Auburn’s one-and-done prospect Isaac Okoro who could be the second coming of Kawhi Leonard.

In the summer of 2019, before Isaac Okoro went to Auburn for his lone college season, Boston Celtics’ rising star Jaylen Brown came back to town.

Brown hails from Marietta, Georgia where he willed Wheeler High School to the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) Class 6A State Championship as a senior. He hit the game-winning free throws in a 59-58 thriller in the state championship game that capped off a 30-3 season record for Wheeler High School.

Okoro, meanwhile, comes from Atlanta, just 23 minutes away from Brown’s hometown. Like Brown, Okoro has also made his mark in Georgia high school basketball. As a senior, Okoro has led the Powder Springs-based basketball powerhouse McEachern High School to the GHSA Class 7A state championship. Their first state championship was the culmination of a historic run. McEachern had a perfect 32-0 regular-season record, becoming the first undefeated team in the highest Georgia classification since 1995.

On that day, the scrimmage turned into a showdown between two Georgia high school legends.

Fresh off that historic state title run, Okoro was eager to size up Brown.

Okoro and his co-Atlanta Journal-Constitution state MVP point guard Sharife Cooper engaged Brown’s team in a dogfight that spilled over to a post-scrimmage challenge.

“He (Brown) watched them grow up, and he just came to show them some love. He’s a big brother,” Omar Cooper, Sharife’s father and Okoro’s Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) coach, told Empire Sports Media. “And they played five on five. It got a little testy, and they started playing one-on-one-on-one.”

Okoro and Cooper want a piece of Brown. But the Celtics shooting guard just won’t let them.

“The score was 8 to 8 to 8 like all of them had 8. The first one to score a 9 would win,” Cooper recalled. “Jaylen had the ball and he scored against Sharife to win the game.”

“Isaac wasn’t letting Jaylen go. He followed him, and when Jaylen was putting his clothes on, he’s asking him like, ‘Let’s play again, let’s play again!” And Jaylen Brown says, ‘You know maybe next time.’ And Isaac and Sharife were really, really mad. Isaac really hates losing.”

Fierce competitor

Okoro takes basketball seriously. Whether it is a pickup game or in a tournament, he views the game the same. He will do whatever it takes to win.

That’s how Omar Cooper built the basketball foundation of Okoro, one of the top prospects in this year’s NBA Draft. And up to this day, Omar has been guiding Okoro as the CEO of the Lifestyle Sports Agency in partnership with rapper Lil Wayne’s agency Young Money APAA Sports.

“He was part of a group of kids by Omar Cooper who were late or were not picked in the recreational draft. They worked extremely hard for years. When they got to the middle school, by the time they’re in eighth grade, they were no longer playing in the local leagues anymore. They’re traveling to high school events. That’s were Athletes of Tomorrow (AOT), the AAU program, was started because of those kids,” McEachern High School coach Mike Thompson told Empire Sports Media.

Omar took Okoro under his wings at the age of seven.

Okoro, being the tallest kid in that group, became the de facto center of the team on offense and a swiss-knife army on defense.

“He was the tallest kid and was playing down low [on offense] but he had to guard all five positions. He took this thing seriously. Because when people scored on you and then when we practice, we would get on you and he doesn’t want anybody to get on him. He had to guard people who are a whole foot tall than him, faster than him, ball-handling is crazy and so as a kid when you used to be defending these elite players, when you grow older, you start to defend at a high level,” Omar said.

Okoro’s transformation went through a process. He started out guarding Omar and his 6’5 brother to players who would, later on, become NCAA standouts and NBA draftees.

“When Mike Young (Pittsburgh), who led ACC in scoring, would come back as 6’9 and would punish Isaac for the whole summer. Isaac would go home knowing that Mike Young tomorrow will wear you out again. Then Tony Parker (UCLA), who’s about 6-foot-10, huge guy, MJ Walker (FSU), future NBA players Jaylen Brown (UC), Collin Sexton (Alabama) will come in and wear you out again. These kids will come to the gym to train and Isaac had to guard them. That just built Isaac to be the defender that he is today,” Omar said.

And every day at practice, Okoro had to defend his teammate, Sharife, the crafty 6’1 point guard who has committed to Auburn as well.

“That’s how you learn to defend point guards, you learn how to defend the pick and roll, stand in front of him, how to stop in isolation and then the next day, you’ll have to defend a guy who’s so strong who will bully you,” Omar added.

Winner everywhere

Those defensive instincts Okoro has developed have made him one of the most intriguing prospects in the Draft. He hasn’t skipped a beat since his AAU days. From McEachern High School to Auburn where he grew up to become a solid 6’6, 225-lb guard-forward, Okoro has built a reputation as a solid two-way player and a winner.

“Only a few have that combination of skills, the body, and the work ethic that separates you from the rest. Some people like to play basketball. Some people are basketball players. Isaac is a basketball player,” Thompson raved about his ward.

Okoro has made a strong impact wherever he went.

“When he was seven, eight years old he’s won a state title in a recreational league. He’s never lost a game in middle school. He won championships in 2 of 3 years, the third year we were about to defend our title but he went on to play high school ball. He went undefeated in high school and won state and national championship and you see the run he had in Auburn to no.5 in the country and at one time, were 15-0,” said Omar who spoke glowingly of Okoro’s winner mentality.

“Isaac as a winner is an understatement. Going undefeated as a high school in that national schedule is unheard of.”

Okoro did everything he was asked.

As a freshman at McEachern High School, he averaged 15 points and eight rebounds per game. In his senior year, he was everywhere on the floor posting monster numbers of 19.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 2.7 steals per game. He powered the Indians to the City of Palm Classic and Tournament of Champions titles on top of their undefeated run to the state championship. Fittingly, he became the only second player in the school history to have his jersey retired.

“He’s one of those guys that no matter what program he goes to in the NBA, it will become a better program once he’s there,” Thompson said.

Okoro also had that same impact with Auburn. The Tigers were 25-6 and appeared headed to another deep NCAA run before the college season was cut short by the pandemic. In just one year, he went from a four-star recruit to Auburn’s first one-and-done NBA prospect and a potential high-lottery pick.

Auburn has not produced a lottery pick since Chris Morris went fourth overall in 1988. Chuck Person (fourth pick, 1986) and Charles Barkley (fifth pick, 1984) were the only other Auburn lottery picks.

Despite being the only freshman in the senior-filled starting unit, Okoro has lived up to the hype.

Okoro played like a veteran for Bruce Pearl just like when he hit the game-winning shot with 2.9 seconds left in a thriller against South Alabama in just his third game.

In two of their six losses — a back-to-back against SEC’s bottom-tier teams, Missouri and Georgia — the Tigers felt Okoro’s absence (due to hamstring injury).

It became apparent that he has become the Tigers’ most indispensable player last season.

“Isaac is incredibly valuable to us on both the offensive and defensive end,” Pearl said following that twin loses. “His man never scores, so put him on whoever you’re going to put him on at Georgia, at Missouri or against Tennessee, and that guy’s not scoring. He’s our best help defender, taking charges, getting vertical, ending possessions with rebounds and things like that, and then offensively he’s a really tough cover, another breakdown guy that can get to the rim, and so we miss him a lot.”

Pearl just echoed what he has seen in the preseason: that Okoro is the best defensive player he’s ever coached.

“He can guard 1 to 5. I’ve never had a player be able to do that. Big, strong, physical, and wants to defend. He wants the opponent’s best player. And offensively, he’s just very productive,” Pearl said.

Okoro wound up his short stint with the Tigers with season averages of 12.9 points (second in the team) on just nine shots along with 4.4 rebounds, 09. steals and 0.9 blocks in 28 games. He ranked 10th among NCAA Division I freshmen in field goal percentage (51.4 percent) and he was one of the only three players in the league to average at least 12 points and pile up at least 25 steals and 25 blocked shots.

Kawhi 2.0?

While scouts are high on Okoro’s defensive gifts, the same can’t be said on his lack of outside game. It’s the biggest reason why scouts have been reluctant in ranking Okoro up there on top of the Draft.

Most Draft boards have LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards, and James Wiseman on top with Okoro all over going as high as fourth to as low as eight to ninth pick.

But to Okoro’s coaches, the shooting won’t be a problem in the NBA.

“I wouldn’t make too much of an issue with his shooting — I just wouldn’t,” Pearl told The Athletic. “He’s going to win. He’s going to start. He’s going to work. He’s going to train. He’s going to be disciplined. I don’t think his whole pendulum of whether or not he’s good depends on his shot.

Omar has the same sentiment.

“He can shoot. There’s nothing wrong with his jump shot. He just didn’t shoot enough. He’s a freshman and he had seniors on a team in front of him,” Omar told Empire Sports Media. “I just think that you can’t ask an unselfish kid to be selfish coming into a program as a freshman.”

“He just did what he felt the team needed from him to be successful. Projecting the next level, if you came and saw him work out, you’d be amazed.”

Sifting through the numbers, Omar appears to have a valid argument.

Okoro has only attempted 69 attempts from deep in 28 games with the Tigers. His three-point totals ranked seventh in the team with seniors Samir Doughty (182), Danjel Purifoy (147), J’Von McCormick (131) and Anfernee McLemore (93) leading them in most threes attempted. Okoro has made 20 of his 69 attempts for a 29 percent clip.

“Isaac’s offensive gifts have yet to be unveiled because he hasn’t stayed in college long enough,” Omar said.

Before Okoro went to Auburn, he shot 46 percent of his three-point shots with AOT in the Nike U17 EYBL. In 10 games, he hit 13 out of 28 attempts.

“He’s gonna come out in the NBA where the court is more open. He’s not gonna come in there and gonna try to take over from behind. He’s not gonna do that. He’s gonna come and he’s gonna mature and when that time comes that he develops, like a Kawhi Leonard, Devin Booker, those guys gradually grew into who they became,” Omar said.

Thompson also sees the Kawhi comparison.

“His passion to play defense separates him a little bit from most NBA players. Maybe Kawhi Leonard’s desire to defend as he does. Of course, his game is a little bit like when Kawhi was younger, I think he wasn’t a tremendous offensive player but he’s just tenacious, he’s tough-minded. That’s how he reminded me more than anything. I think he has plenty of time to work on his offensive game and it’s gotten better since he was in high school,” Thompson said.

Leonard also was a 29-percent three-point shooter as a sophomore in San Diego State before he declared for the NBA Draft. As it turned out, Leonard went on to become the biggest steal of his Draft class. Now a two-time champion, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, and a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard is a 38-percent career three-point shooter in the pros thanks to San Antonio Spurs’ shooting coach Chip Engelland who worked on his shot.

While Leonard is an outlier rather than the norm, there is a strong indication that Okoro will likely develop a potent three-point shot in the NBA with a team that has a strong developmental coaching staff.

Okoro had received the same criticism with his shooting when he didn’t make the cut in the 2017 USA U17 Basketball Team.

“He was disappointed. He felt like they didn’t see his best performance. He went there trying to be a team player, moving the ball around and when he left, he felt he could’ve scored more. Because he could but then again, he wanted to be a team player,” Omar said.

Thompson recalled that Okoro would often call him to open the gym for him.

“He’s a hard worker. He’s coachable. You know, he didn’t make the USA team the first time he tried basically because of his offensive skills, his shooting, was not what they needed. But you know he made it the second time because he did go to work on those skills and he was shooting the ball a lot better,” Thompson said.

Okoro only took Sundays as a day off working on his overall game but added extra focus on his jump shot. He said he did take 500 to 1,000 shots a day during that year.

His dedication and determination paid off when he got accepted the next year, joining the likes of RJ Hampton, Jalen Green, and Evan Mobley in the talented-laden team that won the 2018 FIBA U17 World Cup Championship in Argentina.

‘Most ready guy in the Draft’

In all of his four years at McEachern High School, Thompson recalled that Okoro has only missed two practices — first was the 25th wedding anniversary of his parents and the other was a church event where Okoro and his family are active members.

Okoro is locked in, training in Auburn as Nov. 18 couldn’t come sooner.

“I’m watching a lot of NBA films, and I’m working on my game 24 hours a day, 7 days a week not just physically but mentally as well,” Okoro told Empire Sports Media in a short message through Omar.

Okoro added that he’s been studying the games of Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, to Leonard and Nikola Jokic and the stifling defense of the Detroit Pistons’ Bad Boys.

Omar said all 30 teams have reached out to their camp.

Of course, he dreams of having Okoro as the top pick but whichever team bets on his intangibles and high upside, he sees his former player fitting in like a glove.

“He’s a guy who could fit 30 teams,” Omar said.

Thompson thinks the same.

“I really can’t think of any place where he couldn’t fit in. He’s an ultimate team player. He cares more for the team than himself. Even here as a high school player, he deferred to (Sharife) Cooper a lot who was more of an offensive player. Isaac did the things were needed to score. He fitted in Auburn with a lot of older kids you would think it’ll be hard to do but he was well-liked and most probably the best player they’ve had in one year he’s there. And he was the youngest in the starting five,” Thompson said.

Minnesota has the No.1 pick but it is still unclear if they will keep that pick. The Golden State Warriors, who are selecting at No.2 is in the same boat.

The Timberwolves already have their backcourt set with D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley, and Karl-Anthony Towns as their big man. What they seemingly lacked is a lockdown defender in Okoro’s caliber.

The Warriors, if they hold on to their pick, could plug Okoro and play him in Andre Igoudala’s previous role with their championship core.

“He is maybe the most ready guy in the draft,” a Western Conference executive told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps last month. “I think he could go to a team like Golden State or another good team and contribute right away.”

The Knicks are also strongly considering Okoro according to The New York Post.

But he’s not the only wing who is strongly linked to the Knicks. He has competition in FSU’s Devin Vassell, a more polished three-point shooter but with a leaner frame.

But Draft Analyst Matt Babcock believes Okoro should be the Knicks’ pick if both wings are available.

“For me, it’s close between the two. Vassell’s ability to shoot the ball is certainly intriguing in regards to the Knicks current roster. However, I personally think Okoro has the edge over him in my book because he has more upside. Okoro is probably the best overall athlete in the draft and he has a chance to be an elite defender. If he is able to develop his outside shooting, he could end up being a big-time player when it’s all said and done,” Babcock told Empire Sports Media.

Okoro has also the Jimmy Butler aura in him that Tom Thibodeau would love to have in his team.

“He (Okoro) doesn’t get caught up with the bright lights, the glitz, and the glamour. He’s not going to the NBA for the money. He wants to go to the NBA to play against the top competition,” Omar said.

A player like Okoro doesn’t come around often. You can always find a high-scoring player or a skilled passer but not a tenacious lockdown defender who has a strong offensive game to match and has won at every level.

“I know it [the NBA] has become a shooter’s league. You hear it all the time that it’s a make-or-miss league. But it’s also a winner’s league. And you have to be a winner. Isaac is a winner,” Thompson said.

Okoro hates losing as much as he loves winning.

And the next time he’ll have his shot at Brown, it’s no longer just a pickup game. It’s in an NBA game where the stakes are high and where Okoro would love to fly.

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