Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie addresses media following his workout for the Hawks at their training facility May 7, 2018. ( photo by Ken Sugiura)
Photo: AJC
Photo: AJC

How Josh Okogie became a candidate to be a first-round pick

When Georgia Tech’s season came to an end in the first round of the ACC tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y., it seemed a foregone conclusion that Yellow Jackets guard Josh Okogie would return for his junior season. After the game, he spoke of his plans for summer workouts and the next season. His coaches, too, expected him to be back. That was March 6.

“I think he was planning to come back,” coach Josh Pastner said this week. “He didn’t play well in that game, and he wanted to come back. But, look – it is what it is.”

It is now June, and it is a virtual certainty that Okogie will be selected Thursday night in the NBA draft, and there seems a strong likelihood that he will be taken in the first round. In the space of 3-1/2 months, Okogie has rocketed from the realm of strong ACC player to a young man on the verge of achieving his dream of playing in the NBA.

“It’s tremendous for him, it’s tremendous for Georgia Tech, it’s tremendous for our program,” Pastner said.

How did it happen?

The critical juncture was his participation at the NBA draft combine in Chicago on May 16-20. After receiving his invitation, Okogie wowed with superior measurables. His 7-foot wingspan was the fourth longest of any guard. He tied for the highest max vertical leap (vertical with a running start) at 42 inches. He had the fastest three-quarter-court sprint at 3.04 seconds.

But more noteworthy than that, said an NBA scout, was his play in scrimmages.

“I think people had him on their radar, but, scrimmaging at the combine, it just looked like he belonged,” said the scout, speaking on condition of anonymity. “You watch him, you see how hard he plays, how competitive he is. You see athleticism. I think people realized, ‘Wow, this guy’s got a chance.’ He can get out there, and I don’t want to say overwhelm people, but his athleticism’s a factor in his success, and, again, how hard he plays.”

Okogie’s competitiveness and relentlessness were evident to anyone who watched Tech play regularly. Yellow Jackets fans saw it in the way he fearlessly attacked the basket in his first game back after surgery to repair his dislocated finger. They saw it in the chase-down blocks and in the way he scrambled for 16 rebounds against Florida State in January, setting a record for a Tech guard in an ACC game.

The scout recalled the first scrimmage that Okogie’s team played in, an 87-64 win for Okogie’s squad.

“They just completely annihilated the team they were playing with just defensive pressure and activity,” the scout said.

The opposing team shot 34.8 percent from the field and turned the ball over 25 times. It is not difficult to imagine Okogie’s defensive pressure and length as contributing factors. The game wasn’t necessarily the defining moment for Okogie, “but it definitely caught people’s attention.”

Another NBA scout, somewhat less enthused about Okogie, offered a confirming perspective.

“I would just say the combine woke a lot of people up regarding him,” the second scout wrote in an email. “I don’t get it, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Okogie declared that he would stay in the draft shortly after the combine ended. He had taken part in a handful of workouts for NBA teams before the combine, including with the Hawks on May 7, and has done a slew since that point.

He has reportedly worked out with Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Denver, Golden State, Memphis, Portland, San Antonio (twice) and the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. Those sessions appear to have done nothing to cool his stock.

“They love the fact that he’s got a long wingspan. They love the fact that he’s a year younger (he turns 20 in September), he did well at the combine. They love his character,” Pastner said.

He’s hardly a finished product – he can do a better job at decision making and finishing at the rim – but the motor, athletic ability and maturity make for an appealing package.

“I think as people got to know him better, upfront, personally, they fell in love with his character,” Pastner said.

Pastner said he has been speaking with representatives of teams – “more even general managers than actual scouts” – with picks as high as the middle of the first round. The first scout surmised that he will be selected somewhere between the 20th and 30th picks.

For what they’re worth, many mock drafts done by NBA media peg Okogie going somewhere between 24 (Portland) and 30 (Hawks).

It would make him Tech’s 19th first-round pick and first since Iman Shumpert in 2011.

“Worst case, he’s going to be a high second-round pick, but I really do believe he’s going to be a first-round pick, which is tremendous,” Pastner said.

It might have been more tremendous for Pastner had Okogie been entering the draft a year from now, but Pastner is fully behind his entry, saying it’s hard to turn down the strong possibility of being chosen in the first round. He’s a long way from the ACC tournament in Brooklyn, and even farther away from when he was a three-star prospect from Shiloh High who only had one ACC scholarship offer (Tech).

“I think everyone’s excited for him,” he said. “He’s a good young man, he made the dean’s list, so we’re really happy for his success.”

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