How Jimmy Butler left his influence -- and possible replacement -- on the Timberwolves' roster
Rookie Josh Okogie is one Minnesota player who 'appreciated' Butler's presence, both on and off the court
MINNEAPOLIS -- There's a star NBA player who Minnesota Timberwolves breakout rookie Josh Okogie models his game after. Like Okogie, this player was overlooked for much of his basketball career. Like Okogie, this player was never considered anywhere close to an elite recruit, and never came close to cracking any top-100 ranking. Like Okogie, this player's perpetual underdog status fueled his rise. And like Okogie, this player is a superior athlete, capable of the versatility that marks the most valued characteristics of a modern NBA defender, yet whose hallmark comes mostly from how he gives 100 percent effort on the court and on the practice floor.
Okogie has started seven of the 12 games he's appeared in so far, and is averaging 25.8 minutes a game -- which is saying something for a still-raw 20-year-old playing for the traditionally rookie-averse Tom Thibodeau. Only six rookies are averaging more minutes per game than Okogie; all six were lottery picks, while Okogie was selected 20th overall. Save for his three-point shooting -- 23.1 percent, far below his 38.2 percent three-point shooting during his two-year college career at Georgia Tech -- his statistics have been solid for a rookie. He's averaging 8.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists while racking up a steal per game. Like Butler, Okogie's biggest contribution to his team isn't represented by any single statistic but instead by the energy he brings to the court and infuses on his team.
And during the two-month saga that marked Butler's tumultuous exit from Minnesota, Okogie says that the outsiders' narrative of Butler detonating the Timberwolves' locker room was the furthest thing from the truth. Butler wasn't just Okogie's NBA role model. He became Okogie's NBA mentor.
"I know a lot of people call him a bad teammate or whatever, but I never once thought he was a bad teammate," Okogie told CBS Sports. "A lot of people don't hear what he says to everybody behind the lines. They just look at him shouting, saying things. But he'd tell me, 'Shoot the ball! I don't care if you miss a million shots. You just need to shoot the ball. That's who you are.' He told me to be confident in myself and just play my game and don't worry about whatever the coaches say, don't worry about what's going on, don't worry about how many shots you miss. Just keep shooting. On Sundays he'll take me to church. That's the things people don't see. He'll invite me to his house, and we'll watch film, and he'll teach me a lot of the defensive principles and a lot of the secrets that he likes to use on defense.
"There's a lot of things people don't know about him that he's done for me in his time that he's been here," Okogie continued. "I really appreciated every moment I spent with him."
The best thing that could happen for the Timberwolves is for Okogie to develop into a Butler-like two-way force. And that's certainly a possibility. The numbers from Butler's second season in the NBA -- playing 26 minutes per game, and averaging 8.6 points, four rebounds and 1.4 assists to go along with one steal per game -- are virtually identical to Okogie's numbers so far this season. That season, in 2012-13, Butler was 23 and playing for Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls; this season, Okogie is 20 and playing for Thibodeau's Timberwolves.
For those who've known Okogie for years, his unlikely ascendance from three-star recruit in high school to high-impact rookie in the NBA isn't really that unlikely at all. Because his drive to improve himself in basketball has always felt … well, just like Jimmy Butler's legendary drive.
"When Minnesota was asking about him [during the draft process], they asked over and over and over about his intensity, his defense, is he going to dive on the floor," said Josh Pastner, Okogie's head coach at Georgia Tech. "And that's exactly what he does! All those things like Jimmy Butler, he does that. His speed is one speed. When you go to practice, when he's in walk-throughs, he's full speed. … I see Jimmy Butler being traded, and I think Josh can eventually evolve and fill those shoes. I truly believe that. He just plays so dang hard. His motor is just going to outrun people. It's just revved up at all times."
It's wild to think that it was only a few years ago when Okogie was coming off the bench for Team CP3 in Nike's Elite Youth Basketball League. Okogie was playing with plenty of talented players that summer -- Harry Giles, now of the Sacramento Kings, was a teammate, and so was Grant Williams, who won SEC Player of the Year last season for Tennessee. Okogie only ranked fourth on that team in scoring. But he led the team in steals.
Pastner's belief is that Okogie getting overlooked as a youth is what makes him a better basketball player today.
"He plays so non-entitled," Pastner said. "He plays with such a chip on his shoulder, because he was never having people early on saying he was the best. He never had anything given to him. He had to work for everything he got. He wasn't babied, he wasn't enabled, he wasn't coddled."
A big part of that is because of Okogie's family. They immigrated from Nigeria when Okogie was three years old. He was the fourth of five kids in a striving immigrant family in the Atlanta suburbs. Basketball was far from No. 1 for his family. (He has two older brothers -- one is a dentist, the other is a software engineer -- and an older sister who is a teacher.) His dad was the pastor of a Nigerian church and his mom was a home-care nurse. For Okogie, the love of basketball started as just a way to get out of the house so his parents wouldn't put him to work doing chores.
"My parents didn't care about basketball," he said. "So all the motivation I get had to come from myself. Not saying my parents don't support me in basketball, but they wouldn't say, 'Go outside and practice.' Or, 'What time is your game?' They wouldn't say, 'Wake up, you got a game.' If I overslept, I wouldn't make the game. So everything that had to do with basketball, even at a young age, I had to manage. I had to wash my jerseys. I had to wake myself up and get to the game. I had to always ride with one of my teammates. My parents had to work …
"A lot of people struggle when they get to college with waking up early for practice," Okogie continued. "I didn't have any problem with being the first one at the gym because I knew when I was growing up that I had to be accountable for myself, and that nobody was accountable for me."
Okogie played as a big man growing up. He transitioned to become a guard in 10th grade. That may account for his weaknesses as an NBA rookie as well his strengths: While his ballhandling may not be up to par for an NBA guard, he still plays with the mentality of an undersized big man, having to hustle for rebounds, getting great enjoyment from blocking shots, and playing extremely hard on the perimeter to pester opponents into coughing up the ball.
"On the ball he's going to be a big-time defender, and off the ball he's going to work really hard," said Tavaras Hardy, who worked closely with Okogie as an assistant coach at Georgia Tech before recently taking the head job at Loyola University Maryland. "Playing for a defense-first coach can only help him in his development."
The Okogie story that lives on as legend from his college days was from one of his lowest moments. In an exhibition game a year ago, his sophomore year, Okogie dashed in for a layup. The index finger of his left hand jammed awkwardly into the ball. He suffered an "open dislocation" -- his bone popped out of its joint, stuck out from his skin and pointed in the wrong direction.
"He came to the bench: 'Coach, look at my finger!," Pastner recalled. "We threw a towel on him real quick. He went to the hospital, missed four or five weeks, and they fixed it. But the first day he was allowed back when the doctors cleared him -- most people, after a gruesome injury like that, it takes a year to get right -- but he was right back attacking the rim like before he got hurt. His mentality was the same. He went so hard on drives, trying to dunk the ball, like nothing had changed."
What Okogie has this season is an unexpected opportunity. The injury to Andrew Wiggins and the drama around Butler opened up more minutes for Okogie. So far, he's impressed. But with the Timberwolves adding two players in exchange for Butler -- Robert Covington and Dario Saric -- and as Wiggins has returned from injury, it remains to be seen whether Okogie's playing time will keep up.
One thing will stay the same: Even though Butler is now gone from the Timberwolves and into the Eastern Conference, Okogie will continue to emulate Butler's playing style.
"The way he plays is so inspiring for a guy like me, someone who is able to be that intense defensively but still being able to put out the offense that he does," Okogie said. "I've always been that guy that people have overlooked. At every level, people ask me, 'Where did this guy come from?' But you look back and I've been here all along. That's my story, and I embrace it."
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