Orlando Magic’s Chuma Okeke has hit the rookie wall with his shot

Chuma Okeke's 3-point shooting helped the Orlando Magic score a surprising win over the Phoenix Suns. Mandatory Credit: Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports
Chuma Okeke's 3-point shooting helped the Orlando Magic score a surprising win over the Phoenix Suns. Mandatory Credit: Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports /

The secret about Chuma Okeke was going to get out eventually.

The Orlando Magic’s rookie forward, forgotten after he deferred his 2020 season after tearing his ACL in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, had endeared himself to fans for his smart defense and calm demeanor. Not to mention his ability to hit from the outside, a rarity on this team.

Even as the Magic started sinking down the standings and they made the decision to reset the roster, national writers said Okeke was a rookie to watch and a reason still to tune into the Magic. They still praise the little plays he makes to help a team win down the road.

Very little has changed for Okeke since that stellar run just after the trade deadline. He is still making great decisions with the ball, able to spin away from pressure and play within himself. He is still playing great defense for a rookie and showing all the promise the Magic could hope for on that end.

But the keyword in all of that is rookie.

There are very rarely straight lines for rookies. Each success is met with a new challenge. And the season is a roller coaster for them as they experience the challenges of the NBA for the first time.

After a strong run right after the trade deadline, Orlando Magic rookie Chuma Okeke has hit the rookie wall as his shot has suddenly disappeared despite getting quality looks.

Every rookie at some point faces the dreaded “rookie wall.” The volume of games — 82 in a typical season and 72 this year — is more than double the amount of games any player has played in organized basketball. And while the sheer volume of games elite prospects are playing now through AAU is greater than ever, they are hardly at NBA intensity.

Nobody is crisscrossing the country to play a back-to-back anywhere else besides the NBA. And this pandemic season has added more impediments to a rookie trying to find his footing. It is a wonder Okeke lasted this long.

Okeke for the entire season is averaging 7.2 points per game 4.0 rebounds per game with 40.3-percent shooting, 32.8-percent 3-point shooting and 47.4-percent effective field goal percentage. He is a rookie and so a low field goal percentage is not entirely surprising.

But Okeke holds a lot of promise and he had a big burst that showed his potential — enough to call his rookie season a success on its own.

From March 24 to April 4 — the first six games after the trade deadline and the one before — Okeke averaged 16.3 points per game and 5.9 rebounds per game, shooting 52.4-percent from the floor and 46.7-percent from beyond the arc.

Obviously, Okeke played a whole lot more minutes and graduated into the starting lineup during that time. He was getting a lot of opportunities. But the efficiency Okeke was displaying was truly promising. He was not only a smart defender, but he was giving the Magic the kind of shooting they desperately needed.

That stretch alone is probably enough again to call the season a success for Okeke. He proved with increased minutes he could hit from deep and be a floor spacer in addition to the defense that got him into the league to begin with.

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  • But Okeke’s dropoff has been devastating to the team and its chances to be competitive.

    In his last eight games, Okeke is averaging 8.5 points per game and shooting 33.7-percent from the floor and 16.1-percent from beyond the arc (on 3.9 attempts per game). Okeke has scored in double figures just twice and has hit the 50-percent mark twice too in that span.

    This is a fairly significant drop-off, especially coming from the highs he was on previously.

    Calling this hitting the rookie wall is an easy way to explain it away. Since coming back from his bone bruise on Feb. 2, Okeke has played in 36 of the team’s 37 games. He has not played fewer than 16 minutes in any of those games and has played in more than 20 minutes in each of the last 15 games he has played.

    That is a lot for a rookie. Especially in a season with the rushed schedule the Magic have had. A little bit of fatigue would be expected. And now that teams have tape on him and can gameplan him a little bit more, that will take some adjustment.

    So the question then is whether Okeke is somehow taking worse shots or if he is missing the same quality of shots and this can be chalked up to some fatigue.

    According to NBA.com’s shot data, Okeke has taken 113 of his 125 3-point field goal attempts with the closest defender more than four feet away (90.4-percent) — 183 of his 288 field goal attempts (26.9-percent) come with the closest defender more than four feet away.

    The Magic largely get Okeke shots when he is essentially open. He has feasted this year on these quality looks, shooting 37.7-percent overall and 34.5-percent from deep on these shots.

    During that stellar run described earlier, he shot 26 of his 30 3-pointers (86.7-percent) with the closest defender four or more feet away and 44 of his 84 field goal attempts overall (52.4-percent) with the closest defender four or more feet away.

    He shot 52.3-percent overall and 53.8-percent from beyond the arc when shooting these open shots.

    Certainly, Okeke was getting more open shots but they are not too dissimilar from his overall season averages.

    During this cold snap, Okeke has taken 30 of his 31 3-point attempts (96.8-percent) with the closest defender four or more feet away and 51 of his 83 field goals overall (61.4-percent) with defenders playing off him. He has made only 14 field goals overall (27.5-percent) and five 3-pointers (16.7-percent) of those shots in his last eight games.

    Orlando Magic
    Orlando Magic /

    Orlando Magic

    This is all to say, Okeke is still getting the same quality of shots. They just are not going down for whatever reason.

    We cannot say it is the defense. Okeke is wide open. Could it be the quality of the pass he is receiving? Most of his shots are pure catch-and-shoot shots still.

    According to data from Second Spectrum, Okeke scores 3.0 points per game off catch-and-shoot opportunities and has made 39.2-percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers for a 58.7-percent effective field goal percentage.

    Most of his shots are of this catch-and-shoot variety — 109 of his 288 field goal attempts overall (37.8-percent) and 102 of his 125 3-point field goal attempts (81.6-percent). This is a key part of his game.

    During his hot stretch, he scored 5.9 points per game off catch-and-shoot attempts with 25 of his 84 field goal attempts overall (29.8-percent) and 24 of his 30 3-point attempts (80.0-percent) coming on catch-and-shoot situations.

    Okeke’s work on the outside is coming exclusively on catch-and-shoot attempts. But the Magic certainly tried to expand his offensive menu with more post-ups and drives to the basket.

    During the cold snap, Okeke has averaged 1.9 points per game on catch-and-shoot attempts with 25 of his 83 attempts coming on catch-and-shoot attempts (30.1-percent) and 24 of his 31 3-point attempts are catch-and-shoot (77.4-percent).

    All these numbers suggest Okeke is getting the same kind of shots he was getting before and the same quality of shot. He is getting open shots in catch-and-shoot situations. The exact kind of situations the team is trying to set him up for.

    Right now, those shots just are not going in for him.

    Is this fatigue? Is this the rookie wall?

    That might be the easy explanation. It is hard to say whether those shots are coming up short or he has lost some strength and is experiencing fatigue or it is some loss of confidence (not likely, he keeps shooting) or what.

    The Magic are getting the same shots for Okeke. And whether the Magic are able to compete might depend on Okeke finding the target once again. Certainly, their struggles to stay in contact with opponents can be directly laid on Okeke’s high volume of shots and his struggles to hit enough of them for the moment.

    This is not going to be viewed as a long-term problem though. These are the normal ups and downs for a rookie. And with this team playing with such a small margin for error and relying heavily on Okeke, these downs are going to sting.

    Next. Wendell Carter showing promise on both ends. dark

    But the only advice you can give a shooter is to keep shooting. The Magic just have to hope he finds his way through the wall soon.