After spending two years in Phoenix, and battling with injuries, Elie Okobo decided to sign a one-year deal overseas in his native country, France, for Tony Parker’s ASVEL. At 24, Okobo is playing for the first time in his career in Europe’s top-tier league, the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague.
Per Alberto De Roa’s advanced Global Rating statistic, Okobo is the third-best player in the competition behind former NBAers Nikola Mirotic and Edy Tavares. He’s also leading the EuroLeague in scoring at 19.6 ppg on 55.3 percent shooting (51.0 percent from beyond the arc).
Okobo discussed his great start to the season, the potential of an NBA return next summer, Parker as a mentor, and whether a top-tier EuroLeague team would make the NBA playoffs with HoopsHype.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
This is your first time playing in the EuroLeague. How has that whole experience been like for you so far?
Elie Okobo: It’s been good. You compete at the highest level in Europe. I wanted to try and see how the level was here. So far, we’ve started the season off pretty well. And I like this level of competition.
24 years old. First time in the EuroLeague. MVP candidate. Fair to say you’ve taken people by surprise. What do you credit that to?
EO: Since I was 14-15 years old, I improved my game every year pretty fast. Before the draft, I wasn’t playing in the EuroLeague, I was playing in the first division of France. And when I got drafted, you play against the best players in the world in the NBA. And you have to get stronger, experiencing that great level of basketball. And I’m just getting better. If you don’t have a lot of playing time, you know things aren’t going your way. You got to get better, work on your game, and I feel coming back to Europe after my surgery would help me keep my confidence about the game. I just want to be the best version of myself, improve every year, and then look back and say, ‘I got better.’
Your team has also taken people by surprise. What’s the team goal you’ve set for this year?
EO: I feel like all the players and teams say that, but you want to take it game by game. We don’t want to look long-term at the playoffs. But, obviously, we started off the season pretty well. And you know it’s difficult to win in the EuroLeague. You have to be really focused on the road and at home. We obviously want to be in the Top 8, and we’re going to try everything to make it happen. But we’ve got a long way to go. Still, a lot of games to be played.
You signed a one-year deal with ASVEL in the summer, after being back and forth in the NBA and the G League. Why did you decide to spend one year overseas?
EO: Firstly, the last time I played in the States, I was in the G League bubble. And I didn’t like the experience; not because of the team I was playing with, or the coaching staff… I was playing with pain on a weak ankle. It was pretty frustrating. I decided to have surgery, heading into the summer, and I was rehabbing the entire time. And then I was thinking that I should come back in August into the Summer League and try to find a team there. But I wanted to be 100 percent, and I wasn’t going to be able to be 100% playing in the Summer League. And at that time, Tony Parker called me and asked me what I wanted to do for the next season. He was interested in bringing me in, and that helped me bounce back from the injury, and the surgery I underwent.
What was the main reason you chose ASVEL?
EO: It was a little bit of comfort because I’m French, my family is one hour away from Lyon. Tony Parker knows me, the coach [TJ Parker] knows me well, and I feel this was the comfort part that I chose. And I knew what my role on the team would be. I have high expectations for myself, I’m trying to be a leader, trying to be a great player. And I feel this was the best decision for me.
Can you describe the relationship you’ve had with Tony Parker, especially this year since he’s the owner of the team?
EO: I remember my first time meeting him when I first played him. He was in Charlotte, and I was in Phoenix. And I remember it was funny, on games before ours, he wasn’t playing much, but during our game, they made him play a lot. And every time I was on the court, he was on the court. He was trying to make me tired, calling me during the game… it was a great experience. He’s now always giving me great advice, we text and call each other all the time. This year he told me, ‘We want you to bounce back, be great, be the best leader you can be, get back into the league whenever you’ll be ready, stay focused, and be consistent.’ We talk a lot about all those kinds of stuff.
Did you turn down any NBA offers to join ASVEL this season?
EO: It was me more like being back on the court, expressing myself, and having fun. I didn’t have fun because of the injury I had. And I feel like coming back, experiencing EuroLeague, I’ll have more time to react. I think I started playing preseason in mid-September. So, I didn’t play for a long time. I didn’t play in the NBA bubble, because we were 8-0, I got there late, and there was no need to make subs.
Based on your performances so far this season, an NBA return in a far better situation seems more than realistic. Is that your goal for next year?
EO: I didn’t really set goals about a return timetable, a deadline, or whatever. I want to improve, be ready, and I want to make sure I’m not going back to the NBA as a rookie, I want to set a certain standard, I want to come back with a status of a great EuroLeague player. I obviously want to have a long NBA career, but right now I’m focusing on the team and myself.
Looking at the league now, which players would you say remind you of your playing style?
EO: Since I was like 14-15, I’ve been watching a lot of James Harden. The way he creates for himself, and his teammates to get open looks or get to the free-throw line, and make it easier for everyone on the court. I’ve also watched some Rajon Rondo, Damian Lillard, and Devin Booker.
Can you talk a little bit about the Phoenix Suns and your experience during these two years?
EO: The first year was kind of tough. You come in as a rookie, and I think we finished 15th at the end of the season, we didn’t win many games, And as a competitor, you want to win, you want to play well as a team. And it didn’t happen the way we wanted. But I try to take the positives out of every situation. I feel I got better and learned a lot. I tried to adjust to the playing style of the NBA. In my second year, I had some ups and downs. I was a solid backup point guard, sometimes I was playing, sometimes I wasn’t playing. And then I got injured during the All-Star break. It was frustrating, but it was an overall good experience. I think it helped me a lot in my game and my approach to basketball.
Do you have any second thoughts about going to the NBA too early, at a young age?
EO: I would’ve made the same decision, putting my name on the draft in 2018. There are probably things that I could’ve done better, there are probably things that I couldn’t control. But you know, I can’t say if this if that, I just move on. I take every positive out of every situation. And it helps me become who I am right now.
How hard was it to adjust to the NBA’s style of play coming from Europe? What differences do you see between the NBA and the EuroLeague?
EO: The regular season of the EuroLeague is kind of like soccer’s UEFA Champions League. Every game you play, you need to win. In the NBA, you sometimes go through games, we got 82 games. Players in the NBA are more athletic. In the EuroLeague, because you need to win, they’re playing really tough and strong for 40 minutes. You obviously, though, have the best players in the NBA. What’s funny is that people say in the NBA players don’t defend at all. But, I feel like if you don’t try to be locked in on Stephen Curry, he’ll probably drop 100 points.
Luka Doncic famously said in 2018 that it’s easier to score in the NBA compared to Europe. You seem to not have any problems scoring the ball in Europe. What’s your take on that?
EO: I kind of understand what he’s saying, because of the way he’s playing. He’s playing at his own pace, and he can get to his spot whenever he wants, cause he’s tall and strong. You have the defensive three-second rule in the NBA which you don’t have in the EuroLeague, and the court is wide. When you use a screen in the NBA, you have so much room for a floater or a mid-range shot. I can understand his way of thinking, but then it depends on the player’s role as well.
Would an elite EuroLeague team make the NBA playoffs?
EO: Wow, that’s a tough question. I feel like physically it’s going to be tough at some point, being able to keep the same intensity and high level for those 82 games to finish in the Top 8, but they might do good. Talk about playoffs… it’s difficult. I feel like on that best EuroLeague team, there’s probably a lot of guys that don’t probably have the NBA level.