This is the second in a series of articles about what looks to be the battle for the 15th spot on the roster between Chima Moneke, KZ Okpala, and Sam Merrill.
Going into training camp, Kings fans know they have a roster filled with respectable talent, which is something that stands out from the mediocrity of previous years.
With the outlook of a better team, the amount of open roster positions is low. In fact, the final 15th spot, aside from the third point guard competition, seems to be the only one up for grabs.
Determining the initial makeup of the nightly rotation will be a primary objective in camp, but seeing who can stand out among the three less experienced guys in Chima Moneke, KZ Okpala, and Sam Merrill is another narrative to keep an eye on.
Zeroing in on Okpala, here’s how he can put himself ahead.
Out of the gate, KZ Okpala is brimming with defensive ability, standing out as the best of the three on that end.
“KZ is a remarkable talent,” Mike Brown raved a year ago when he coached him during the Olympics for Nigeria. “This is a young man that, in my opinion, has a chance to be, obviously, an elite defender. And these are high expectations, but the short time I’ve had him, he could be a Defensive Player of the Year-type candidate once he figures some things out to get consistent minutes on the floor.”
His former teammate in Miami and 20-year vet Udonis Haslem spoke similarly of his defensive capabilities, saying in March 2021 that the “flashes KZ shows defensively” gets him and other guys “excited.” And Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Okpala has “a unique skillset defensively,” describing him as “big” and “strong” while able to “move laterally.”
The Stanford product is listed at 6’8″, but some say he’s closer to 6’9″ or 6’10” in shoes, which isn’t crazy when you see him standing next to Kevin Durant. Additionally, he’s walking around with a 7’2″ wingspan and excellent athleticism.
As Brown, Haslem, and Spoelstra indicated, he’s a very long forward that guards a variety of positions.
In the Olympics exhibition upset win against the USA, Okpala guarded a range of players: Damian Lillard, who he harassed; Bradley Beal, who he stayed in front of; Kevin Durant, who he performed excellent ball denial on during a late-game inbound; and Bam Adebayo on switches. Similarly, in actual NBA regulation, he has had impressive moments guarding guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Seemingly without any issue, Okpala can stay in front of point guards, whether he’s checked them from the start or was forced to switch onto them. Doesn’t matter if it’s Jrue Holiday or Josh Giddey (sorry, kid), he is a very disruptive defender.
Because his movement possesses enough snap, he can get in position so as to get up in the air quickly for a block, and so swiftly, in fact, that he may surprise on a routine close out; ask old friend Corey Joseph. More importantly, whether on backside help, from behind, or stepping into the paint, he’s a fluid and effective defender of the rim.
Aiding the maximum effect of his athleticism, Okpala also plays very hard. Observers can often find him busting his tail to resecure a possession, lay out and try to make a play, or pursue a loose ball.
With his size and versatility especially, Okpala could actually be the best defender on this Kings team.
So Brown probably wasn’t exaggerating saying what he said. In fact, the coach has probably never been so on point, especially when he alluded to the fact Okpala needs to figure “some things out” so he can have “consistent minutes on the floor.”
That definitely centers around the offensive end.
Now, to be clear, Okpala is not necessarily an offensive liability. That athleticism, hops, and length can help him on that end, too. In regards to cutting, running the floor, completing an alley-oop, and being active on the offensive glass, he can be a useful asset for his team.
It would be fair to say he’s a benefit only when the ball’s in somebody else’s hands, but it should also be noted that Okpala can be used in the pick and roll game since he has some skill and touch on top of his height. Plus, he’s shown glimpses of getting to the rim on his own, though he still needs considerable work before anyone thinks about relying on him for that.
But as everyone knows, there’s a component that can make or break anyone’s chances to carve out a role in the NBA: three-point shooting.
That’s where the most work is required.
After shooting 33.6% in college, Okpala is shooting 27.3% (21-77) from deep through three seasons in the NBA. Notably, he did have his best shooting season this past year, hitting 34.6% of his looks from beyond the arc for the Heat.
It may not be viewed as a strength at this point, but if Okpala can make some improvements and increase the efficiency of his three-point shooting, he could be a surprising asset.
While the three-point ability is not convincing at this point, this could be the year Okpala makes the necessary strides.
Since being drafted, it’s been a road of uncontrollable bumps. Most people hear that and think injuries, and while that played a tiny part, the big thing was even more distant from Okpala’s hands.
After being drafted in 2019, he was traded, and the deal was executed at a time that prevented the then-rookie out of Stanford from participating in the Summer League. He then also was forced to deal with an achilles strain. For the following season, Summer League was shelved altogether due to the pandemic. And by the time he finally got to see his first summer action last year, he looked horrible.
Some beat writers came to his defense at the time, saying he was being misused and forced to be a three-point shooter.
They may have had a point, but there is a reality in the NBA that prioritizes the ability to shoot. If defenses can leave you on a long leash, that’s a detriment for the whole offense.
Regardless of what his strengths are, three-point shooting will have to be demonstrated. If he can do that, then Okpala has a huge upper hand in regards to many of the other aspects of the game. With his defense and athleticism, if he can somehow find a way to be a shooting threat–at least when open–he could make the case to see the floor more than Chimezie Metu, while giving vets like Trey Lyles and Kent Bazemore a run for their money as well.
But he’s got a lot of work to do before that happens.
Perhaps having a better feel for the typical offseason process could help him hit the ground running. Either way, he’ll have to show that progression in order to get a spot on the roster because Moneke and Merrill are trying to do the same.