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The Cavaliers’ Isaac Okoro is finally seeing the rewards of a relentless work ethic

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CLEVELAND, OH – The question wasn’t even directed at him. But Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star Garrett Allen couldn’t hold back. Allen leaned forward, grabbed the microphone and praised teammate Isaac Okoro — a youngster prematurely drafted into a bust and berated one for his wide offensive shortcomings.

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“Not many people know, but Ace is one of the hardest workers when it comes to hitting the three-ball,” Allen said. “Anytime we go to a shoot or practice, the ice is the first in and the last out. This is just an example of how much that work pays off. I wanted to say that. The ice is worth it.”

It was early Monday evening at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, shortly after Cleveland’s 113-103 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Okoro scored 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting and 2-of-4 from 3-point range – continuing his blazing start to the New Year.

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One of those combos was a valiant late-game triple that put the Cavs ahead by 12 points, their biggest lead of the game. It was the kind of shot Okoro was hit repeatedly during the course of play last year when the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks completely ignored him in the perimeter. It was this type of shot that led to Okoro relinquishing his small forward job after two years as a mainstay. The kind that made his minions nose dive early in the season.

This unreliable birdie has been a huge flaw in Okoro since he became the #5 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. It’s key to his future.

Together with Andrew Olson, the Cavaliers’ shooting coach, and “Noah” — a high-tech shot-tracking system that provides real-time feedback and analytics, installed in the Cavaliers in January of 2019 — Okoro’s multi-year rebuilding project is starting to take shape. It finally yields positive results.

Suddenly, the wrongly nicknamed Ice is the MVP in the league.

Since the calendar flipped to 2023, no one has been better than Okoro from the 3-Point Range. At least, when counting the average players who try more than three times as many per game.

No shield buddy. No Desmond Payne. Not Stephen Curry. Not prolific snipers Lauri Markkanen, Kentavius ​​Caldwell-Pope, Bojan Bogdanovich, Doug McDermott, or Kevin Huerter. Not even his brilliant colleagues Darius Garland or Donovan Mitchell.

no one.

In nine games this month, Okoro has been shooting an impressive 62.5% from distance. Four in the last six times, he has managed multiple triples – a feat he has only reached four times in the first 40 contests.

During Wednesday’s tough loss in Memphis, Okoro went 6-of-6 from the field and 4-of-4 from deep, matching his season-high 17 points.

“It’s so much fun seeing him hit some shots,” Garland said. “We always talk about his work ethic. Of course, he would show up. It doesn’t matter if it’s a gameday, a shootout, or training, he follows the same regime every day. Work pays off. We see him every day. We’ll keep making him sit in the corner and when If he’s open, we’ll keep giving it to him. He releases it with confidence, and we believe in him because of his work ethic. We want him to release it every time he gets it – when he’s open.”

“I don’t know anyone who works harder than Isaac,” Bickerstaff added. “When he does all that work, you want to see him see the rewards.”

Okoro’s mid-season resurrection is months, even years, in the making.

“I’ve been trying to get better and better at shooting since I was honestly little.” Okoro told cleveland.com a few months ago.

“I just knew it was something I had to work on. Everyone can see it. I know I’m not a perfect player. Everyone has flaws. I’ve been working on those flaws. Every year I feel like I’m getting better at shooting. We’ve been tracking it since I was drafted.” I see the numbers. I see where I am now. It’s night and day. My arc is constantly higher. I always knew it would pay off sooner or later.”

Entering the league with an unnaturally flat shot, Okoro worked relentlessly to raise his bow while also eliminating errors left and right. It’s about flicking his wrist, staying under the ball, holding the figure up, not crossing his face – it’s a line finisher. Rebuilding the mechanics from the ground up takes time. Old habits are hard to break. It was a multi-year process. Countless hours in the gym. But they unite.

Since the beginning of December, based on their busy schedule, the Cavs have had a potential 28 days inside the courts of the Cleveland Clinic. Nobody got more shots than Okoro. morning. night. before practice. After, after. Sometimes twice a day. Returning to Esteghlal’s training facility after a home game wasn’t uncommon either.

During this stretch, the team’s shot-tracking software tabulated nearly 6,000 3-point attempts by Okoro. About 200 triples a day – a daily target he’s been trying to hit since the season ended.

This does not account for any additional time spent in the ring or while on the road away from Noah.

“There’s really been no change,” Okoro said when asked how he’s turned around recently. “Just doing what I’ve been doing since the start of the season. Being in the gym constantly. Putting shots in the morning and evening. Nothing really changed. Shots are starting to come down. It’s a good sign. It shows the work I’ve been doing is paying off. I have to keep going.” in doing so.”

Regression is coming. Okoro is not a 60 percent bomber. But his burial of jumpers with any consistency is raising the bar for Cleveland’s offense at number 12. Things expand at the end of the floor. Defenses need to be more aware. They’ll tackle a perilous conundrum: keep in touch with Okoro on the perimeter and give Garland, Mitchell, Caris LeVert, and Ricky Rubio more room to dip, in the paint or shader than Okoro, the drivers and sacrifice open 3s?

For most of the season, the answer was simple. Teams have dared him to shoot from the outside. They don’t think he can.

All of Okoro’s 93 three-point attempts were rated “open” or “wide open” – a defender not getting closer than 4 feet. Ninety of them are “wide open”.

What happens if the opposing defenses must change strategy?

“Isaac is a really good basketball player,” Bickerstaff said recently. “We asked him to be in a specific role, but Isaac is good with the ball in his hands, good at attacking opponents, and hitting on the attacking point in those situations. He’s a really good passer. I think he only accepted a role for the greater good of the team, Where the ball isn’t in his hands as much, obviously because of the guys around him. But Isaac is a really good basketball player, and he’s able to make all kinds of plays.”

Because of Okoro’s early-season shooting struggles—a carryover from his first two seasons—Cleveland’s small forward position was a revolving door. It started with LeVert – until he moved into the more suitable sixth man role. Lamar Stephens, a power forward with the number one spot on defense, has held the position for 18 games. The versatile Dean Wade would have had his chance had it not been for early injury setbacks. But it’s been Okoro’s job since early January 4 – the date that coincides with his revival.

In terms of nighttime productions, only Portland, Philadelphia, Brooklyn (Kevin Durant is officially listed as a power forward) and Dallas fared worse in the small forward position. That has led to incessant talks about what — if anything — the Cavs will do before the February 9 trade deadline.

To overreact to a small sample size is a fool’s errand. But this fine stretch from Okoro has brought stability to a weak point of the roster and it’s fair to wonder if it has sparked more Okoro believers and, at the very least, mitigated the urgency of the long-awaited deal deadline deal. Dr. suite.

“We know how he can influence the game,” Bickerstaff said. “We know how much his teammates love him on the ground and how much they respect him. We know what he’s capable of.”

When the ball found Allen on a short lap at the free throw line during Monday’s double-digit victory, he tipped a pass on goal to Okoro, alone in the right corner near the Cleveland bench. New Orleans guard CJ McCollum was the closest defender. He quickly looked to his left, realizing it was Okoro, and McCollum didn’t even think about running for the shot. why him? Okoro is a 32-percent 3-point shooter who hit just seven times during the month of November.

Opposition Scouting Report: Sag off Okoro was created. Let him shoot. Teams have been getting away with it for nearly three years.

“I don’t care if they do,” Okoro said. “If they leave me open, I’m going to drop the shot. Guys can do whatever they want, but I’m going to keep taking the shot with confidence. Now that the ball is going in, the confidence is getting higher and higher.”

Even during periods of the season when the shot didn’t go down, Bickerstaff and the Cavs saw value in the still-developing 21-year-old substitute.

Strong defense. The severity of the infection. Sneaky cut. Transitional finishing. Basketball nose. hardness. swagger. These qualities have always been there.

Crime was the missing piece. Shooting, more specifically. There was always intrigue in what Okoro would look like with a solid jacket on.

we will …

With the Cavs still looking to trade the market for a wing upgrade, someone who brings a diverse skill set from players already on the roster, would this better version of Okoro – a legitimate offensive threat – be a better option? Can the Cavs look back on the past few weeks as a true revelation – the pinnacle of Okoro’s subtle mill behind the scenes – rather than a midseason mirage?

“It’s about earning what you get and adapting to the group in front of you and I think Isaac has done that,” Bickerstaff said. “He’s a tireless worker and a great teammate. All he wants is to help the team win and support people in the best way he can. You want guys like that to be rewarded and I think he’s done that.”

“We’re trying to figure out the best piece for this team, and we’ve put in a lot of time with Isaac. We believe in Isaac and we just want to give him a chance to be successful.”

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