What are the Next Steps for KZ Okpala?

The Miami Heat kick off their first preseason game in less than 4 weeks, which leads to the beginning of some season previews. I’ve already broke down the roles, fitting offensive actions, and needed improvements from everybody on the roster, which leads us into this new article series.

I’ll be going through the entire roster once again, answering any questions you guys may have heading into the new year. And when evaluating certain player’s next steps in their game, there’s no better way to start than KZ Okpala who has plenty of questions to be answered.

Now, I think the only one who can truly erase some of those question marks is Okpala, and it’s most likely going to have to come behind the scenes. Anyway, let’s hop right into the future of Okpala in this league.

The answer to the first question above is absolutely, and I’ll tell you why.

For starters, there isn’t one part of his offensive game that has shown any flashes. An inability to create separation on the attack, no smooth element as a scorer, and a lack of a three-point shot. But with that said, the one thing that can actually be developed and save his overall production is outside shooting.

It doesn’t mean he has to be a great three-point shooter. He just has to do enough to survive on that end of the floor.

3 and D is best case scenario when talking about Okpala’s offensive focus, and as mentioned in the second question, I also agree that corner shots are most important. The reason for that is Okpala won’t ever be used within offensive actions in the near future, but if he’s put out on the floor, he has to occupy space beyond that corner three.

When talking about guys who take up space in the corner without a consistent jumper, I think of the way defenses treated Andre Iguodala in past years with Miami. As much as that was an offensive headache for some, it was schemed around at times due to his high IQ to cut at perfect times and hit the middle of the floor to play-make.

That just won’t be a staple of Okpala’s game. To have a chance at cracking the rotation in the future, that three-point shot has to fall consistently, and the urge to continually try and drive to the basket will probably have to lay back.

Although I highlighted the role of Okpala that would be most ideal, the point that I’m making is about the future. After seeing him in Summer League a couple weeks ago, there aren’t any major on-court offensive strides taking place, meaning there isn’t a specific offensive scheme that stands out from the others.

I will say that getting out into transition would be hugely beneficial for him if he’s used as a plug and play guy at different points of the season. That’s where he was effective in college at times, due to his length and speed beating others down the floor for easy buckets.

And by the way, his baseline to baseline ball pressure led to plenty of that as well. On a defensive team with the updated Heat roster, we should see an increase in frequency when discussing getting out on the break.

Now to the second question above, I’ve watched more than enough film on Okpala to know that his defensive perception isn’t a myth. He has the prototypical length and quickness, but that’s not even the part that carries him on that end of the floor.

He’s fantastic one-on-one, which we saw on a different level when Miami played the Brooklyn Nets, leading to him defending Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant from possession to possession. I’d say his number one attribute is just pressuring full-court, which was seen in the 2-2-1 press throughout the season.

Although there are plenty of positives about his defensive skill-set, there are two very clear issues that will need to be cleaned up. The first one is foul trouble, due to his over-aggression consistently leading to a frenzy of whistles in his direction. A lot of that had to do with him trying to prove himself as a player when he got on the floor, meaning he was going to be up in everybody’s grill to show his tenacity.

The other issue that has been problematic at times was mentioned in the parenthesis in the question. There have been a bunch of lapses in his team defense, and there’s a couple reasons for that. The first one is the obvious answer, which is that team defense comes with playing time, and there’s a good shot it would look better once his offensive game grows enough for him to stay on the floor.

Secondly, as I said before, he’s a ball-watcher. It’s one of the main reasons he is so good on the ball, but it seems to get him in trouble frequently off the ball. Corner spacers see his eyes lurking, leading to simple back-cuts for easy lay-ins.

None of that should be worrisome, since the positives far outweigh the negatives, but it’s just something to monitor. But back to the original question, if there are some that think his defensive perception is a myth, you’re completely wrong.

I’ve talked about the importance of him leaning away from the driving game, but I haven’t addressed the reason why.

He’s had plenty of isolations in Summer League, receptions off the catch in real games, and back-cuts to relocate defenders. But when any of that occurs, I have the same takeaway: that just won’t ever be a strong suit of his game.

In my honest opinion, I don’t feel that a tighter handle will move the needle enough for him to be a better rim attacker. As we saw in Summer League, his issue isn’t about getting to the rim, it’s finishing at the rim. There were moments where he beat defenders off the dribble, or threw some elbows to create space, but lacked that true soft touch to finish the play off.

It just seems a bit unorthodox to worry about developing at this stage.

The other part about his downhill ability is that the scoring element isn’t even the section with the most question marks. It’s actually decision making with the ball in his hands as a passer.

When getting reps last season with the real team, defenses adjusted to his game quickly. The reason for that was him putting the ball on the floor to the middle of the court meant one thing and one thing only: a kick-out to the weak-side wing. He never looked at the rim in that scenario, it’s just stuff sideline to sideline. Defenders began to front the perimeter which eventually resulted in the turnover issue.

Now, I do believe a tighter handle can enhance other things. If he was to become a quicker decision maker over time, then that handle can bail him out when he’s looking to play-make.


But there’s yet another overarching takeaway when discussing this: there’s so many “ifs.” Okpala doesn’t have to eliminate all of those ifs right now to be effective. It just has to be one or two of them to progress in a decent fashion to make the team feel good about it.

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We will see what happens with Okpala in the near future, but I will say that I don’t think the current roster construction is benefiting him. Previous opportunities came up due to the team’s roster consisting of back-court depth with no true front-court depth.

And now, the tables have turned. Following the projected starting group of Bam Adebayo and PJ Tucker, Miami will have some options considering the bench usage of Markieff Morris and Dewayne Dedmon, while Omer Yurtseven feels to be next in line.

It’ll come down to the development behind the scenes for Okpala, and in my opinion, spamming some work-outs of straight outside shooting would probably be the best off-season decision.

 

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