KZ Okpala: Miami’s Next Hidden Gem?


The Miami Heat are notorious for developing young and raw players. Previously, the Heat developed Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Hassan Whiteside.

This NBA season is no different. The Heat have developed two undrafted free agents, Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn, into starters on an Eastern Conference playoff team. The front office has received a lot of praise from lottery pick Tyler Herro throughout his rookie campaign.

There’s another rookie, however, that has not been talked about much let alone at all. His name is Chikezie Okpala.

Collegiate Career

Miami drafted Chikezie Okpala, better known as KZ Okpala, with the 32nd pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. He attended Stanford for two seasons, showing massive improvements in his game after his first season. In his sophomore season, he put up averages of 16.8 points and 5.7 boards along with a steal per game. Okpala did this balling while shooting 49.3% from the field and 36.8% from three. This success was enough to earn a spot on the All-Pac-12 1st team.

Okpala was able to take massive strides in shooting from the three-point line as well as showcasing impressive ball-handling skills for someone of his size. He improved from shooting 22.6% from three his freshman year to 36.8% in his sophomore season.

His defense, however, is what stands out. At the draft combine, he stood at 6’9.5 (with shoes) with a 7′ 1.75″ wingspan. KZ has high defensive IQ, can jump into passing lanes, and can make it difficult for opponents to get an open look.

Before the draft, the Miami Heat was very high on the future and potential of KZ. According to a Miami Herald article, Miami had Tyler Herro as the 9th-best player on their draft board, while Okpala was the 10th-best. The Heat was able to trade future 2nd round picks to draft KZ 32nd. Many in the front office considered Okpala as a major steal. Unfortunately for the Heat, Okpala was not able to participate with their Summer League because of the rules for acquiring players that a team traded for during the draft.

G League Experience

Okpala spent most of his rookie season playing for the Sioux Falls Skyforce– Miami’s G League affiliate. His offensive game has been inconsistent during his time with the Skyforce. With Sioux Falls, he averaged 11.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. His defensive presence has still been evident, and he has made strides throughout the season to become more efficient compared.

The Heat knew that KZ was a raw prospect coming into the league, and giving him this experience has already paid off. This is a similar approach the Heat had with current 76ers guard Josh Richardson. The Heat sent Richardson, a second-round pick out of Tennessee, to the Skyforce multiple times during his rookie season.

Although Okpala spent much of his rookie season playing in Sioux Falls, he did spend five games with Miami. Okpala logged over 90 seconds of playtime once, which came February 7th against the Sacramento Kings. Before this game, the Miami Heat had just completed a trade sending Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters and James Johnson to Memphis for Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill. None of these players were ready to play in this game. The Heat also played without Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro and Meyers Leonard due to injury. Miami, therefore, needed to give players like KZ Okpala and Gabe Vincent minutes when they usually wouldn’t play. In his 21 minutes of game time, Okpala had many flashes to make Heat fans excited about his future.

First NBA Game

Against the Kings, KZ Okpala finished with a stat line of seven points (3/5 FG), four rebounds, two steals and a block. There were many positives to take from Okpala’s play. Just from the box score, you can already see how great he can be defensively. With KZ’s first steal of the game, he understood the situation with the shot clock winding down. He helped double Nemanja Bjelica on the drive and stripped the ball out of Bjelica’s hands. This play led to a fast break opportunity where Okpala finished at the rim with an and-one opportunity.

With his second steal of the game, he took advantage of a lazy pass from Anthony Tolliver. Okpala intercepted the pass and went down on the other end with a high-flying dunk. He also showed the ability to grab rebounds, as well as some physicality down low. In his one other basket, he received a pass from Gabe Vincent down low, put his right shoulder into the Kings’ Cory Joseph, got Bjelica jumping off of his pump fake, absorbed the contact from Bjelica and drew an and-one.

What’s Next?

So, what’s next for KZ? One thing Okpala needs to work on is getting his body to become NBA ready. He came into the league skinny, so he’ll need to add more muscle– and reports are he’s already doing that. During the hiatus, Okpala gained 10-12 pounds of muscle, according to Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.

His jump shot his been inconsistent but is improving throughout the season. He is also still learning how and where to pick his spots to shoot. In an interview with the Five on the Floor Podcast, KZ said he has been studying Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram’s offensive game a lot. We will see if that can translate onto the court.

Lastly, getting more experience and playtime will always be the best answer when it comes to developing young talent. Getting more comfortable and slowing down the game on both sides of the ball would be very significant for Okpala’s development. This will come with time. Spoelstra has stated he plans on playing a lot more of his bench than usual in the Orlando bubble. It is fair to say that KZ will likely get some more playing time over the next few weeks. These minutes will be in a playoff atmosphere, and Okpala’s performances in Orlando may show where the Heat is in his development.

Will KZ be the next big star in the NBA? We shall see. He has the physical tools to become one of the best defenders in the NBA someday. He also has the offensive skillset to be able to produce at a high level if he can put it all together. The Heat can also ease Okpala along since they have a sturdy foundation on the court and in the locker room.

Heat fans should be excited about the future of KZ Okpala.

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About Zachary McGaha

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