Coming in hot: Suns defensive anchor Josh Okogie boosts starting lineup on both ends to open season

Phoenix Suns forward Josh Okogie brings his defensive prowess to the starting lineup to set the tone for the team’s championship aspirations. (Photo by Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns entered the 2023-24 season tight-lipped about who would be the fifth starter to play alongside the Suns’ new “Big Three.” Suns forward Josh Okogie earned the nod and thrived in his role, helping Phoenix edge out the Golden State Warriors 108-104 on opening night Tuesday.

Okogie might not be an eye-popping name that jumps off the page like his teammates Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal. However, in the Suns’ opener against the Warriors at Chase Center, Okogie demonstrated he could be an X-factor in the Suns’ championship pursuit.

Led by Okogie, the Suns’ defense excelled for most of the game, and he hopes to have a repeat performance Thursday night on the road against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

During the preseason, Beal said Okogie would guard each opponent’s best player nightly, and that rang true when Okogie began Tuesday’s game guarding two-time MVP Stephen Curry.

“When I have an assignment like that, (the goal is) just to make sure that he doesn’t have a historic game,” Okogie said. “You know there’s only so much you can do with a guy like him, but just to be able to make sure he has human-like numbers, that’s my goal.”

Despite Curry reaching 27 points, Okogie and the Suns stifled the Warriors’ offense, forcing Curry to finish 8-of-20 from the field and 4-of-14 from 3-point land. Phoenix held Chris Paul, a former Sun, to 14 points on 4-of-15 shooting and Klay Thompson to 15 points on 6-of-18 shooting from the field.

“I’m a big fan of his (Okogie) game, as I’ve said many times, and he played as well as anybody on the floor tonight,” Suns coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s guarding Steph Curry basically every minute that he’s out there, chasing him around, using a lot of energy, but still finds his way with his cuts, crashes and drives to impact the game offensively, which is not always the case when you got to chase a guy like Steph.”

A promising sign for the Suns was that Okogie’s lift wasn’t only on defense. Okogie finished the game shooting 7-of-9, with 17 points, four rebounds and a steal. He was relentless on the offensive boards, grabbing four, although Vogel isn’t sold on the final stats’ accuracy.

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“By the way, he had more than four offensive rebounds,” Vogel said. “He had like eight offensive rebounds. Some of them didn’t count or whatever, but he was a demon on the glass.”

Okogie scored nine of his 17 points in the second half and hit one of the game’s biggest shots when the Suns were up 100-99 with about a minute left. Okogie’s corner 3-pointer as the shot clock expired slightly cushioned the Suns’ lead to 103-99 and left Curry willing to “live” with Okogie knocking down key shots instead of the Suns’ “Big Three.”

“It felt great to hit that one,” Okogie said. “I’ve been practicing my shot, working on it every day consistently, so just to see the results in the game, it felt good.”

“This is game one, and we understand that we have the depth. We have the talent all the way around,” Booker said. “I had it going in the first half; we knew that they were going to throw some different types of defense at us. So credit JO (Okogie), EG (Eric Gordon), and Nurk for finishing those plays.”

Last postseason, Okogie was in a shooting rut, but he blocked out the noise and trusted his work ethic.

“I didn’t really think nothing of it,” Okogie said. “As long as I stay in my routine, stay confident and stay consistent, I’ll be alright.”

Durant said he wasn’t pleased with how he shot the ball against the Warriors, as his shooting percentage didn’t reflect his average stature, but he was proud that his team could find a win by hanging its hat on its defense. The Suns shot 44.2% from the field and held the Warriors to 35.6% shooting.

“The effort for four quarters was great,” Vogel said. “The second and third quarter, 18 points for this team, in this building? That’s exceptional on the defensive end, especially for game one of these guys learning each other and learning the system.”

Next, the Suns travel to Southern California to face Vogel’s former team and the franchise he led to the promised land in 2020, the Lakers. The Suns defense, and Okogie, will again be tested early battling against two of the NBA’s top talents in James and Anthony Davis.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Alfred Smith III expects to graduate in June 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Smith III is a sports editor at ASU’s student-led newspaper, The State Press.