After diving into Precious Achiuwa in the first piece of this new series, it’s necessary to follow that up with another young Miami Heat prospect, and asset, KZ Okpala.
Many people’s expectations were high coming into the season regarding Okpala, mostly due to the known fact that Miami was so high on him in the draft, that they would’ve selected him with their lottery pick if Tyler Herro was already taken. That statement raises a player’s perception, and well, here we are heading into his third season and he’s yet to have a consistent role.
The circumstances feed into this a bit, since as I’ve reiterated many times, the lack of a full off-season and Summer League impacted him majorly. Something I’ll dive a little deeper into down the line is that there’s only one thing that can lead to an evolving Okpala: playing time. This team is in win now mode which makes things slightly difficult, but spot minutes just won’t cut it for a guy with that type of play-style.
The hope is that this year’s Summer League can propel that development a bit, but only time will tell.
Anyway, let’s take a look back at some of Okpala’s moments this season, highlighting his immediate strengths and the improvements that will majorly need to follow quickly…
Good Length = Good Defense
No surprise here: KZ Okpala’s strengths begin with some defensive notations. The first thing that jumps off the screen when going back and watching his possessions on that end of the floor is his length. He thrived in the 2-2-1 press and 2-3 zone, since he has an ability to muck up passing lanes time and time again.
Speaking of the press, this clip shows Okpala recovering on the broken down press and swatting away the floater, since well, he’s very active and knows how to utilize his lengthy wingspan. The issue is that it sometimes gets him in trouble, which I will discuss in the weakness section.
The thing about this quality is that it screams potential. As much as we will connect Okpala and the word inexperience throughout this piece, that is something that just can’t be taught.
The reason that I don’t like highlighting this element too much, is that many people use it to the extent that it negates his other abilities on defense, which is why I will point that out now…
Length Isn’t His Only Defensive Tool
His defensive success does not solely derive from a good physical frame. When I wanted to showcase this in this article, I said to myself, “When was this ability showcased most this season?” And well, this Brooklyn game sums it up perfectly.
There weren’t many games in the regular season that the Brooklyn Nets’ big 3 all played on the same night, but they did when Okpala was filling in for Jimmy Butler in the starting lineup. Erik Spoelstra always discusses throwing players in the fire, and that’s exactly what this was for him.
Switching from one of the league’s best scorers ever, onto one of the league’s best ball-handlers ever, while sprinkling in some time on Kevin Durant who is just a freak of nature. And yet, he held his own throughout this game.
The first thing that stands out here on this play is defensive IQ, even though at times his defensive decision making becomes a real downfall. He stays locked in on James Harden, not wanting to switch onto a rolling Jeff Green. He recovers and flows into a switch onto Kyrie Irving, doing a great job of stay complacent before the jumper, leading to a brick off the rim.
It’s not all about the length with him, since his foot speed and lateral quickness on that end of the floor is a real gift. He just needs some things polished up, and once again, floor time is the only thing that will do it.
Freedom Off the Dribble
Now, the final strength that stood out from this season occurred on the offensive end. Much like Achiuwa, he would just try to do the right things whenever he got out on the floor, meaning he played tense and not to his absolute ability.
But he also had flashes like this, where he would showcase his ability to get downhill, which was quite impressive. Trust me, this wasn’t the only moment. There were so many plays this season where he would put his head down and allow his skill-set to take control and it led to some great things. His offensive package is not broad, but he does have a very promising off the dribble attribute that can very well be expanded.
For one, he covers an unbelievable amount of ground when he attacks, since his long strides and slow pace around the rim lead to an unorthodox, yet effective, combination. Mentioning the phrase “slow pace” may seem a bit odd when referring to Okpala, since the young and inexperienced label always equals fast pace and out of control.
The thing is that he is out of control in many spots, well, except when he is going to the rim. That’s because it’s a comfort area, and he hasn’t been in many well fitted spots this season, which I’ll dive into down the line.
Over Aggression Leads to Over Fouling
The weakness section with these young guys is very important due to it being the beginning of the off-season. The goal is to come back around by training camp with these few things polished up a bit, and let’s start it off with his only defensive downfall.
This two play sequence is not the only time foul trouble has been an issue for Okpala. In his second season, he recorded more personal fouls than assists, turnovers, steals, and blocks combined.
Yeah, that’s something that must be cleaned up.
The reasoning for that is he takes pride on that end of the floor, and wants to create opportunities in transition. To that point, he has been overly aggressive on defense every chance that he’s gotten, reaching in at the wrong time, falling for pump-fakes rather easily, and getting off his feet no matter the circumstance.
As mentioned earlier, his potential on that end of the floor is unreal, but that one element is currently holding him back from being fully effective. That’s something that is instilled into him, which is why it’ll be interesting to see how he chooses to alter it.
Not Looking at the Rim
The side to side browsing with the ball in hand is a discussion that I’ve had about Bam Adebayo a little too much throughout the season. Only this instance is not the same as that.
Many want Adebayo to takeoff as a scorer, but the reason he’s doing it is that his play-making is so elite that he tries to get others in their spots. Okpala’s reasoning is just going through the motions a bit to get the ball out of his hands.
This play above ended in a good result after he handed it off to Gabe Vincent, but that’s not important. The essential part to note is that this trot through the middle of the floor became a normal occurrence when he got out on the court this season, and that just can’t be the case.
These inadvertent movements led to awful spacing at many points this year, which makes it so hard to play him next to other guys such as Precious Achiuwa or Andre Iguodala, since the opposing team just doubles ball-handlers the entire time.
It’s another moment that we will refer back to comfort, due to these non-aggressive examples just show that his play-style wasn’t translating to the offense. Or was he just not being put into the right spots?
This point isn’t as much on Okpala as it is on the team. His offensive role basically became corner spacer as the season progressed, which is less than ideal. Yes, he can make the occasional three, but that is not where he will thrive in the short term or the long term.
Combine that thought process with a guy who is not shy about taking those shots whenever he’s out there and you have a complete mess. He had some moments where the shots were falling, but there just weren’t many that make you think that’s where he should be placed.
As stated earlier, he has shown an outstanding ability to get to the rim whenever he is confident and in a rhythm, which makes me think he will be placed into that role in Summer League purposely, so he can shift back into the team space cleanly.
The interesting part about KZ Okpala is that the question, “What’s next,” is very well unknown. The term unknown is a perfect description of Okpala in his first two season with the team. After his rookie year, many were awaiting a breakout sophomore season that clearly never really occurred. Now that mindset seems to be carrying over to year three.
As I’ve been saying, this Summer League experience will be absolutely crucial for his future in this league. The reason I said “in this league” and not “with the Heat” is due to him being an asset that could be used at any moment. We saw at the trade deadline that teams perceive Okpala as a very enticing young prospect, while Miami seems to be searching for win now guys.
When I asked Okpala about his biggest focus this off-season to improve on, excluding polishing up his all-around game, he still decided to say that his whole package will be the focus. Although that may seem a bit unrealistic, I believe that is the exact thing he will need to do moving forward.
I believe he is still trying to find himself as a player, which means diving into every facet of his game is necessary. These next few months will be some of the most important of Okpala’s young career, and only time will tell how he decides to utilize them.
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