Before the 2019 NBA Draft arrives, Peachtree Hoops will break down more than 70 available prospects with an eye toward what the Atlanta Hawks may look to do in late June.
This installment examines Auburn forward Chuma Okeke.
In one of the more memorable (for all the wrong reasons) moments of the NCAA tourney, Auburn’s Chuma Okeke tore his ACL late in his team’s 97-80 win over top-seeded North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen. The sophomore forward and Atlanta native was using college basketball’s biggest stage to showcase his talents and a strong run through the tournament had his stock on the rise before his devastating injury. Despite the injury, Okeke opted to declare for the NBA draft and all signs point toward his staying in the draft rather than returning to the Tigers for a junior season.
Before his injury, he was projected to be a mid-to-late first round pick who could slip into he second round. However, if he had not sustained the injury and played with his team into the Final Four, some prognosticators suspect that he perhaps could have been knocking on the door of the lottery portion of the first round.
At first glance, there is no doubt that Okeke has an NBA body. He stands at 6’8 and 230 pounds with a wingspan of 7’0. His body is built for today’s NBA game. After considering his stature, the natural question on deck asks how explosive an athlete is he.
In the college game, Okeke is a bit of an enigma. He plays a very controlled offensive game, always playing within himself and within the system. His offensive skill set is very smooth and efficient, leaving an impression of a more finesse player than an explosive athlete. However, there are times when he uses the smooth, rock-you-to-sleep style of play on offense only to finish with an authoritative dunk.
On the offensive end, a fair conclusion is that he is smooth yet explosive enough. On the defensive end, it is a different evaluation.
Okeke was a bit of a tweener, at least at the college level, in a way that can be an asset. On the offensive end, he played a combo forward role that was effective both in the paint and on the perimeter. Defensively, he spent a lot of his time defending the post. His post defense and rebounding were an asset for Auburn, but his college role brings with it the question as to whether he can defend wings at the NBA level.
Before diving deeper into his prospects as an NBA defender, it is fair to spend more time breaking down his offensive game. Okeke is a very smooth and efficient offensive player. He is a good jump shooter with effortless mechanics. As a three point shooter, he shot 39.1% on 2.6 attempts per game as a freshman. In his second year, he increased his volume to 3.7 attempt per game with only the slightest drop to 38.7%. NBA teams should be confident that his perimeter shooting should translate just fine to the NBA level.
Aside from his jump shot, Okeke has demonstrated that he can find other ways to score. He is an excellent cutter and can finish his shot around the basket. He he has strong and sound footwork in the post. His game around the basket is simple but clever. He has a very good pump fake around the basket and has the ability to get defenders off their feet.
For a player his size, the Auburn forward is an adequate ball handler and a more than adequate passer. He is patient with the ball. He plays an unselfish style of basketball and sees the floor. He makes good decisions with the ball and when the ball finds him, the offensive flow keeps moving.
The one element of Okeke’s offensive game that is missing is his ability to create his own shot. For those who contend that he was pushing himself towards being a potential lottery selection, this is the one aspect of his game that would have likely prevented him from getting there. Teams picking players in the lottery who do not qualify as true bigs generally expect elite shooting or elite shot creation and shot making. Okeke has neither of those skills in his toolbox.
What he does offer on the offensive end is a player who plays team basketball. He is smooth and polished but also has the body to handle the physical aspects of the NBA game.
On the defensive end, NBA teams will need to assess whether Okeke is actually a tweener, this time in a less optimal way. At the college game, his valuable status as a tweener referenced more his ability to play wing on offense and post on defense. At the NBA level, the assessment is more critical. The question to ask is whether he can play both the wing and the post on the defensive end of the floor.
Defensively, Okeke is a scrapper. He relies on his size and strength while also outworking his opponent. At the NBA level, he will lose one of those key advantages as his size and strength will be more neutral. The fact is that he is more likely to get matched up with players as big and strong as he is at the next level. It leaves NBA talent evaluators to ponder whether outworking his opponents will be enough.
The real question is whether Okeke can defend on the wing. Can he be as effective defensively on the wing as he is expected to be offensively? A fair assessment yields a conclusion that he may struggle to defend on the wing.
At the college level, when he found himself defending on the wing, he sometimes struggled the keep his opponent in front of him. This was especially true when matched up with players with NBA potential.
If Okeke struggles defensively at the wing, he could find himself in the “small ball four” role that is very prevalent in today’s game. He could thrive there, but if he is limited to this role, the range of possibilities in terms of his ability to contribute are narrowed.
All of this analysis aside, one prevailing question remains. How will his injury affect his status as an NBA prospect? The bottom line is that it should not affect his draft position much at all. In the late first round and in the second round, NBA teams are rarely looking for players who can contribute immediately. There is no doubt that he will get a later start than other players selected on draft night, but NBA teams will be thinking big picture, especially in the portion of the draft where Okeke is expected to go.
Like so many players in this draft, the young forward is a potential fit for the Hawks. If there is one thing the roster lacks, it’s combo forwards who could swing between the three and four spots, especially with the roster status of Taurean Prince up in the air heading into the final season of his rookie contract and his inability to play the four through his first three campaigns. At this point, the roster consists of players who fall neatly within the parameters of guard, wing or big.
Last season, Vince Carter and Justin Anderson both played the role of combo forward off the bench. It is a role more suited to playing off the bench with the preference of playing two natural bigs in the starting lineup.
Ultimately, NBA teams with interest in Okeke will want to assume a larger ceiling than swing player off the bench. Yet, getting quality play from the bench with the versatility to play matchups is often what separates good teams and true contenders.
Okeke will certainly not be an option with Atlanta’s lottery picks but, with three early second round selections in hand, the Hawks could consider him a strong candidate. Draft night could result in an opportunity for a young player, working his way back from injury before his career even gets started to get back to health and get his career started with his hometown team.