The Minnesota Timberwolves have an 11-12 record, are placed 13th in the Western Conference, and have a 2-8 road record. If you’re not privy to the topsy-turvy life of the teams in the Western Conference, and not aware of the antecedents of the Wolves this season, you will be pardoned for thinking the Wolves have nothing to be proud of.
However, the Western Conference is currently embroiled in one of the closest races for playoff spots in recent history. The Wolves are just one game behind the Dallas Mavericks, who currently occupy the last playoff spot. Just a game ago, the Wolves occupied that position. And they are just 4.5 games behind the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers, who both have the same 15-7 record, and currently sit atop the constantly shifting Western Conference.
That’s not all. Just a few weeks ago the T-Wolves were carrying a 4-9 record, which included 0-7 on the road. That was where the Timberwolves were, the day Jimmy Butler was traded. Since then, the Wolves are 2-1 in road games and have been 7-3 overall.
These improvements have been due to several factors: the arrival of Dario Saric and Robert Covington improved the Wolves both offensively and defensively, Derrick Rose has rediscovered himself, playing at a level close to the one that earned him rave reviews at Chicago, and the Wolves have become deeper.
And above all, Josh Okogie has stepped up big time … and it’s not accidental.
When the Nigerian small forward was selected with the 20th pick in the 2018 Draft, many thought he would be an understudy to Jimmy Butler for several years. The first part was true, the second didn’t happen. Butler did put Okogie under his wing. The Nigerian told CBS in an interview shortly after Butler departed for Philadelphia that the four-time All-Star constantly told him to ‘Shoot the ball, because that’s who you are’, even if he missed a million times. This was one of many lessons Butler passed on.
But, apart from the lessons, Okogie is developing into a prototype of the four-time All-Star. Their positioning and records are curiously similar. They play the same position as both shooting guard and/or small forward. Early in his career, Butler averaged 8.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.0 steals in 26.0 minutes, playing under Tom Thibodeau. In Okogie’s first year, he’s averaging 7.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 0.9 steals, also playing under Thibodeau. But while Butler recorded those statistics as a 23-year-old second-year player, Okogie is a 20-year-old rookie.
Just like Butler, the best part of Okogie’s game is not captured by statistics. While the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns, Derrick Rose, Andrew Wiggins and Robert Covington deliver the points, the 20-year-old brings a replica of the energy level Butler delivers at both ends of the floor. There was no better evidence than in the win over the Indiana Pacers, when he came off the bench as a replacement for Andrew Wiggins.
As it is, only six rookies are playing more minutes than Okogie and that says a whole lot. Because Thibodeau is one coach who does not put much stock in rookies, so, for Okogie to be playing that much says something about the confidence the 2011 NBA Coach of the Year has in him.
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