2023 Orlando Magic Player Outlook: Chuma Okeke has to be himself

Chuma Okeke's 3-point shooting will be the key to his carving a role for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Chuma Okeke's 3-point shooting will be the key to his carving a role for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports /

Need any proof of how much the Orlando Magic — the team, the players and the organization — all love Chuma Okeke? Look no further than the Media Day activity the social media team gave to the players.

Among the many stations that players went to on the day before training camp started, the Magic’s social media team challenged players to draw the Magic’s logo from memory (never mind that the logo is plastered on almost every corner of the AdventHealth Training Facility).

The results were predictably hilarious.

None more hilarious than the Magic’s favorite jokester, Chuma Okeke. So much so that his rendering is, at least for Saturday, the team’s Twitter profile photo:

With the media, Okeke still seems a bit shy and quiet. But behind the scenes, he just exudes a feeling of chill that opens the door for things like this with the Magic’s playful social media team.

The stories that come from behind the scenes about Okeke are seemingly legendary.

In his third year though, Okeke is still finding his way. He is still seeking to find himself.

Chuma Okeke is still finding his way in the NBA. But he has all the skills the Orlando Magic love and want to develop if he can find his way on the court.

A place to start is by reclaiming his name.

After spending at least part of the offseason reconnecting with family in Nigeria, he discovered he had been using and accepting an Americanized pronunciation of his name. So he had a request on Media Day that everyone pronounce his name Oh-kay-kay instead.

Little pieces like that shows what makes Okeke such an intriguing player and what his season may very well come down to.

Okeke is the ultimate teammate. He is a guy who players enjoy playing with and being around. His laid-back demeanor makes him popular among his teammates. His selflessness makes him a great teammate too.

But there has always felt like there was more to unlock. Whether that was because he was constantly trying to overcome injury — first the torn ACL that had him defer his rookie year to Lakeland for recovery and then various knee and hip injuries in his first two seasons — or because no player likely saw more role change under Jamahl Mosley than Chuma Okeke. There is still a lot more for Okeke to do.

And there is a lot more pressure on Okeke to deliver.

So if Okeke is going to reach that part of his game, he is going to have to find himself once again. He has to find his comfort zone and the role that fits him best to succeed and take his next steps as a player.

This is not a make-or-break year for Okeke. But the pressure is ramping up on him with more players at his position occupying spots on the roster and his rookie contract starting to wind down.

Okeke has a lot of work to do but he is more than capable of making his mark.

The place to start with Okeke is the skills that make him potentially valuable.

Orlando has made defense its identity and this is where Okeke thrives most and has established himself well in the league. He is excellent at reading passing lanes and getting deflections in help. He is always in the right spot defensively to make a stop and help his teammates.

According to data from Basketball Index, Okeke ranked in the 90th percentile in passing lane defense. He averaged 4.6 bad pass steals and deflections per 75 possessions. According to NBA.com’s hustle stats, Okeke was second on the team in deflections with 2.1 deflections per game (trailing only Jalen Suggs’ 2.5 per game).

Okeke rated in the 98th percentile in the league with 2.0 steals per 75 possessions and in the 84th percentile in deflections with 3.0 deflections per 75 possessions.

Outside of the team’s centers, only Franz Wagner contested more shots per game than Chuma Okeke according to NBA.com’s hustle stats. Further, the Magic had a 109.1 defensive rating with Okeke on the floor, trailing only Jalen Suggs and Markelle Fultz among guards and wings.

Defensive tracking stats can be notoriously imperfect and difficult to gauge. But all of this points to a player who has a clear understanding of team defensive concepts, who contributes to being a disruptive defender and who coaches can trust to be in the right spots.

Okeke gets a lot of steals, but he does not do it by gambling. He is just quick with his hands and has an instinct of when to be in passing lanes but still close to his man.

If there is a reason Okeke is a clear rotation player, it is because of this dependability. And that is usually the thing that young players struggle the most with.

Okeke still has some room for growth here. He is not a particularly mobile defender and can struggle when attacked one on one. He is not great at defending the post either by the numbers.

But defense is where Okeke is most comfortable and asserts himself the most. This is the area where he can contribute the most.

Whether he is able to cement space on this team will come down to his shooting.

Okeke has shown plenty of potential as a shooter but certainly took a step back last year as he struggled with an early-season hip injury.

He averaged 8.6 points per game, an increase from his rookie year. But his 3-point shooting dropped to 31.8 percent from 34.8 percent his rookie year. Some of this was an increased volume — his 3-point attempts per game jumped from 3.1 per game to 5.3 per game. In fact, his 3-point shooting became his main offensive weapon, making up a 64.5-percent share of his total shots.

That seemed to limit Okeke’s offense some. Gone were some of the post-up opportunities former coach Steve Clifford designed for him. And the pull-up and turnaround jumpers that Okeke showed signs he could develop were almost cut out entirely from his shot profile last year. Even his work off cuts were limited.

Some of that might have been the lingering effects of his injury. Some of that is the Magic’s work to become more of a 3-point volume team (for better or for worse). There is more to Okeke’s game. But he was also just clearly not comfortable.

The Magic know Okeke can be a better 3-point shooter than he showed. That is why the team ramped up his 3-point shooting and made that a key part of his role. And this is how the team is probably going to envision using him once again.

It is the key to his success. He just has to be a more effective 3-point shooter to really unlock everything about his game.

That is what this season will be about for Okeke — opening doors. And he cannot do that if he is not comfortable out on the floor.

He needs to be healthy and secure in his role and in himself. So many of the players have talked about Okeke behind the scenes, fans are waiting to see that come out on the court. Everyone is eager to see Okeke succeed.

There is undoubtedly pressure. One of the issues Chuma Okeke faces is the growing list of forwards on the roster — Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner, Jonathan Isaac and Bol Bol will all be fighting for forward minutes. It is very possible that Okeke could see his minutes swallowed up.

One of the downsides of this roster is that there are so many young players and not everyone will be able to get their time to play. Okeke is in the middle of that fight throughout this season.

But he can only worry about himself. He has skills the Magic very clearly value. He has shown he can execute them too in many ways.

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Okeke can make an impact. He just has to be comfortable in himself and confident enough to execute and do it.