When the Orlando Magic drafted Chuma Okeke from Auburn back in 2019, the front office knew they were taking a risk. The versatile forward had suffered a devastating ACL injury while at college and needed a year to properly recover.
The early signs on the court may have been positive but an early injury again raised concerns over whether the 22-year-old would be able to stay healthy, missing 16 games with a bone bruise to his knee.
Those questions remain, but the youngster’s ability to impact a game is clear now that he has returned and is playing meaningful minutes for the Magic. Orlando has certainly drafted a good one in Chuma Okeke.
The most impressive thing about the forward is how well he does the basics in a game. Coach Steve Clifford has spoken highly of Chuma Okeke’s instincts and basketball sense. That is certainly on display.
His box score rarely tells the story of his impact on the court, though an 11-point, three-block game in the win over the Golden State Warriors made many sit up and take notice.
Chuma Okeke’s NBA career is just starting, but he is already turning heads for the Orlando Magic. It is in the details and defense that Okeke is already carving his niche.
Clifford is clearly pleased with his impact, giving him valuable minutes in recent games. Putting trust in him when it comes to crunch time tells you everything you need to know about the impact Okeke is having.
The former Auburn man had a quiet night in the victory over the Detroit Pistons, scoring just two points in 25 minutes, but still influenced the game. This is especially true on the defensive end.
Look how well he defends Jerami Grant here:
There is not really anything else Okeke can do here. He shifts his feet quickly to stay with his man, forcing a borderline All-Star to make a really difficult shot with an arm right in his face.
This has been typical of the level of defense Okeke has played so far this season. He has an excellent understanding of where to be on the defensive end which is unusual for a rookie player and has the physical tools to guard some of the league’s better players.
With Jonathan Isaac returning next season and Chuma Okeke playing this type of defense, Magic fans have a reason to be optimistic.
Again, look how well he does defending Grant on this possession:
Jerami Grant is no easy task, but Chuma Okeke manages to stay in front of him at all times to block his path to the basket and fights past a screen from Mason Plumlee to force him to pass away the ball.
At 6-foot-8, he has the defensive versatility to guard players at either forward position and also possesses a good amount of strength and quickness. Clifford has trusted him to take on some big defensive tasks and rightfully so.
Much of his defensive work goes unnoticed, so it is nice when he can be rewarded with a highlight play such as this block against Stephen Curry at a pivotal time in the game:
The block itself is impressive, but more so is how well he reads the play to leave his own assignment so he can deny a certain basket. He reacts quick enough so that by the time Curry goes for the layup he is already in a great position to block it, before keeping calm to claim the loose ball and give his team possession.
It is these kinds of plays that have him in line to play even more minutes in the near future and has him already closing out games.
Defensively, Okeke has also proven himself to be a valuable asset. But he has also shown glimpses of quality on offense which highlight his potential as a solid two-way player, though still needs to develop his game on that end of the floor.
Something the Magic have lacked and continue to do so is quality floor spacing, but Okeke can provide that. With the defense’s focus on stopping the Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross two-man game here, Chuma Okeke smartly shifts to the left to give Vucevic plenty of room to make the pass and himself the space he needs to knock down the open three.
This came on the possession after he blocked Curry’s shot:
Aaron Gordon has displayed improved shooting from beyond the arc this season before he got injured. But if Okeke can become a reliable floor-spacing 4, it will benefit the Magic enormously. Particularly with Gordon’s long-term future with the team unclear.
Opposition teams have not been afraid to double Vucevic this season. At times he has been carrying the offensive load single-handedly, particularly when Evan Fournier has been out injured, so having other players who can space the floor and attract attention can only be a good thing.
But Okeke still has a lot of work to do offensively. He is not taking many shots because the team is not running any plays for him. But he has also been guilty of making an unnecessary pass while having the open shot. He is an excellent teammate, sometimes too much so.
He still needs to find more consistency with his shot. He has knocked down 39.1-percent of his attempts this year and is shooting 35.3-percent from three. Okeke is certainly capable of more than this.
But the young forward is already showing why he was taken with the 16th pick in 2019. His ability to do the small things well has been instrumental in the Orlando Magic’s upturn in form and he has provided plenty of encouragement for the future.