At the beginning of the season, many Kings fans wondered whether the defensive upside for KZ Okpala was worth a spot on the roster let alone being given a chance to start out of the gate. That potential ceiling seemed to indicate the ability to make a rotational impact at some point, but whether or not that would happen felt a little less certain.
Fast forward to the new calendar year, and Okpala is demonstrating his value. Not only that, he’s seemingly earned a rotational spot.
More than his defense—which has always been there barring the occasional tendency to commit fouls—Okpala’s offense has been a pleasant surprise. That isn’t to say he’s getting up multiple shots a game, but he’s allowing his good defense to pave the way for the offense to come to him on the other end.
He’s played pretty well over the last month or so when the minutes have come his way, and lately they have been more consistent. Okpala has seen minutes in nine of the previous ten games.
More particularly, three of the last four games he’s appeared in and has had pleasant performances.
As fans know by now, he’s generally playing beautiful defense.
His on-ball pressure is second only to Davion Mitchell’s. When he won the Defensive Player of the Game honors last week in Utah, he earned it in large part due to his fourth quarter coverage of Jordan Clarkson. His presence forced a turnover, stopped penetrations—that in this case forced Rudy Gay (a 23% three-point shooter this season) to shoot from the corner—and came up with a phenomenal steal. And all against the talented Clarkson, which helped the Kings set a tone and win a close game.
On Monday night, when Mike Brown jokingly flirted with the idea of playing the lotto because he felt 42—the amount of points the Magic were limited to in the paint—was his lucky number, Okpala made a discernible impact stopping paint penetrations.
He also uses such good pressure that sometimes he forces the offensive player into offensive fouls.
Equally important, he hustles and displays commendable activity, working hard to rotate and affect guys. He even blocked a perimeter shooter recently due to that added length of his (7’2″ wingspan), also using it to secure stops on the boards. And Okpala can run the floor to swat layup attempts away.
In terms of defending down low, he’s been looking excellent there as well. Just the other night, in the first Rockets game, he went vertical with perfect execution, helping Trey Lyles get a block. Watch him here on New Year’s Day against the dramatic foul-magnet Ja Morant; he goes up straight, not giving the refs any opportunity to call a foul as Morant wriggled to the floor. Even if a guy manages to make the shot, credit to that guy because Okpala is at least making it as hard as he can.
Mike Brown wasn’t kidding when he said way back when that Okpala “could be a Defensive Player of the Year-type candidate once he figures some things out to get consistent minutes on the floor.”
Now coach Brown is saying Okpala is not a liability on the offensive end.
“I don’t feel like we’ve lost anything offensively,” he said of his player last week after practice. “I didn’t play him last night (at home against the Hawks), but I think I played him in the three or four games before that and — I don’t know this, I’m just guessing — to me, I don’t think our offense struggled just because I played him.”
While offense is not his strength—that can occasionally make itself known—and while his range appeared lacking initially, Okpala’s offense has been better. Again, it probably stems from the defensive side of the ball, but at the end of the day, he’s letting things come to him.
Earlier in the season, Okpala struggled from there, and not because his open three’s didn’t fall—though that certainly contributed—but because his sense of spacing and of where to be or go was lacking.
Lately, that’s changed as he appears more comfortable out there and with himself as he is finding ways to impact the game, even on that end.
And best of all, he has been hitting his three’s. They are never forced—he doesn’t get off an attempt in every appearance—and they always come his way, becoming viable looks even as the volume is very slight. Over the last month, Okpala has gone 4 of 7 from three, and in the last two contests, he’s 2 of 5.
Okpala’s been more than adequate for Mike Brown, particularly over the last couple of games against Orlando and Houston.
And honestly, with two really nice games in a row where he averaged about 10 minutes between them, the thought comes to mind that he maybe stepped up his play due to an implicit competitive challenge. The Kings had just officially announced the signing of PJ Dozier to a 10-day contract.
That isn’t to say the two of them can’t play together or anything of that sort, but rather that Okpala was not going to get comfortable. He’d been playing well when the minutes were coming his way, but he’s shifted to another gear, making a remarkably solid case for staying in the rotation.
Can he keep it up going forward?