Chuma Okeke steals his rhythm and defense back

Chuma Okeke has stepped up defensively and his rhythm is coming around to make big contributions to the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Chuma Okeke has stepped up defensively and his rhythm is coming around to make big contributions to the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

Chuma Okeke was asked after Sunday’s win over the Dallas Mavericks whether picking players’ pockets was something he had learned to do or something he had always done.

Okeke had to think a bit before settling on that, yes, this is something he had always just done. Something he knows can be a bit of a risk, but with good timing and some quick hands could be a game-changing play.

Like in the second quarter of Sunday’s game when he knocked the ball away from Frank Ntilikina and rand to the other end of the floor for a dunk.

Or the time in the third quarter when he got Luka Doncic sleeping and baited him to turn his back to him before taking the ball and getting another two points.

This is a skill for sure. A sense of good timing and winning the chess game with a ballhandler. Okeke’s defense, exemplified in these two steals, has been his calling card this year as he tried to get himself back into the flow.

Chuma Okeke has struggled to get himself into a good rhythm this season. But slowly the Orlando Magic forward is finding himself and making major contributions.

A missed training camp and start of the season with a bone bruise and a new offense that emphasized ball movement, 3-point shooting and on-ball decision-making foisted a lot of change on Okeke. He struggled to adjust and catch up — all while playing on struggling bench lineups on a team decimated by injuries and eventually illness.

The Magic’s second-year forward struggled out of the gates. His reliable 3-point shooting seemed to disappear and the reliable forward seemed to take a step back. The hopes for the “Baby Kawhi” were starting to dim.

It is a long season though. And it is easy to forget just how young Okeke is — and still how much he is playing catch up after sitting a year out with an injury and then dealing with various injuries in a surprisingly effective rookie year.

Okeke is starting to get back to that level at least. He is starting to find his rhythm again. And, if Sunday’s win is any indication, combining his defensive time and ability with his improved shooting makes the Magic a far more dangerous team.

Okeke is averaging 8.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game this season, all numbers improved over his rookie season. Where he has struggled this year is with his shooting, dropping to 38.4-percent from the floor and 29.5-percent from beyond the arc.

It has been a rough season because of those poor shooting numbers. Okeke has often looked a bit unprepared for the added responsibilities and reads that come with the Magic’s offense under Jamahl Mosley.

Things have flipped recently.

Okeke had a strong 19-point, 7-for-10 shooting performance in Sunday’s win against the Mavericks. That followed a 17-point, 6-for-7 shooting performance in the win against the Detroit Pistons on Friday.

Okeke has been building these kinds of performances together for a while.

In his last 10 games, Okeke is up to 10.7 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game and 1.8 steals per game. He is shooting 46.9-percent from the floor and 42.4-percent from deep. Those shooting numbers completely change his effectiveness and what he can do.

It is fair to argue the Orlando Magic did not come away with a 4-1 homestand because Okeke missed several open threes in the fourth quarter of the loss to the LA Clippers, where he went 0 for 6 from deep.

Even if that game was a blip of inconsistency, it is clear to see how important his scoring always was to this team’s bench group.

It is hard to get a sense of what Okeke has been able to accomplish because he started shooting the season so poorly.

For the season, for instance, Okeke is shooting 33.7-percent and a 47.6-percent effective field goal percentage on 2.6 field goals attempts per game with the closest defender six-plus feet away.

In his last 10 games, Okeke is shooting 54.5-percent on a 75.8-percent effective field goal percentage on 3.3 attempts per game with the closest defender six-plus feet away.

The Magic are moving the ball a whole lot better and get Okeke those open shots. But, like anything else, Okeke has looked a lot better because he is hitting those shots.

Perhaps the biggest area where the Magic have used Okeke differently is where he catches the ball. Last year, Orlando used Okeke for 0.8 post possessions per game, according to’s tracking data. He scored 1.11 points per possession on those plays.

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This year, he is down to 0.3 post possessions per game and 0.91 points per possession.

Orlando’s offense has relied less frequently on post-ups this year. That has taken away one of the best ways Okeke attacked last year. Instead, he has had to learn how to attack more off the dribble and work as a spot-up shooter.

It has been difficult for him to get his rhythm.

In the process, the Magic have been able to rely on his defense. He has been a major disruptor on that end.

The steals he got against the Mavericks are essentially what has kept him on the floor throughout these offensive struggles.

He is in the 99th percentile of the league with 2.2 steals per 75 possessions and in the 88th percentile with 3.4 deflections per 75 possessions, according to Basketball-Index.

Okeke has at times looked a bit slow defensively, but even that is picking up. He got the call to stop Doncic on the final possession and has become a reliable defensive option.

Okeke is picking things up everywhere. That has been a huge boost to the team in a number of ways.

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It is a long season. There are always these ups and downs, especially for role players and young players. Okeke has found his rhythm again and the team is growing with it.