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2023-24 Atlanta Hawks player preview: Onyeka Okongwu

Atlanta Hawks Media Day Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As a fan favorite and rising star, Onyeka Okongwu brings great anticipation to fans of the Atlanta Hawks ahead of his fourth season. While his stats from his junior campaign — 9.9 points on a stellar 63.8 FG%, 7.2 rebounds, 0.7 steals, and a team-leading 1.3 blocks per game — may not jump off the page, an adjusted look reveals a different picture.

Per 36 Minutes: 15.4 PTS (63.8 FG%), 11.2 REB, 2.1 BLK, 1.1 STL

In the previous season, Okongwu played in 80 games, a feat that would rank him fifth in the NBA among centers and power forwards. With Clint Capela sidelined for seventeen games, the value of Okongwu’s availability cannot be overstated. During his eighteen starts, Okongwu averaged 10.3 points on an efficient 57.8 FG%, alongside 9.2 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, and 1.0 steals per game.

Debates about Capela as a roadblock to Okongwu’s development may oversimplify the situation. With both players returning, the Hawks enter the season boasting one of the league’s most formidable center tandems. Okongwu’s minutes last season were a mere 3.5 per game below Capela’s, and he logged 119 more minutes overall. In recent seasons Capela has brought size and physicality to the starting lineup, while Okongwu provided a versatile offensive and defensive game off the bench. It is clear the team benefits from having both. However, many fans are wondering who will start at center this year with the emergence of Big O, and Fields has left the answer to that question in the hands of Quin Snyder.

Adding to his offensive prowess, Okongwu showed an increased willingness to shoot, making four of twelve attempts from beyond the arc. While this caught the eye of many fans, his mid-range game may be more of an immediate asset to the team. He connected on 27 mid-range shots out of 56 attempts last season (48.2 FG%) and maintained an impressive 78.1% free throw shooting percentage.

When asked about his jump shot during media day, Okongwu responded, “I knew someone would ask me that question... it’s been looking good, you know. I’m excited to show it off.” When further questioned on his comfortability with his jumper, he went on to say this:

In an offensive scheme focused on spacing, maximizing Okongwu’s potential may hinge on lineup configurations. Last season, Trae Young and Capela played together for 23.8 minutes per game, compared to just 13.1 minutes for Young and Okongwu. We may see the coaching staff opt for more minutes from this duo to maximize spacing.

Comparisons between Okongwu and Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo have persisted since draft day. Adebayo, now a two-time All-Star and four-time All-Defensive team member, made significant strides in his game at a similar age. Adebayo averaged 8.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 0.9 steals, and 0.8 blocks in 23.3 minutes per game at age 21. When he became a full-time starter, his numbers jumped to 15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.1 steals, and 1.3 blocks, along with improved playmaking, averaging over 5 assists per game. While Okongwu’s usage may not spike to the same extent, growth is likely.

According to data from BBall Index, Okongwu ranked third overall in post defense among centers, placing him in the top 98th percentile in this category. Additionally, he ranked second in screen assists per 75 possessions, with Capela close behind in third. Despite being slightly undersized, Okongwu has proven himself as an adept center. Coming into his fourth season, Onyeka Okongwu holds great promise. He will play a pivotal role in the Hawks’ quest to avoid the play-in and go deep into the playoffs. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Okongwu in the conversation for Most Improved Player if, for any reason, he sees a significant increase in minutes.