There is an idea of a player that is Chuma Okeke. And that idea has popped its head out on some occasions.
Who does not want a 6-foot-8 forward with good defensive instincts, a willingness to hustle and play hard, athleticism and some outside shooting ability?
The advanced stats the Orlando Magic were using when they took him in the 2019 Draft and even some of the advanced metrics devised by journalists suggested Okeke could be the sleeper in the draft — all anyone had to do was wait out his recovery from a torn ACL.
The idea of what Chuma Okeke could be certainly fit what Magic fans were already learning about Jeff Weltman’s draft strategy and team-building philosophy. Okeke seemed the exact kind of forward the Magic would seek over and over again.
It has been four years since the Magic made him the 16th pick in the 2019 Draft. The ACL injury is long behind him, although nagging injuries seem to keep following him. And Okeke is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
Looking at his career, all the potential that Okeke possesses really has not come together. And Okeke is running out of time to make his mark. He is already virtually out of the rotation for the Magic heading into this season, suggesting there is a lot of ground to make up.
Chuma Okeke enters the final year of his rookie contract with an uncertain role for the Orlando Magic and a lot of skills and potential he has not quite put together.
The Magic have some questions at power forward and so Chuma Okeke might find himself in the mix — Jonathan Isaac always has his own injury issues and undersized options in Joe Ingles and Jett Howard could step into help at the 4, neither is as natural a fit as Okeke would be.
But Okeke has to prove it on the court. And that remains the problem.
Last year, Okeke averaged just 4.7 points per game in 19.2 minutes per game and 27 appearances for the Magic. He had shooting splits of 35.2/30.2/76.2. None of that painted the picture of a player who can do all the things the Magic always believed Okeke could do.
Okeke played only 13 games with more than 20 minutes. He had only five games with 10 points or more.
Injuries are still such a critical part of Okeke’s story. He struggled to stay on the floor with various leg injuries throughout the year. And then he just got sort of left out of the rotation.
Okeke is something of an afterthought on the Magic’s current roster. Everyone is more excited for Jonathan Isaac’s return and there is potential for Orlando to try some smaller lineups to inject some shooting. Okeke has to find his path to the lineup.
The place that will start is with his shooting. And this is perhaps the biggest thing he has to put together. Okeke has not made good on his reputation as a shooter, making only 32.3 percent of his 3-pointers in his career. His 3-point field goal percentage has decreased in each of his three seasons in the NBA.
Again, injuries have slowed any chance for development or a chance for Okeke to establish himself on the court. He shot only 32.0 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers according to Basketball Index although he made 47.1 percent of his corner 3-pointers. According to NBA.com’s stats database, Okeke took only 17 of those shots (he made eight of them).
It would certainly help Okeke as this is one of the few areas Okeke has been solid — he shot 38.3 percent on corner threes in 2022 and 36.4 percent on corner threes in 2021. Then again, Okeke has simply struggled offensively in a lot of areas.
It has not helped that under coach Jamahl Mosley, Chuma Okeke has become essentially an exclusive three-point shooter. Steve Clifford experimented tons with Chuma Okeke’s ability to post up and work the mid-post.
In his rookie year, three-pointers accounted for only 43.5 percent of his total field goal attempts. In 2022 in Mosley’s first year, three-pointers accounted for 64.5 percent of his total field goal attempts. Last year, three-pointers made up 70.5 percent of his total field goal attempts.
As his role has decreased, and perhaps some of his athleticism and burst diminished because of the constant leg injuries he has dealt with, Okeke’s shooting has become more important. It simply has not come around in the way the Magic hoped for or the potential he showed in his rookie year.
The one area Okeke still seems to make an impact is defensively. But, again, the samples were so small they did not really show up last year.
Still, Okeke can be disruptive averaging 1.3 steals per 75 possessions and 2.6 deflections per 75 possessions according to data from Basketball Index. He is good at poking the ball away and staying in front of his man or playing passing lanes.
That has not quite translated into individual defense. The Magic had a 116.5 defensive rating with Okeke on the floor. But that is as much a product of Okeke not playing very much and likely being in a lot during the end of games than anything else.
He did not have much of an opportunity last year.
Opportunity might be slim again for Okeke this year. There is still a lot of value in the idea of Okeke as a player. He is a versatile and big wing in a way the magic have few of outside of Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner and Jonathan Isaac. That is the expected trio to get minutes at forward. Okeke fits that type.
But Okeke has to put the pieces together.
He has to be healthy first. Availability is a player’s best ability at the end of the day and from the start of his career, this has been the biggest issue in Okeke’s career.
Second, he has to be able to hit shots. It is clear the Magic envision him as a 3-point shooter. That perhaps should not be his exclusive role, but it is still vital to the role he will play for the Magic.
Accomplishing those two things should help Okeke highlight his strengths. That is something he simply has not had the time to do on the court with his litany of injuries and the start-and-stop nature of his career.
Okeke will have to earn that opportunity. The Magic have a deep roster and there will be plenty of internal competition for rotation spots. And there should be plenty of cover for injuries and for matchups the Magic feel like they need to measure up to.
All Okeke can do is be prepared when the opportunity comes for him. That is the biggest challenge for him.
He will be a restricted free agent in the offseason and it seems like the Magic are likely to let him go at the end of the season, the first big casualty of the team’s march forward. That is unless Okeke puts all the pieces together and becomes the player the Magic imagined he could be when they selected him four years ago.