On Wednesday night, the Atlanta Hawks selected Onyeka Okongwu, a big man out of USC, with the No. 6 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, and Skylar Mays, 6’4 high IQ wing from LSU with the No. 50 pick. A promising interior prospect, Okonwgu is also someone Atlanta is hoping will be able to bring his game out to the perimeter as well. Mays, a 23-year old senior, could be in contention for an eventual role on the second unit.
The Hawks were reportedly interested in several prospects, ranging from Tyrese Haliburton to Issac Okoro, Deni Avdija, Devin Vassell and Patrick Williams. Ultimately, it’s clear Hawks president of basketball operations Travis Schlenk and company thought Okongwu was the best player on the board at No. 6.
“He’s an unbelievable person,” said Schlenk of Okongwu. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve said character is at the top of our list, and he certainly checks that box in a big way.”
Schlenk added that he thinks Okongwu can tap more into the shooting touch he’s displayed from the free throw line, moving further away from the basket to three-point range.
“He’s a good free throw shooter, so we think with time he’s going to be able to extend his range,” continued Schlenk on the new draft pick. “He’s got unbelievable hands, he catches everything. He’s got the seven-foot wingspan and he can run the floor, so we’re really excited about him.”
While Okongwu brings plenty of promise offensively, the main draw with him at this point is his defensive prowess. A player he was often compared to during the pre-draft was Miami Heat star Bam Adebayo, and Okongwu spoke about that Wednesday evening.
“Me and him were similar players coming out of college,” the No. 6 pick said of Adebayo. “It took him three years to develop into the All-Star he is now. So I feel like with time I could definitely be that type of player through time. I’m patient, ready to get better.”
To expect him to be on Adebayo’s level is not quite fair, as the latter just made his first All-Star game and helped carry the Miami Heat to the finals. However, the archetype, physical playing style and intensity could be similar, and Okongwu does offer plenty of upside.
Okongwu, along with Clint Capela, has the ability to change the recent narrative that the Hawks don’t play good enough defense. Atlanta has now added two premier shot blocking bigs to go with John Collins. Okongwu spoke about sharing the frontcourt with the two established big men.
“For me I feel like I play inside out,” said Okongwu. “When Clint (Capela) is in the game, me and him can be inside out. When John Collins is in the game, (he) could be inside and me outside. Me and him can help each other out on both sides of the court, on defense. We’re all great athletes, so we’re able to prepare to be ready to play defense.”
The point he brings up is a good one, as his floor spacing potential does leave some optimism he could share the floor with either fellow big. He’s a better fit next to Collins than Capela right now, but it’s still possible to play Okongwu some at the 4, especially if he can improve his range.
Looking at Okongwu’s offensive synergy profile, you can see he excels in all areas, even spot up. He only attempted four three-pointers at USC, but he was an efficient catch-and-shoot player from inside the arc. He also, as Schlenk noted, shot well from the free throw line, shooting 72% there on over five attempts per game.
“Offensively...he has great hands,” said Schlenk. “He’s going to catch everything those late passes, slip passes, lob passes, we think he’s a great fit for the way we play.”
“We think he’s got a really big upside, and that he’s just scratching the surface offensively,” Schlenk added. “I think he only shot 35 jump shots in college year, but he’s a 70-plus percent free-throw shooter, we think as he gets into the NBA and he’s taking hundreds of shots a day, he can extend his range. He’s got a nice touch.”
He probably won’t match his 25% post usage in the NBA, but he was effective in other areas as well, including as a roll man and on the offensive glass.
Defensively, Okongwu has a chance to be a dominant force. He’s excellent around the basket, and should be an intimidating rim protector despite only being listed at 6’9. His ability to read the floor and react to what he sees sets him apart from any other rim protector in the class, including No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman.
“[Defense] is certainly his strength coming into the NBA,” said Schlenk of Okongwu. “He’s going to be a plus defensive rebounder, a rim protector, and the other thing that he does is he moves his feet very well in pick-and-roll coverages, which as you guys know is really important for a big guy... these are his strengths coming in.”
He should also have the lateral movement to slide over to the four defensively in the event he shares the floor with Capela for a stretch. He’s a complete defensive big man prospect, and has the physical tools to wreak havoc. If he pans out, he’s absolutely going to be a difference maker defensively for the Hawks.
For a deeper look at Okongwu on the court, check out Glen Willis’ deep dive here.
As far as Skylar Mays goes, Schlenk said the club had him ranked much higher.
“A four-year guy, an extremely smart player, a very good body,” said Schlenk of Mays. “A combo guard, basketball IQ, skilled player... we were excited. We had him ranked much higher than that.”
You’ll be hard pressed to find an offensive weakness for Mays, who shot a career-high 39% from three as a senior. Nearly a quarter of his usage was as a pick-and-roll ball handler, where he was dangerous in the SEC.
Mays’ instincts on the offensive end are matched by his touch. At only 6’4, he may not have the prototypical size for a modern wing, but he’s a heady, intriguing bench piece that should be able to compete for minutes.
Defensively, he’s competitive and engaged, and his 6’7 wingspan makes him at least a respectable prospect on the wing.
He’s pretty good on the ball, but does have a tendency to gamble for steals and leave a shooter with too much space. He graded below average or worse on spot-ups, as well as on jump shots overall in terms of field goal percentage against.
Mays averaged three steals per 100 possessions for his career at LSU, so his gambles aren’t always ill-advised, and he does have good hands/instincts. With little time to get ready for the season, it seems the Hawks have taken one of the more polished prospects here at No. 50 overall.
For a deeper look, check out Wes Morton’s deep dive here.
Overall, the Hawks had a really solid draft night on paper. They selected the best player on the board in many eyes at No. 6, which made the night a win overall in itself. Adding a talent like Mays, who they had fairly high on their board it seems, with the No. 50 pick is icing on the cake.
Okongwu should certainly compete for some sort of role in the 2020-21 season, while free agency will obviously help paint the full picture on what the Hawks’ rotation will look like when play begins in December. Stay tuned.