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Atlanta Hawks roundtable: What are your expectations for Onyeka Okongwu’s rookie season?

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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 12 South Dakota State at USC Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2020-21 NBA season is nearly here and, after the longest break in recorded history, the Atlanta Hawks will return to action in the coming days. Before the regular season tips off on Dec. 23, the Peachtree Hoops is coming together for a ten-part roundtable series, setting the stage for what’s to come. In part two, our writers set the baseline for incoming rookie big man Onyeka Okongwu.


Brad Rowland: Okongwu is a long-term investment and that has to be emphasized. If Clint Capela is healthy, he won’t play the kind of minutes that other lottery picks may see, and that is okay. He’s very young and, for a team trying to win, deploying rookies for extended minutes isn’t always great. On the bright side, Okongwu projects to be one of the more effective first-year players from the 2020 draft, because he knows how to defend, plays hard, finishes efficiently and doesn’t need the ball to thrive. He’ll enter the season as the backup center and shouldn’t look out of place on an NBA floor from day one.

Wes Morton: Frankly, I think he’ll be among the least impactful rookies in the top 10 due to circumstance but I think he’ll have a productive career nonetheless. There is a real minutes crunch in store if Clint Capela can give the team 26 to 30 minutes a night at center. This, plus the news that Okongwu recently had a minor toe surgery, means the young big man will probably be brought on slowly unless a real roster shakeup happens in midseason. But in my mind he was the best two-way big man in the draft and he has the opportunity to learn from Capela and John Collins everyday in the practice facility, so I believe the future will be bright for this young man.

Glen Willis: I don’t have significant expectations for Okongwu for this season apart from his ability to improve and possibly to make an impact later in the season. At least to start the season, the Hawks should have more than enough depth at the center position. He and Bruno Fernando will be presumably competing for minutes this year. If Collins is moved at some point, Okongwu’s importance this year might be elevated because of his ability to replicate a good bit of what Collins offers diving to the rim in the pick and roll.

Daniel Comer: I view him as a high-energy, high-upside play for the Hawks’ second unit. Like others have said, Okongwu’s drafting could’ve been a harbinger to a Collins trade, but we likely won’t know that until well into the season. If Collins stays, I don’t have many statistical expectations for the rookie, but I do expect him to follow in the footsteps of other Hawks’ bigs who dramatically improved their 3-point shooting after landing in Atlanta.

Rashad Milligan: My expectations for Okongwu are pretty low this season. Atlanta appears to be in win-now mode, he’s coming off a surgery himself, and I’m sure the coaching staff will want to learn how to rotate and find the right combination of Collins, Gallinari and Capela. Those are all three extremely-proven veterans in this league, and in a shortened season, each game is even more pivotal. Also, there’s this guy named Bruno Fernando on the bench who gives more passion to everything he attempts in life more than most people. Okongwu will definitely get his minutes, he just joined a team, which has been in rebuilding mode, allowing rookies to crash and learn, in its first season of winning by all means necessary. “Big O” will have a solid NBA career when it’s all said and done, even a couple of great seasons, but for now — he’s paying his dues.

Graham Chapple: I don’t have a ton of expectations for Okongwu this season. Part of that is due the roster that has been built — where Okongwu will be behind Clint Capela and John Collins and perhaps Bruno Fernando at first (Danilo Gallinari’s presence also affecting the power forward/center rotations) — and potentially the Hawks’ own push for a playoff berth. Whether or not Okongwu contributes anything on the court this season I don’t think it really matters (unlike Cam Reddish and more so De’Andre Hunter last season in that starting SF role). It’ll be about the day-to-day growth and development, the various ins and outs of professional basketball in his rookie season. A somewhat regular role/minutes for Okongwu would help hugely in that development as a rookie but the Hawks’ situation might not make that feasible at times, depending on the game situation.

Ryan Kerley: I don’t expect much out of Okongwu as a rookie. I think he has potential to be a great player, but the Hawks have Capela and Collins. Okongwu will be coming off the bench. He is also not a modern big with a consistent jumper. I think he needs time to develop into a starting role.

Joel Lorenzi: Probably nothing crazy out of the gate, and I’d expect him to be on the tail end of the group of lottery picks in terms of production for much of this first season. Okongwu comes in as a good rim protector, roll man, and if he works on his in between game or even a 15 foot shot he can have a long career as a starting caliber player. His skillset is just necessary. But this first year is about development. A good chunk of the other lottery picks are starting immediately or even being handed the keys. Okongwu is backing Capela— a huge inside force and commodity that Trae Young will have a ball with this year. Lot of this year will be him growing from under Capela’s wing, and taking notes. I do believe that whatever he does contribute will be serviceable this year, though. Sidenote: Is there a way we can give him a “Double O-7” moniker? No? Okay.

Zach Hood: He probably won’t lead rookies in minutes due to the Hawks having Capela, Collins, Gallinari, etc. in the frontcourt, but he should be able to come in and bolster the paint defense on the second unit, or start if Capela needs a blow on a back-to-back or something. Offensively, he may just be a lob threat initially, but that might be enough to be efficient if he’s able to share the floor with Young.