In the NBA Draft big wings are the most coveted archetype (aside from high-level primary initiators, which many drafts have none). Given the rise of big wing initiators like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons and Zion Williamson, guys who can defend those players will become necessary.
It’s simple supply and demand economics.
On the whole, the NBA is growing, figuratively and physically. Smaller players are going out of style, especially on the defensive end. It is curious, therefore, that Auburn wing Chuma Okeke hasn’t garnered more draft buzz.
At 6’8″, 230 pounds with a reported 7’0″ wingspan, Okeke has ideal size for his position. The 20-year-old sophomore has played a massive role for the Auburn Tigers this season. As they head into the tournament, Okeke will have a chance to play his way up NBA Draft boards.
Okeke is an obvious prospect, in my eyes. It is easy for big wing prospects with little feel and skill to fool people into overrating them because of their frame and a set three-point shot. For Okeke, this is far from the case. His offensive arsenal is varied, featuring a functional handle, effective shot and passing in his toolbox. As a defender off of the ball, Okeke shimmers, where his IQ and tools can shine. With that said, let’s dive deeper into Okeke’s offensive game.
As previously mentioned, Okeke’s diversity adds immense value to his offensive game. Though he is not elite at any one skill, being above average-to great-in every facet of the game is a great indicator of NBA ability. Players with a good set three-point and on-ball defense earn the “3-D” label, which incredulously vaults them high on draft boards (see KZ Okpala).
A player like Chuma Okeke is the antithesis of a KZ Okpala.
Where Okeke lacks in athleticism, he makes up for in feel and skill where Okpala lacks. The fulcrum of Okeke’s offensive ability his is passing, which is excellent for a 6’8″ wing. He’s always reading the defense, scanning the floor, looking for windows to fit passes into. When Okeke executes a drop step, the help comes over. Reading the help mid-move, he sees the open cutter, but flings the pass over his head. Despite the turnover, this is a high-level read:
Later in that game, a similar play occurred. Okeke makes the same move, the same read, but this time, he finds the cutter for a gorgeous assist:
The above plays provide evidence of Okeke’s master of a subtle intricacy all great passers exploit. I like to explain it as a synergy between a player’s passing and scoring programs. The ability to make a move and read the defense at the same time is highly impressive and something many players cannot execute. Take the subject of my last breakdown, Coby White, who often misses open teammates during his scoring attempts and compare it to the Okeke passes above:
He’s enrolled in the Grant Williams school of post passing, where his vision allows him to skip the ball to shooters with his back to the bucket:
An unselfish player, Okeke is always looking for the optimal shot. He routinely makes extra passes, passing up shots for himself in favor of high percentage looks for Auburn’s sniper guards:
Okeke’s passing ability transcends to the next level in combination with his handle. There aren’t many players as big as Okeke with his fluidity and coordination. Combining that fluidity with a functional handle adds great usefulness to Okeke’s offensive presence.
Watch how well Okeke runs with the ball in his hands and sends this pass up the court for the hockey assist:
Okeke shakes Admiral Schofield with a quick crossover, before finding a corner shooter on the move:
Again, a double crossover is all Okeke needs to get a step on Grant Williams. When the help comes, Okeke kicks to the wing which opens up a driving lane:
Okeke’s shooting makes him a threat out of the pick-and-pop, where his shooting forces defenders to recover hard. When Okeke spies a poor closeout, he attacks the defender, here whizzing a ball across the court, eventually netting an open three:
When Okeke notices Schofield worrying about the potential dribble handoff, he takes the ball himself all the way to the cup:
If you’re not yet in on Okeke’s offense, it’s time to talk about his shooting ability. Okeke is an excellent three-point shooter, shooting 38.3% from deep on 4.9 attempts per 40 in his two seasons in Auburn. He passes the two-point test (.577 2P%) and the free throw test (.713%). In turn, it’s fair to assume Okeke’s shooting figure is legit.
His range extends out to the NBA line, as he’s 28-74 (37.84%) from the NBA line this season (updated March 4th, via the Stepien shot chart). With smooth, fluid mechanics, Okeke confidently rises up for threes, sinking this one with a Grant Williams hand in his face:
Adding icing to an already fantastic cake, Okeke has flashed some shooting off of movement. If this is something Okeke can add to his game somewhat consistently, his offensive value would skyrocket. In the limited sample we have, Okeke seems comfortable setting his feet quickly and hitting the shot:
The most glaring flaw in Okeke’s game is his lack of athleticism, which does raise fair questions about how much of his offense can truly be effective in the NBA. Okeke does not lack touch, supported by his 2P% and his 70.1% efficiency at the rim (per the Stepien shot chart), but he struggles to finish against strength and length.
When he doesn’t have an avenue to utilize his fluidity, touch and length, Okeke’s effectiveness at the rim wanes greatly in the presence of heavy contact:
Despite his athletic limitations, Okeke has shown enough skill to be confident in his offensive translation. He clearly passes the 3-D wing test, as his bag is filled with far more than a set three-point shot. High IQ players are often the ones who exceed their projected ceiling. While Okeke is likely nothing more than a role player at the next level, his feel for the game, handling skill and movement shooting are the avenues for him to reach a higher plane.
We’re going to start with the bad here, as Okeke is a great defensive prospect with one severe limitation. Once again, we’re discussing his athleticism, which hurts his potential switchability more than anything else.
Okeke’s defensive upside comes from his length, strength and IQ, making him a better team defender than an individual defender. While I value team defense more than individual defense, being a good man defender is important. Okeke is fluid, but he isn’t filled with burst, especially laterally. Adding onto his quickness problem, Okeke’s stance on defense is inconsistent.
He often neglects a deep bend his knees and stands with a hunch in his back, making changing directions and sliding swiftly exceedingly difficult. Cleaning up this technical flaw would do wonders for his switchability. Faster players routinely blow by Okeke, taking advantage of his athleticism, poor closeouts (at times) and poor technique:
When Okeke squares off against players with lesser quickness/handles, he does fine defending on the ball and can even stymie guard drives at times. His excellent length acts as a corrective tool and as a deterrent; Okeke can poke the ball away and contest with length if his man gets by him:
In many ways, Chuma Okeke is the dark matter version of De’Andre Hunter. Hunter has a similar frame but vastly different defensive strengths. He’s a lockdown point of attack defender who is good laterally and technically pristine. Hunter is best defending guards and struggles off of the ball, posting historically low stock numbers.
On the other hand, Okeke is a technical mess on the ball and is best defending bigger players. However, his stocks per 40 are excellent (5.0), using his length and IQ to make plays on and off of the ball. Defending on the ball, Okeke’s length pops, as he can bother the shots of players taller and more athletic than him with ease:
Merely moving his arms, which harken back to those floppy demons at car dealerships, in an upward direction force a turnover:
Okeke’s outstretched branches blow up this handoff by themselves, forcing Alabama’s offense to reset:
Okeke’s IQ off of the ball is fantastic, as evidenced by his high stock numbers. His rotations are quick and crisp and he is an event creator off of the ball. Like a great free safety, Okeke reads the driving Admiral Schofield, anticipating the pass and creating a turnover:
Okeke is quick to help off on the drive, forcing Kira Lewis to recalibrate and blocking his layup attempt:
It isn’t hard to envision Okeke developing into a Robert Covington level team defender. While his point of attack struggles might hurt his utility in the playoffs, his size and feel for the game should enable him to be a competent team defender at the minimum from day one, something most rookies are far from.
Positional scarcity is going to factor into the decision of whichever team ultimately decides to call Chuma Okeke’s name. Though he is not a lock to declare, some recent draft buzz (28th in Sports Illustrated’s latest mock draft) could pique his interests. Auburn has the potential to go far in the NCAA Tournament, and a big run from Okeke would cement his first round status. In all likelihood, Okeke will at least test the waters.
On my recent top 100, I had Okeke slated 25th, near the top of my fourth tier. That’s the range I’d feel great drafting him. He’s an ideal fit for a team in contention due to his baseline of skills and possible growth. Though Okeke is going to be able to play right away, movement shooting and expanding his IQ and feel is the key to unlocking even more upside.
I could rationalize drafting Okeke as high as the mid-teens if the fit was right, but at some point, it is wise to swing for a higher upside player. As a big wing with plenty of skill and IQ, Okeke will have a place in the NBA and has the potential for a long, successful career. That career progresses on Thursday morning, where his foray into March Madness has the chance to decide his fate.
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