LOTTERY-BOUND I 10 lottery teams eye Auburn star I Bruce Pearl to NBA teams: Sharife Cooper is a ‘once-every-10-year’ point guard

knicks, sharife cooper

There are two particular big games in Sharife Cooper’s young career that convinced his coaches he’s going to be an elite point guard in the NBA.

In 2019, with McEachern’s perfect season on the line, Cooper led the Indians to a come-from-behind win against his AAU teammate-turned rival BJ Boston and Norcross in the state semifinals.

“I’ll always remember playing against Norcross in the state semifinals during his junior year,” McEachern coach Mike Thompson told Empire Sports Media.

The game was a rematch of the previous year’s quarterfinals, where Norcross knocked off Cooper’s team. It looked like a deja vu was in the offing.

“At halftime, we’re getting beat. He and Isaac (Okoro) were not playing very well. Sharife had not played well in his freshman or sophomore year in the last game that we had. And I wore him out really bad. I got on him as hard as I’ve ever got into a kid at halftime,” Thompson recalled.

Then something happened. Cooper turned on the switch button.

“He looked me in the eye and took everything that I’ve said. He went out and dominated the second half against Norcross and took us to the state championship. And we won the state championship,” Thompson said.

Cooper willed the Indians to an epic 66-62 win. He led the scoring with 26 points while Okoro, his partner-in-crime and the fifth pick in last year’s NBA Draft with the Cleveland Cavaliers, had 18 after the duo combined for only eight in the first half.

“[Sharife] was very coachable and I was always excited for him because I felt like that was the time he took the most pressure-packed moment and he turned into the very best player in that situation. That I will never forget,” Thompson said.

That year, the Indians went undefeated in 32 games for McEachern’s first state title in school history and became the first undefeated team in the highest Georgia classification since 1995. Cooper averaged 27.2 points, 8.1 assists, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.3 steals per game in an MVP season that spilled over several tournaments after that historic run. Prior to his stellar high school career, his AAU team went undefeated during his middle school.

Fast forward to January of this year, Cooper’s much-anticipated college debut after missing Auburn’s first 11 games due to eligibility issues.

“Players of less character and less commitment to the team would have walked away,” Bruce Pearl told Empire Sports Media.

“He came in everything that he was allowed to come to. He was 100 percent supportive of his teammates throughout that process. And I tell you what, that is rare. That fervent leadership with nothing to be gained by him. He was gonna stay ready.  He missed 72 days of practice. And the night before we played Alabama, an early afternoon game, he found out he was eligible and he came out the next day. He scored 23 in the second half in his first game.”

Cooper is a hooper. Without a single practice in the last two-and-a-half months, he was thrown into the fire but still dominated the game. He overcame a jittery start and ended up with a game-high 26 points and nine assists in a narrow 94-90 loss to in-state rival Alabama.

Right at that moment, Pearl saw up close how special Cooper is. He was as good as advertised.

“Sharife is a once-every-ten-year fast-breaking, playmaking, transition, and ball-screen floor general with his ability to make plays for himself and others,” Pearl said.

Cooper supercharged a lethargic Auburn offense. He produced 39.6 points per game via his own scoring or assists, the best in all of the college basketball last season, per Synergy. He tops all guards in the upcoming NBA Draft in points created via assists, per Shot Quality.

In the 12 games that Cooper played, Auburn averaged 83 points while its offense sputtered and coughed up only 72.5 points in 15 games without him. 

 

“He had a pied piper effect. He has the ability to bring other guys along with him which is great for a point guard,” Pearl said.

Ira Bowman, Pearl’s assistant coach and the guy assigned to Cooper during his time in Auburn, marveled at the point guard’s effect on the team.

“[Sharife] is one of those guys who see what the group needs. He is the guy that’s gonna be vocal when he needs to. He’s a leader by example guy but he’s a guy that brings people together. There are guys who are good distributors, good playmakers but he’s the type of guy that makes people around him really, really good,” Bowman told Empire Sports Media in a separate interview.

“Sharife is a unique player. I’ve been in the SEC for five years but I’ve never seen anyone like him. He’s one of the hardest-working kids I’ve been around and he’s a sponge for the game. He has certain God-given gifts that you can’t teach. His ball-handling, his passing, his vision, his leadership are unparalleled.”

The NBA Playoffs saw how Trae Young made Clint Capela a lob threat, how Chris Paul unlocked Deandre Ayton. Cooper had the same effect on every team he’s played with, from AOT in the AAU circuits to McEachern and Auburn.

“If you look at Isaac Okoro, who was the fifth pick in last year’s Draft, he’s a much different player when he was playing with Sharife. You talk about BJ Boston, looking at a lot of these mock drafts they have him in early second round. But when he played with Sharife, he was a Top-5 player in his class. Then there’s Allen Flanigan, Devan Cambridge and so on,” Bowman said.

“That’s just kind of what he does because he’s elite with playmaking, passing with either hand. Because no one can stand in front of him and he can get to wherever he wants to go on the floor. He’s naturally gifted who looks to make a pass first and find easier shots for the other guys. Again, there are people who train their whole life that can’t do those things and he’s naturally gifted,” Bowman said.

The Cooper effect in Auburn was on full display during his brief stint there.

In the 12 games Cooper played, Cambridge had 8 double-figure games. JT Thor, the other Auburn player expected to go in the first round of the NBA Draft, had also hit in double figures in eight games. Flanigan did it in 11 games, including four with at least 19 points.

In the 15 games without Cooper, Cambridge could only hit the double-digit mark in just six games, Thor in eight games, and Flanigan in 10 games.

“I felt like at Auburn, if they had anybody who could knock down shots, he might have averaged 20 assists a game there,” Thompson said.

Cooper will greatly benefit from the floor spacing and better overall talent in the NBA than the young team he had at Auburn.

As much as he’s adept in making plays, he’s also producing buckets in a variety of ways. Those are the two swing skills that intrigued Pearl when Cooper was making waves in Georgia.

“His ability to score and play in traffic. That being undersized, you thought physically you could bounce him around. But he has an uncanny way of delivering passes on time, and on target, and scoring in really crowded places. The other thing is he is ambidextrous. Whatever he could do with his left hand, he could do with his right hand,” Pearl said.

It’s so easy to nitpick his size or the lack of it. But Bowman swears he doesn’t see Cooper regressing in the next level.

Despite being undersized, Cooper has that competitive edge, dog mentality which Bowman attributed to his father Omar, who grew up in the New Jersey-New York area before uprooting his family to Atlanta.

“When you go up against Sharife, the things that you’ll realize is that he’s faster than you think, he’s bigger than you think, he’s stronger than you think. I’ve been around him probably half his life and I haven’t seen him bullied on defense and I’m a thousand (percent) sure it won’t happen in the next level,” Bowman said.

Cooper joined Young as the only freshmen to average 20 points and eight assists in college basketball in the last 30 years. Aside from sharing that record with Young, Cooper also draws comparison to the Hawks’ rising superstar for his propensity for drawing fouls. In 12 games with Auburn, Cooper averaged 8.6 attempts and converted a solid 83 percent.

“I think he’s gonna be a championship-level point guard who’s gonna be a multiple All-Star guard. I’ve been around long enough. I watched Kyrie as a freshman — before he went to St. Patrick’s School, before he became who he was. I watched Chris Paul before what people thought he was. The crazy thing is that Trae Young, having the success that he’s having now, Sharife did what Trae did in the EYBL circuit,” Bowman said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the teams that doubted Donovan Mitchell, that doubted Trae Young, they will be the same teams who’ll wish they have [Sharife] because again the things he brings to a team, you can’t teach,” he added.

The last seven NBA champion teams have an elite point guard — Tony Parker (Spurs), Kyrie Irving (Cavaliers), Stephen Curry (Warriors), Kyle Lowry (Raptors), and Rajon Rondo (Lakers). Paul is trying to join that club this season. Young could soon follow.

Each point guard has his own strengths and weaknesses but what stand out is the elite vision, playmaking, and championship poise that propelled their team to greater heights.

Cooper possesses those qualities. If there’s an only blemish on his dominant college run, it was his shaky outside shooting. But his coaches believe that he is a better shooter than what his 23-percent clip from the three-point range suggests.

“I think because he’s so gifted getting into the rim and getting others the ball that his mindset was to make a play and score first, shoot last,” Pearl explained. “That was a function of why he didn’t shoot a great percentage. And of course, he didn’t have a lot of opportunities. I think he’ll really be a good NBA shooter because there will be times when he will be hunting for his shot. He’s so productive breaking his opponent down. That’s his first and second thought.”

Bowman offered another layer of context.

“People say, look at his shooting percentages. But he’s a much better shooter than his shot and the numbers he showed in the sense that he played the season after sitting out for 72 days of practice and never really got his legs. All the stuff that he does, he’s a leader. I’ve been in this [coaching] for a while and never coached a kid that can do everything on the floor. And obviously, he’s gonna will his way to be a great player. He will never be satisfied with being great,” Bowman said.

“As far as working on his game, he’s shooting thousands of shots a day. The percentages don’t show where he is but he’s always been a good shooter. He’s gonna be a great shooter with a year of training camp because like I said, he jumped right in the middle of the season and didn’t have his legs and played catchup for the rest of the year. Because he’s so gifted in doing the other things and nobody can stand in front of him, it’s just one of those things where he got settled with some of those shots. So, I’m not concerned at all.”

Thompson, meanwhile, pointed to Cooper’s shooting display in his Pro Day at the Draft Combine in Chicago to prove that it was just an outlier.

“He shot it really well during his junior year and I think he really did a work on that heading into the Draft Combine and his Pro Day. And he showed in his Pro Day that he can really shoot well. As a matter of fact, he got a standing ovation from a lot of executives,” Thompson said.

In the EYBL circuit during his junior year, Cooper shot 35 percent on 5.7 attempted 3s in 10 games, per Real GM. There were no available statistics that show his shooting percentages during his undefeated run with McEachern. But his solid free-throw shooting clip in college provides hope that Cooper’s struggle from long-distance at Auburn is just an aberration.

More than 20 NBA teams have reached out to Pearl and spoke with him at great length about Cooper. All of them had the same question: “At his size, what do you think? Is he gonna make it as a star in the NBA?”

“That question has always been asked. It’s been asked in his high school career and he was the national player of the year and went undefeated during his junior season. It was asked in college and he averaged 20 points and almost 10 assists. And so, it’s gonna be asked at the next level but Sharife has always proven everybody wrong. That’s for a fact,” Pearl said.

How will he do that? By just staying true to himself.

Bowman gave us a peek at what made Cooper successful in every level he’s been to, which will translate well in the NBA.

“I’ve been watching him since the seventh grade. You see young kids that make mistakes and just shrug it off but he’s somebody who was obsessed with not turning it over, obsessed with making the right plays. I’ve seen him do things that didn’t work and come back and make adjustments. He does it on the fly. You rarely see him make the same mistakes twice. Those are things you can’t teach. That’s the basketball junkie that he is. He’s obsessed with being great. That’s what’s gonna happen,” Bowman said.

During his one-and-done season at Auburn, Bowman and Cooper were almost inseparable.

“He’s somebody that made me stay in shape with the amount of time that he was in the gym,” Bowman said in jest. “It’s just like having another whole job. Being able to make sure he’s getting satisfied with his basketball skill work. It was refreshing in the sense that it’s a throwback. He’s not somebody that sits around and hopes things happen. He’s gonna figure out what to do and how to make it happen.”

Cooper starts his day with what he called a ‘Breakfast Club’ at 6’o clock in the morning with basketball on his plate. After an early morning shootaround, he eats his real breakfast and attends his class. After lunch, he hits the weight room before going to practice. Then after practice, he does extra shooting before retreating to the film room. After dinner, he comes back for more extra work until 11 at night.

“He’s a gym rat,” Bowman said. “Night, morning, he’s always in the gym. He’ll do everything that we, coaches, asked our players to do and he’s gonna do more. He’s not gonna get outworked. The first guy in the gym, the cliché, last to leave but he’s also coming back. His work ethic is unparalleled. His mindset was already a pro.”

Any team in the NBA would love to have that type of player. He blew away a lot of teams during his Pro Day workout.

Auburn’s Sharife Cooper is touted to be the next elite point guard to make the NBA jump. (Getty Images/Walt Beazley/Arkansas Athletics/USA Today Sports)

Young went No. 5 in his class, Paul went No. 4. So his coaches believe that Cooper, who had done stuff that Young did in high school and college and has the court smarts of Paul that elevates his teammates, is lottery-bound.

Overall, 10 of 12 the teams in the lottery have either met or scheduled to meet with Cooper: Houston Rockets (No. 2, 23, 24) Cleveland Cavaliers (No. 3), Toronto Raptors (No. 4), Orlando Magic (No. 5, 8), Oklahoma City Thunder (No. 6, 16, 18), Golden State Warriors (No. 7, 14), Sacramento Kings (No. 9), New Orleans Pelicans (No. 10), Charlotte Hornets (No. 11) and Indiana Pacers (No.13).

The other teams from the outside (of the lottery) looking in who are confirmed to have either met Cooper or worked him out are the Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Hawks.

According to a source, that list is expected to grow to 25 teams before the NBA Draft on July 29.

“Everything (mock draft) I read has him going to New York. I think that’d be a great fit. They need a point guard. I think he’d be great in that city. That city would embrace him,” Thompson weighed in.

“He’s spent a lot of times in New Jersey. That’s where his family is originally from. He knows [the Knicks] really well. I think his mind — his psyche – that’s one of the strongest suits he has. I think he’ll just be fine there. He’s an entertainer and he will be a perfect fit in New York,” he added.

Curiously, the Knicks haven’t met Cooper yet. However, ESPN’s Draft Analyst Jonathan Givony noted on ESPN’s latest NBA Mock Draft after the Combine that “the Knicks’ front-office brass and head coach Tom Thibodeau were front and center in Chicago for Cooper’s pro day, where he had a strong showing.”

Pearl also highlighted Cooper’s New Jersey roots.

“Here’s the thing, he identifies with New Jersey. That’s where he’s born. That’s where his dad played ball. Even if he played high school ball in Atlanta, he knows his roots. He knows where he’s from. He’s just a loyal kid that is grateful for the opportunity,” he said.

But both the New York teams are outside the lottery. According to a source, the Knicks have a level of interest after doing their due diligence on Cooper. With Cooper already on the radar of eight lottery teams, both the Knicks and the Nets might have to trade up if they really want the star point guard out of Auburn.

Bowman believes Cooper is the best pure point guard of this class, and he’s a plug-and-play guy right away, noting the impact of Trae Young and Chris Paul in this NBA playoffs.

“At this point, you don’t know who has the most interest. Everybody is doing their due diligence. I will just say that there’s a group of teams that needs a point guard,” Bowman said. “That they would be more successful if they have a guy like Sharife and I’m not saying who I like or who I don’t like. But I’m gonna say, whoever gets him will be lucky.”

“But you look at the Knicks and what Trae Young did to them, and the Sixers on what Trae Young did to them, and you look at the Lakers on what Chris Paul did to them. So you talk about the Lakers, Clippers, the Rockets who are rebuilding who don’t have a point guard. There are tons of teams who can plug him in and help immediately. But obviously, being from the Northeast, we talk about, you see the Knicks and the Sixers how they played.”

“Any team that sees the value in a true leader and a guy who’s gonna make people around him better, I think anybody would be lucky to have him. But I like Golden State. I don’t think Steph Curry is a point guard in a grand sense of things because he’s coming off so many screens and can do a lot with the ball if he had somebody who can set him and Klay Thompson up coming off the screen. I just see [Sharife] getting successful at about every stop,” he explained.

Pearl views Cooper in the same mold as the top point guards in today’s NBA. And he hopes whichever team that picks his former star player will trust him the way he did, akin to how Monty Williams trusts Paul that propelled the Suns two wins away from an NBA championship.

“Obviously, [Sharife should go to] a team that truly wants a point guard. In this day of positionless basketball, sometimes coaches have different people bringing up the ball on the floor. It’s got to be a coach who wants to put the ball in Sharife Cooper’s hands and let him run the team,” Pearl said.

“Lead point guards are not for every system, not for every coach. And I think that’s where the question – does Chris Paul, Trae Young, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, their ability to run a team and break people down and get everybody involved interests you? – if that’s a fit for that head coach, then great. But if he’s a coach who doesn’t care who leads the break and brings the ball up the floor, then Sharife wouldn’t be attractive to them. I couldn’t do anything more productive offensively than putting the ball on the hands of Sharife. Give him space, and let him make plays.”

His coaches can’t wait to watch Cooper’s next big game, this time in the NBA, to let his next coach and the fans see for themselves what they saw in him throughout these years.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Obi Toppin and his family of Knicks fans excited for his Garden debut

New York Knicks, Obi Toppin

Obi Toppin grew up in a family of New York Knicks fans. His grandfather was a season-ticket holder.

“He went to every game,’’ Toppin said. “You go to dinner with him, and he’ll tell you a thousand stories of him going there.’’

Toppin’s father, Obadiah Sr. once graced the Madison Square Garden with his dunks in a one-on-one basketball tournament called The Last Man Standing.

On Wednesday night, it will be Toppin’s turn to create his own highlights at The Garden that will definitely become his grandfather’s favorite Knicks story.

“It’s going to be amazing,’’ Toppin told reporters on a Zoom call Tuesday about his much-awaited Garden debut. “I’m from here. I’ve been watching the Knicks all my life. My family’s been a fan of the Knicks since I wasn’t even born. Me having an opportunity to step on the court with these guys and compete against another team is going to be amazing. I can’t wait for that time to come.’’

Draft Day twist

Toppin and the Knicks will continue their preseason schedule against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that has been linked to him in most mock drafts at No. 5. Toppin played college ball near Cleveland in Dayton, Ohio.

Luckily for him and the Knicks, the Cavaliers went to select Auburn’s defensive ace Isaac Okoro, who has been a revelation in the preseason so far.

Toppin, who dropped to the Knicks’ lap at No. 8, said he wouldn’t trade the opportunity to play for his hometown team for anything else in the world.

Family of Knicks fans

His mother, Roni Toppin, even tweeted a photo of him wearing a Latrell Sprewell jersey when he was a kid after the Knicks picked him.

Toppin’s grandfather Richard Riccardi used to bring Roni to the games.

“I still have a cassette of Go NY Go NY Go and a ticket from the ’93 (I think) playoffs,” Roni told Empire Sports Media in a separate interview.

“[My father] is so proud of Obi. He tells everyone he meets, even the cashier at Costco,” Roni added.

Obi, by his estimate, has been to the Knicks games no more than five times. Roni’s last recollection of bringing Obi to The Garden was when Obadiah Sr., who goes by his streetball monicker Dunker’s Delight, competed as a finalist in The Last Man Standing.

Too bad they won’t be around when Toppin makes his Garden debut to the strict Covid-19 protocols that won’t allow fans to watch in the venue.

Roller coaster start

Toppin was spectacular in his Knicks debut, a 90-84 win against the Detroit Pistons last Friday night. The Brooklyn native had 11 points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench. But he followed that up with a dud two days later as the Pistons paid more attention to him.

“I just felt like I was rushing things a little bit more than I was in the first [game],” Toppin said. “I felt like I was a little settled and calm in the first game while in the second game, I was just trying to, basically, do too much. But I have to understand the pace of the game and just flow with that, do anything I can to help the team.

He’s eager to atone for his lackluster 1-of-9 shooting performance, including two clunkers from 30-feet deep.

“I feel comfortable shooting the three, not super far, not Steph Curry range, but I feel very, very comfortable shooting the three. My teammates found me in spots. I just have to make them. I’ve been working on them every single day, so when the time comes for me to make those shots, I may be able to make them. I just have to slow down and concentrate,” Toppin said.

Learning experience

Those first two games were a learning experience for him. He said he’s starting to get a feel of the NBA game.

Thibodeau saw Toppin’s eagerness to bounce back during their team practice following their 99-91 loss to the Pistons.

“Probably the biggest thing about being a pro is there’s gonna be ups and downs. It’s probably easier the first game. In the second game, he got attention on him,” Thibodeau said.

He added that Toppin could impact the game without shooting well.

“Again, he can score a number of different ways — he can score running the floor, he can score on the post, he can score off the drive, he can score with his jump shot. Mixing it up, scoring different ways, playing well defensively, try getting stops, getting on the open floor,” Thibodeau explained.

“He’s a terrific kid, a great worker. Study film. Each game, you may not win. And if you don’t win… I want you to learn. He took a hard look at himself. And what he could do better. He came in, study, work hard, and he had a great practice today [Tuesday]. And just be ready for tomorrow [Wednesday]. The games keep on coming. You have to keep on getting better.”

Toppin will put those lessons to test against the Cavaliers. Hopefully, he’ll ace it and come out with a win that will make his family of Knicks fans even prouder.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Source: Isaac Okoro works out for Timberwolves in Auburn

Since 2011, the NBA championships have been greatly influenced by the league’s elite wingmen. LeBron James won the NBA Finals MVP award four times. Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, each had two, while Andre Igoudala had one at the start of the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty in the 2014-15 season.

It is along with this line of thought that makes Auburn’s one-and-done wingman Isaac Okoro such an intriguing prospect. He’s been one of the biggest risers in the Draft, drawing interests from high lottery teams, including the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have the No. 1 pick.

A source with knowledge of the situation tells Empire Sports Media that a Timberwolves delegation went to Auburn to watch Okoro work out in person last week. The source added he was impressive during the workout.

The Timberwolves are dreaming of contending in the stacked Western Conference. But for them to compete, they need an impactful wing they lost when they let Jimmy Butler walk away.

Okoro could give them the defensive swagger and playmaking that will perfectly complement Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell’s offensive games.

The 19-year old Okoro is widely regarded as the best perimeter defender in this draft class.

The 6’6 forward, built like a tank with his 225-pound body and armed with a bull-strong game and winner’s mentality, has drawn comparisons to Igoudala, Leonard, and Jimmy Butler.

ESPN’s NBA Draft analyst Mike Schmitz said Okoro has one of the highest floors.

“He was one of the most impactful defenders in the college game and has All-NBA potentials thanks to his excellent lateral quickness, high-intensity level, and sound technique,” Schmitz wrote.

Schmitz also noted that Okoro “plays a position and role that is extremely hard to find in today’s NBA.”

Okoro has impacted winning in every stop, scoring championships from AAU to high school and, at one point, led Auburn to a rousing 15-0 start last season. The Tigers were 25-6 when the Covid-19 pandemic stopped the college season.

“He is maybe the most-ready guy in the draft,” a Western Conference executive told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps last September.

Okoro has a shot at becoming Auburn’s highest-drafted player since Chris Morris (no. 4 in 1988), Chuck Person (no. 4 in 1986), and Charles Barkley (no. 5 in 1984).

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

New York Knicks: Isaac Okoro’s winning style of play is needed

There’ve been plenty of draft, trade, and free agency rumors circulating the New York Knicks’ franchise these past couple of days. A ton of things could happen on draft night as well as in free agency. The one thing that’s certain is Isaac Okoro’s winning style of play is needed on a young developing New York Knicks roster.

Isaac Okoro emulates his playing style after players like Jaylen Brown, Andre Iguodala, and Kawhi Leonard. Okoro, praises Kawhi Leonard’s approach to the game during a virtual interview with an NBA analyst.

 

Isaac Okoro was interviewed by NBA Draft analyst Mike Schmitz of ESPN. Mike Schmitz is also a contributor to a private scouting and analytics service by the name of DraftExpress. The two completed a virtual ESPN film session comparing Isaac Okoro’s style to other current and former NBA players.

What would Okoro bring to the New York Knicks? 

The intangibles that Okoro brings to the game on a nightly basis was evident during the entire virtual film session. Okoro’s motor, defense, defensive IQ, finishing ability, and Okoro’s underrated playmaking ability showed that there could be a case made for him to potentially end up being the steal of the 2020 NBA Draft. The prospect out of Auburn has tremendous upside and he’s shown time and time again on the basketball court that he’s a bonafide winner during his freshman year at Auburn.

Tom Thibodeau along with the rest of the current Knicks coaching and developmental staff would be an ideal opportunity for Isaac Okoro. The Knicks staff consist of experienced teachers from the Kenny Paynes’ to the Mike Woodsons’ and Johnny Bryants’. Combine the knowledge of the Knicks’ developmental staff along with Isaac Okoro’s desire to play defense and learn the game, and the potential to become a two-way star for years to come is suddenly a strong possibility.

Overall, The New York Knicks are in a position to select a strong defensive-minded young player filled with potential. The question is whether or not a team selecting before the Knicks will reach for the young talented prospect out of Auburn University.

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.

Auburn wing Isaac Okoro ‘has support’ in the Knicks organization (Report)

New York Knicks, Tom Thibodeau

The New York Knicks select eighth in the 2020 NBA Draft and reportedly have interest in Auburn wing Issac Okoro.

An NBA source tells Marc Berman of the New York Post that Okoro “has support among Knicks brass.”

Okoro played one season at Auburn, starting all 28 games he appeared in. He averaged 12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and two assists per game while shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from beyond the arc.

Berman mentions that Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said the Knicks have done their “due diligence” on Okoro.

“They’ve done their homework on him,” Pearl told The Post recently. “I didn’t get a read on it, but they’ve done their due diligence.”

If Okoro falls and is selected by the Knicks, he would likely be a day-one starter alongside 2019 first-round draft pick RJ Barrett.

Other potential wing/forward options for the Knicks at eight include Florida State’s Devin Vassell, Vanderbilt’s Aaron Nesmith and Villanova’s Saddiq Bey. SNY’s Ian Begley reported last week that Vassell has “some fans” in the Knicks organization.

In the scenario they select a point guard at eight, such as Killian Hayes or UNC’s Cole Anthony, the Knicks could draft a wing/forward with their second first-round draft pick (27). Potential options at said position are Louisville’s Jordan Nwora and Colorado’s Tyler Bey.

The Knicks pick in the top 10 of the NBA Draft for the fourth consecutive season. Last year they drafted Barrett out of Duke with the third pick; the year prior they drafted Kentucky forward Kevin Knox at nine; in 2017 they drafted French point guard Frank Ntilikina with the eighth pick.

New York has revamped its front office and coaching staff over the last seven months, most notably hiring former agent Leon Rose as team president and former Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau as head coach. Former Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne and former Utah Jazz assistant Johnnie Bryant have joined Thibodeau’s coaching staff.