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Can KZ Okpala be the defensive forward Sacramento has needed?

KZ Okpala has the chance to break into the Kings’ rotation this season.

Miami Heat v Orlando Magic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

KZ Okpala has all the makings of the type of dynamic, defensive forward that could help drag the Kings’ defense out of the gutter. For him, the only question is simple: Will he be competent enough offensively to get the chance to do it?

During the first three seasons of his career with the Miami Heat, Okpala played sparingly, rarely cracking the rotation at times. With Miami’s defense-first culture focused on hard work, Okpala fit in theory but seemed like he could never do enough offensively to usurp the more talented Miami forwards.

Okpala has a better chance of breaking into Sacramento’s forward rotation. It seems Okpala will be battling for spot minutes with fellow Team Nigeria teammates Chimezie Metu and Chima Moneke. All three have experience under new Kings head coach Mike Brown, playing for him with team Nigeria during the 2021 Olympics.

In those Olympics, Okpala had some impressive moments, guarding some stars, both smaller and his size. In Team Nigeria’s upset win over the United States, Okpala was picking up Damian Lillard, Zach Lavine and other star guards full court, using his lateral quickness and 7’2 wingspan to make things frustrating for them.

The most impressive thing about Okpala in this game was the fact he was consistently switching from small to big and big to small competently.

Okpala wasn’t granted this type of defensive responsibility with the Heat, but maybe with Brown and less overall defensive talent in Sacramento, he will get to freelance more and show what he can do.

Sacramento’s roster can use a player with Okpala’s switchability, who can guard up and down, especially with the team building around a defensively limited center in Domantas Sabonis and slower-footed forwards like Keegan Murray and Harrison Barnes.

On offense, Okpala can best be described as raw. He can’t really shoot and doesn’t seem to have much of a feel or position on that end of the court at this point. To stay on the court, he’s probably going to need to thrive as a hustle player and screen setter on offense who can grease the wheels for the Kings’ more talented players.

One way Okpala could this would be playing small ball center. Over at our Miami Heat sister site, Hot Hot Hoops, Diego Quezada wrote about how Okpala impacted a game last season in a small ball five role:

The one exception came during the Heat’s Nov. 15 victory at the Oklahoma City Thunder, a game Miami played without Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Markieff Morris. The Stanford alum played well as a small-ball five, finishing with eight points and seven rebounds.

Last night against the Milwaukee Bucks, Okpala again thrived as the small-ball five. (As I mentioned before, Spoelstra goes to either Omer Yurtseven or Okpala. Last night, Yurtseven played a brief early stint before Spoelstra stuck with Okpala.) With eight seconds left in the first half, the third-year pro nailed a corner 3. On the other end of the floor, he stole a Khris Middleton pass intended for Giannis Antetokounmpo to close the half.

This season, Okpala is more of a lottery ticket than a player essential to Sacramento’s success. But still just 23, he has shown enough flashes and ability that maybe, just maybe, he could find his niche under a head coach he has familiarity with, on a team that sorely needs a player of his skillset.