Auburn Mississippi Basketball

Auburn forward Isaac Okoro reacts after the team's 83-82 win over Ole Miss in two overtimes this season. Okoro has put his name into the 2020 NBA draft, although he hasn't made a decision about leaving the Tigers. [THOMAS GRANING/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

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

The Powder Springs, Georgia, native had that potential. 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 dubbed him one of the best defenders he had ever coached even before he stepped on the floor in a Tigers uniform. He was a starter from Day 1.

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 who were widely expected to play one year in college and immediately jump to the NBA as top-five picks. Okoro was a four-star recruit ranked No. 36 nationally.

The feeling was that Okoro could be a first-round or even lottery pick. The question was whether it would be after his freshman season or later on during his career.

Less than five months after his college debut, the answer seems much more likely to be the former than it does the latter. On Friday, Pearl made an announcement that should come as a surprise to no one who followed Auburn basketball this past season — Okoro will make himself eligible for the 2020 NBA draft and go through the scouting process.

And if that process tells Okoro that he has a good chance of being a lottery pick (anywhere in the top 14), 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. Chuma Okeke was selected 16th overall last year, which is two picks outside the lottery.

“Look, Isaac enjoyed Auburn,” Pearl said on 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% shooting (third), 4.4 rebounds (tied for second), 1.5 assists (third) and nearly one block and one steal per game. About the only thing he didn’t do well was shoot 3-pointers (28.6%), but he made up for that by getting to the free throw line the third-most times on the team and making those attempts at a 67.4% clip.

Earlier this month, Okoro became just the fifth player in SEC history to be named to the coaches’ All-SEC (he was second team), All-Defensive and All-Freshmen 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 through 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. As a result, he played the game for joy, he played it to win championships; he played it to get better.”

Okoro could return to Auburn. 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.

But, as Pearl mentioned, this year’s draft class is not particularly deep. Wiseman, Edwards and LaMelo Ball are going to be top picks, but it seems wide open after that, and Okoro is firmly in the mix of players who could realistically come off the board in the top-10 or even top-five picks.

Okoro hasn’t made a final decision yet 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.

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