CLEVELAND, Ohio – Isaac Okoro entered the interview room, went up to the podium, tuned up his mic and showed off his new leads – his black T-shirt with the massive NBA logo on the right side and a bright “Rising Stars” pressed, in white lettering.
Cleveland Cavaliers teammate Evan Mobley is to the right of Okoro. He dated Oklahoma City goalkeeper Josh Gedi directly opposite him. Orlando’s Franz Wagner in the opposite corner. Three talented players compete for the Rookie of the Year award. About 15 minutes ago, that same room inside Cleveland’s Wolstein Center was holding second year Therese Halliburton and bowler Desmond Payne. Down the fairway, less than 200 feet away, sat Lamelo Paul and Anthony Edwards—two top prospects from the 2020 draft class at Okoro.
The best of the NBA’s freshmen and sophomores (plus four members of the G League Ignite) gathered in Cleveland on Friday morning to challenge the rising stars. Twelve of each. First came Media Day. Then practice. Later the tournament will be made up of four teams and seven players.
On the surface, Okoro seems out of place. His numbers do not stack up with the rest of the players.
Try to tell him that.
“I am grateful to be one of the best young players coming up right now,” Okoro said on Friday morning. “I felt like that last year. Throughout the whole season, I felt like one of the rising stars in this league. I feel like I put in a lot of work for our team and that’s good. Just enjoying the experience. I’m lucky to be here and I’m just drowning in everything.”
Okoro, who attended Auburn’s 94-80 win over Vanderbilt on Wednesday night, arrived in Cleveland for Thursday’s All-Star Celebrations. It’s already been two crazy days – and the events haven’t technically started. Once Okoro got home, there were hours of media commitments. Then he was greeted by a bad winter storm in February that caused a mixture of snow and ice. However, Okoro didn’t let any of that spoil the weekend – and that single feat he worked tirelessly to reach.
“Cleveland is still a beautiful city, and there is still a lot of things to do,” Okoro said. “Go downtown, Playhouse Square, walk around and enjoy the scenery. It’s just a hard-working city. People come here and struggle to be great. They demand greatness from you.”
In many ways, Okoro embodies Cleveland’s blue-collar attitude.
He didn’t come to the league with the same lofty expectations as Mobley, who was plastered on a billboard before his debut. Okoro isn’t a triple threat like Giddey, who is averaging 12.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists while holding a triple streak at the break. Okoro’s lights don’t play in an episode like Edwards, Ball, and Cunningham. Journalists did not flock to his station and did not take a full 15 minutes with a variety of questions on Friday morning.
Okoro’s game and behavior are similar. In a word, subdued.
Okoro averages 9.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 0.8 steals while shooting 46.4% from the field and 31.6% from a 3-point range.
Of the 24 NBA players participating in Rising Stars, only seven – Isaiah Stewart, Alperen Sengun, Precious Achiuwa, Jaden McDaniels, Ayo Donsunmu, Jonathan Kuminga (injury substitute) and Bones Hyland – scored fewer goals. Four of the starters, barely getting the same workload as Okoro, who once again became a full-time Cleveland guard to start shooting.
To get a sense of Okoro’s impact – defined mostly by defense, hustle, physicality, intensity and competitiveness – takes a little more digging. This led to questions about why his influence rarely appears in the stats sheet, whether he does enough to warrant significant playing time and whether he has the game to justify the title of a rising star.
While Okoro’s attack is still a work in progress, the 21-year-old wants to show Friday night – and the rest of the season – that he’s more than just a dirty, hard-on-the-ball defender chasing opponents and relentlessly fighting through the screens in an unflattering fashion.
“A lot of people think I don’t have an offensive side,” he said. “But I really do it. I just try to play my part for my team. Of course, my defensive side is my primary side, but every day I’m in the gym and I always receive a lot of shots, I work on my jumps and try to perfect it.”
Okoro will be part of Team Berry on Friday night, playing alongside Mobley, Wagner, Sengun, Cade Cunningham, Jae’Sean Tate and G Leaguer Dyson Daniels. The new format features one elimination round from three matches. Round 1 matches will be played to the target final score of 50. The Championship round will be played to the target final score of 25 – “Race to 75 Points in Honor of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Season.” The games will be 5 to 5 and the score will be 2 and 3.
Galleries are usually defenseless. But this is an Okoro game. Will it deviate from the norm?
“If that happens, we are trying to win the match, so of course we will try to play some defense,” Okoro said with a smile. “It’s more of me trying to put on a show for the audience.”
After Friday night, Okoro’s schedule will ease. He can’t wait to see Darius Garland and Garrett Allen play for LeBron in the All-Star Game 71 on Sunday. Okoro will be front and center when the Cavs – Allen, Garland and Mobley – compete in a skills challenge during Saturday Night’s All-Star. Even Okoro expects Allen to take a half-court shot to seal it.
The weekend – with Allen, Garland, Mobley and Okoro taking center stage – helps highlight the Cavaliers’ rise. All four are a big reason to finish the first half with a record 35-23, and the fourth in the Eastern Conference, one of the most surprising teams in the league.
Yes, that includes the sometimes shadowy Okoro who thinks he belongs to those other more famous players of the first two years even though they drew a much bigger crowd during Friday.
“We have a whole bunch of new guys and we’re just hungry,” Okoro said. “We have that determination, that toughness, and we’re just ready to show the league that we’re one of those teams [to contend with]. “
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