Okoro has chance to be Auburn's first NBA lottery pick in 32 years

Auburn basketball

Auburn forward Isaac Okoro (23) saves a loose ball in the second half against Kentucky. Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

AUBURN — Isaac Okoro did not arrive at Auburn as a surefire one-and-done NBA prospect.

The Powder Springs, Ga., native had that potential, sure. He’s a 6-foot-6, 225-pound wing who starred for a McEachern High team that went 32-0 and won a state championship during his senior season. Bruce Pearl called him one of the best defenders he had coached — even before Okoro first stepped on the floor in a Tigers uniform. He was a starter from the first day.

But he wasn’t always looked at as being quite on the same level as Memphis’ James Wiseman or Georgia’s Anthony Edwards, two five-star recruits ranked Nos. 1 and 2 nationally. Okoro was a four-star recruit ranked No. 36 nationally.

The feeling was that Okoro could be a first-round selection — or even lottery pick, which includes the first 14 spots in the draft. The question was whether it would be after his freshman season or later on during his career.

Less than five months after his collegiate debut, the answer seems much more likely to be the former than the latter. On Friday, to the surprise of hardly anyone, Pearl announced Okoro will make himself eligible for the 2020 NBA draft and go through scouting process, whatever that looks like, given the current shutdown in response to concern about the COVID-19 pandemic.

And if that process tells Okoro that he has a good chance of being a lottery pick, Pearl said, “he needs to stay in the draft.”

If he does, Okoro would be the first one-and-done player in program history and could be the first lottery selection since Chris Morris in 1988. The Nets took Morris with the fourth pick that year.

“Look, Isaac enjoyed Auburn,” Pearl said during a teleconference with reporters. “He enjoyed being here, he enjoyed school, he enjoyed his teammates, his coaches. He enjoyed the training. But the circumstances as they present themselves now, where if Isaac has an opportunity to be a first-round pick and certainly has an opportunity to be in the lottery, with this draft not being as deep as next year's draft is going to be, I think it makes sense for him to absolutely become draft eligible.”

It didn’t take Okoro long to begin rocketing up draft boards. He scored 12 points on 6-for-9 shooting with five rebounds and two assists in his first game, led the team with 16 points in his second and hit the game-winning shot in the final seconds of his third.

Early on during SEC play, Okoro torched Vanderbilt for 23 points on 6-for-9 shooting (10 of 14 from the free throw line) on a Tuesday and played shutdown defense against Georgia the following Saturday, holding Edwards to just two made shots on his first 10 attempts from the floor in a 22-point win.

That was the second week in January. By that point, Okoro had gone from being a borderline lottery pick in mock drafts to a player whose name consistently appeared in the top 10. The projections have only improved since then — he has the size, defensive versatility and playmaking ability that NBA teams covet.

Okoro finished his abridged rookie season averaging 12.8 points (second on the team) on 51 percent shooting (third), 4.4 rebounds (tied for second), 1.5 assists (third) and nearly one block and one steal a game.

Earlier this month, Okoro became just the fifth player in SEC history to be named to the coaches’ All-SEC (second team), All-Defensive and All-Freshman teams for his performance on the court. Even more telling of his value to Auburn was the team’s performance when he wasn’t on the court — the Tigers suffered double-digit losses at Missouri and Georgia and trailed Tennessee by 17 points in the second half when the star freshman missed three February games with a hamstring injury.

“One of the great joys of coaching him this year and recruiting him, is he just wanted to go to a place he can get better and have the opportunity to be put in a position to be successful and try to compete for championships,” Pearl said. “We talked about the NBA during the recruiting process. I think most people, most experts would have probably thought it was going to take a couple years where he'd be in a position to be ready or in a position to be drafted, but we didn't spend a lot of time talking about it because that's just not who he is.”

Okoro has the option to return to Auburn for a second season. There are reasons he might consider it. He didn’t get to play in the SEC or NCAA tournaments, which were both canceled because of the threat of COVID-19. His former teammate at McEachern, five-star point guard Sharife Cooper, signed with the Tigers in November and will join the program next season.

There are also plenty of questions about how the 2020 NBA Draft process will actually work, too. The NBA is currently on indefinite suspension. No one knows when or even if games will be able to resume. CBS Sports reported this past weekend that teams are preparing as if they will be making selections without the benefit of a combine, workouts or in-person interviews.

Okoro hasn’t made a final decision and doesn’t have to for some time, especially if the NBA calendar gets pushed back. But that type of draft potential would be hard for him to pass up.

Okoro draft projections

Here’s where the Auburn standout sits in some recent mock drafts. The draft order has not been finalized.

Sporting News: No. 4, Atlanta Hawks

The Athletic: No. 7, Atlanta Hawks

Tankathon: No. 7, Chicago Bulls

CBS Sports: No. 8, Atlanta Hawks

Bleacher Report: No. 9, Washington Wizards

SB Nation: No. 10, Phoenix Suns

NBADraft.net: No. 11, Phoenix Suns