In advance of the 2020 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops is evaluating prospects with a look at what the Atlanta Hawks might be considering from now until the selection process occurs. Dozens of prospects will be profiled in this space and, in this installment, we take a look at USC big man Onyeka Okongwu.
Defensively, USC’s Onyeka Okongwu might be the defensive big man that all teams are looking for in the modern NBA. He might not have quite the size that one would want, but beggars can’t be choosers. Because the reality is that his mobility is what sets him apart and, if he were a few inches taller and a few pounds heavier, his ability to move might not quite be what it is.
For a player who is not yet a household name, Okongwu is used to playing in an environment that includes maximum attention. He spent four years playing at Chino Hills High School (yes that one) along with a few guards with the last name Ball. He was easily a top-40 recruit and landed at USC where he played his only college season.
He was named to the All-PAC12 first team but somehow did not garner any awards for his defensive play. Okongwu averaged 2.7 blocks and 1.2 steals per game as a player that did not spend all of his time chasing highlight plays and statistical events.
He doesn’t offer nearly as much on the offensive end of the court but, in an era dominated by the pick-and-roll, Okongwu excels at many things desired in a modern center. He works hard in his screen game, has good feel relative to his timing in and out of his pick setting and is a perfectly legitimate lob threat any time he dives to the rim.
Okongwu is not much of a passer and the decision making in other areas is quite deliberate. Still, he is still a few weeks shy of his twentieth birthday. He is not currently much of a shooter in a half court context, though some believe that could develop. He seems to have good hands, decent touch and some feel, but Okongwu’s lower half is currently a disaster. His only three-point make on the season was a heave beyond half court.
The fact that he converted 72% of his free throws, however, suggests what kind of shooter he might be able to develop into if his lower half can be stabilized.
Additionally, he should have some value in an NBA setting playing along side another big that excels in the pick-and-roll. Okongwu has all of the things a team would want from a player that can start a possession in the dunker spot. He has excellent feel and timing as a cutter and doesn’t have to receive the ball right at the rim to convert shots at a high percentage.
In recent years, many NBA teams have converted the dunker configuration to the weak side corner as big men continue to develop at a greater frequency as shooters. For me, it’s not at all out of the question that Okongwu could develop the ability, perhaps even early in his professional career, to knock down shots from the short corner.
He is a challenge for any opponent on the offensive glass. In addition to his ability to leap in tight space, he also just never stops moving and working.
The thing that has vaulted Okongwu into the upper lottery in the 2020 NBA draft is the fact that he’s widely considered to be the most versatile (and perhaps best) defensive center in the class and that he offers value precisely in the offensive areas you’d want for a player of his profile. Defensive trends in the league suggest that defensive anchors generally have to be able to make an impact on ball handlers and not just protect the rim, The association is dominated at the moment by point guards and wing creators that power the best offenses.
A defensive big man impacting plays on the perimeter and at the point of attack can look a few different ways. Some centers are able to simply consume so much space near the paint (examples include Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert and Jusuf Nurkic) that the remainder of the defensive lineup can be freed up to aggressively defend the ball.
Other centers can get high on the floor and have presence at the point of the screen (examples include Bam Adebayo and Myles Turner) and still retain the ability to recover to the lane to help offer resistance at the rim.
Okongwu mostly fits the latter. His best value defensively will rest in his ability to navigate as high in the defensive half court as needed and still be able to recover to help in the paint. As such, it would seem that teams that play this style of defensive scheme would offer the best fit.
His value might also be maximized playing on a team with undersized guards given that he could give those players a ton of help on the perimeter. That’s not to say that Okongwu would offer no value playing, at times, in a drop scheme, especially when the match-up dictates. Footwork and effort are as much part of the recipe for success in a drop-based technique as any others.
Okongwu might not project to be a serious individual rim protector early in his career, the only real question mark about his defensive potential. Despite the vertical skills he possesses, he just doesn’t quite have the length that would be ideal. These days, big men are taught to deny shots at the rim while staying on the floor if at all possible as to avoid fouling and being otherwise taken out of the play.
However, I’m not ready to give up on Okongwu in this area. Some of the more reliable rim protectors in the league over the last five years or so have been undersized players that have capably covered minutes at the five — former Hawks forward Paul Millsap is an excellent example. It tends to take these types of players a few years to grow in the nuanced areas of the game the role demands, but the young man out of USC is simply such a reliably hard worker that I’d bet on him hitting on the skill down the road as well.
A number of outlets continue to mock Okongwu to the Hawks. In some ways, that may be something of a head scratcher for some readers given the number of centers already on the roster, especially considering last season’s acquisition of Clint Capela.
However, we should keep in mind that Atlanta is quite obviously building its roster around Trae Young. As such, an opportunity to find a defensive big man that excels at helping at the the level of the ball screen and otherwise being involved providing resistance at the point of attack should not be taken lightly.