Auburn back to the Final Four? Only if Isaac Okoro gets selfish

Okoro's step-back 3 propels Auburn past Kentucky (0:18)

Isaac Okoro drills a beautiful step-back 3-pointer, which sends Auburn to the 75-66 win over Kentucky. (0:18)

AUBURN, Ala. -- Isaac Okoro needs to be pushed.

It's why Auburn Tigers coach Bruce Pearl yells at the 6-foot-6 freshman and projected NBA lottery candidate to "Shoot the ball!" It's why Pearl tells Okoro that if he hasn't committed at least one charge per game, he's not being aggressive enough.

Pearl wants Okoro to reach his potential, sure. But he also wants Auburn to return to the Final Four, and though the Tigers are a sterling 21-2 and ranked 11th nationally, they aren't what you'd call a powerhouse, eking out wins against Arkansas and Ole Miss in recent weeks. The fear around the program is that a lineup that includes four seniors might have already maxed out its potential, which makes the development of Okoro over the next five weeks so important.

"He is sometimes too unselfish," Pearl told ESPN recently.

Okoro's family and former coaches know that sentiment all too well. It's just that Okoro -- who ranks in the top 25 of the SEC in offensive rebounds, assists, blocks and steals -- is so mild-mannered and eager to please, they say. He won't put himself first, and it can be to his detriment. His sister Ashley watches other players shoot without thinking, brimming with confidence. "He kind of hesitates," she said.

The deferential nature started way back, more than a decade ago as a child growing up in the outskirts of metro Atlanta, when his three older siblings would pick on him mercilessly -- as older brothers and sisters are wont to do.

Older sister Ashley really let him have it, though. They both loved wrestling -- she was a fan of Shawn Michaels, Isaac was into John Cena -- and she would use little brother as her practice dummy, throwing him around like a rag doll. With Ashley five years his senior, they'd wrestle in the guest room -- out of earshot from their parents -- and she'd try out jump kicks or put him in a backward headlock and turn it into a body slam.

"I'd try the RKO move, and I'd always beat Isaac," she said.

Inevitably, she'd go a little too far, Isaac would get hurt -- or maybe it was just his ego that was bruised -- and he'd cry and cry, until one day Dad had to step in. Godwin Okoro, who immigrated from Nigeria in the 1980s, ordered his son to dry his eyes. Stop it, he told him, "Don't let her make you cry."

Ashley remembers Isaac coming back from that conversation with a different demeanor, a quiet determination she hadn't seen from him before. He suddenly started winning their makeshift wrestling bouts and didn't back down again. "I started getting scared of him," she said, laughing.

It's that type of transformation that Auburn needs to see on the court in the coming weeks. Okoro has heard coaches call him passive and he owns that, but he says he's content getting his 12.9 points per game on just nine shots per night, as long as the Tigers get the win.

"I'm not a player that's going to go out there and score 30 every game," he said.

Yes, but he could do exactly that. Okoro's shot has steadily improved, and he has shown that he can get to the rim at will. He's a terrific finisher. His vertical on approach (38.5 inches) and 3/4-court sprint (3.2 seconds) would have ranked in the top 10 of last year's NBA draft combine. He's a consistent lockdown defender -- it's what he's most confident doing -- but he'll often recede into the background on offense. Take the Alabama game last month.

On the road, in a packed arena, Okoro started off slowly. You would've thought he was nervous, the way he kept passing up shots. But then, out of nowhere, he came to life. And over the final 7:14 of the first half, he ran off 12 points, including a smooth step-back 3. He also had a steal and a pair of rebounds, showing off his full repertoire in front of a number of NBA scouts. Then they came back from the break and he settled right back into his comfort zone. He took five shots and scored one point in the second half as Auburn lost for the first time all season.

In the ensuing weeks, he'd ping-pong from role player to playmaker. He'd score seven points in a loss at Florida, followed by eight points in a win over South Carolina. Then, on the road at Ole Miss, he took over in double overtime. With his team trailing by two with under 2 minutes to play, he drove the lane, absorbed a foul and sank a tough shot off the glass. He hit the ensuing free throw to take the lead and then blocked a shot on the next possession, sealing the victory and finishing with 14 points.

Pearl called Okoro one of the best defenders, if not the best, he's ever had in his four decades coaching college basketball. He said he's the hardest worker on the team, too. But what if Okoro plays with more consistency on the offensive end? If he builds confidence as a shooter and becomes a more dynamic scorer, what then?

"Then it's all over," Pearl said. "He's an NBA player right now, but if he starts to get to the point where he can see it and make it, then he's an NBA All-Star. He's Victor Oladipo times two."

On the court, Okoro has developed into a legit one-and-done prospect. Some draft experts project him as a lottery pick, and ESPN ranks him as its No. 1 small forward and fourth overall prospect in the class.

Off the court, the 19-year-old is laid-back and quiet in front of strangers. He can sing a little bit, he confessed, but he's too shy to do it in front of people. He flips his hood over his head and pops in his earphones when he's on campus to avoid the inevitable questions about the NBA. "I just really try not to focus on it too much," he said. When he's at home, he watches "Criminal Minds" and other murder-mystery-type shows on Netflix.

The reserved personality vanishes when he's playing defense, though. In high school, he shut down the likes of future SEC stars Trendon Watford (LSU) and Scottie Lewis (Florida). More recently, Okoro limited Georgia freshman and potential No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards to 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting, as Auburn won the game by 22 points.

Okoro has always known how to throw his weight around on defense. Back when he was in the local church league getting his first taste of basketball, he said he couldn't shoot a lick and would constantly double dribble. But because he was bigger than everyone, he'd post up under the rim and dominate the paint by getting rebounds or blocking shots.

When AAU coach Omar Cooper got his first look at him -- when Okoro was 7 or 8 -- he didn't know what he would become. But he knew he had to develop him on offense, which was no easy task.

For the first few years, Cooper started Okoro at center during games. But at practice, knowing Okoro wouldn't be the biggest kid on the court forever, he would make him play point guard, honing his ballhandling and shooting skills behind the scenes.

The problem? When they finally moved Okoro out from under the basket, he didn't want to force his own shot. It didn't matter that he could get to the rim or shoot over pretty much everyone. Whenever the double-team came, he'd inevitably pass to the open man.

It drove Cooper nuts.

"And I'm like, 'There's a reason why they're open!'" Cooper said, yelling so loud that his voice cracked.

He'd teach Okoro how to pro-hop and Eurostep through double- and triple-teams, but it didn't take. Okoro didn't think it wasn't the right thing to do.

"I say, 'Isaac, what are you doing? You're the reason we're losing! Because you think you're being unselfish, but you're not! You're being selfish by being unselfish!'" Cooper said.

"He doesn't understand what I'm saying, but he just starts crying. Then he goes out there and scores 40. I'm like, 'That's what I'm talking about!' Then the next game we go through it all again."

Cooper took a deep breath and sighed.

"He's so special," he said. "He's just a team guy. There's only one Isaac Okoro."

Like Pearl, Cooper is somewhat resigned to Isaac being Isaac. But Cooper worries that it's holding him back. He believes that it's what cost him a spot on the McDonald's All American Team and that it's why it took Okoro two tries to make the USA under-17 World Cup team.

When Okoro lost the high school state championship as a junior, he cried and shut himself in his bedroom for two days, sneaking down to the kitchen for food only when no one was around. But that next year, something changed. He led McEachern High to an undefeated season and back to the state championship game, which is where coach Mike Thompson said, "Isaac just took over." Okoro made big play after big play down the stretch, finishing with 16 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists, and the school got its first championship win.

So, yeah, he can turn it on when push comes to shove.

"His basketball powers are definitely that," Cooper said. "They're basketball powers."

Cooper recalled a workout last summer before Okoro left for college. Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown, an Atlanta native, came by the gym and got to playing "King of the Court" with Okoro and Cooper's son Sharife (a 2020 Auburn commit). Brown was roughing them, being physical and really trying to give them a taste of what the NBA was like, Cooper said.

"So when it boiled down to it, it was 8-8-8 and the game was to nine," he said. "And Jaylen had the ball and Sharife was guarding him, and he scored, which ended the game. So Jaylen wins. And oh, Isaac was furious. He was fur-i-ous! 'No! You gotta play again! You gotta score on me!' And Jaylen put on his street clothes on and said, 'You know what? You got it, Isaac. I don't want no more of you.' Isaac was hot! He didn't want Jaylen Brown to walk out that gym victorious. He couldn't do it."

When that competitiveness matches his assertiveness on offense, watch out, Cooper said. Maybe it won't happen until he gets to the NBA, but whenever it comes, Cooper says it will be game over.

"He's going to turn that corner and that will be all she wrote."