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2022-23 Atlanta Hawks Player Season Review: Onyeka Okongwu

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks - Game Six Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Onyeka Okongwu, franchise center?

With his play this past season, it’s a question that must be asked. Despite the Hawks spending the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft on a player with off-the-chart potential, we have yet to see Okongwu in a 30-minute per game role. Using such a high lottery pick on a player usually means a fast track to a starting spot, but Okongwu has started just 28 games out of 178 appearances in his three-year career — almost only as an injury replacement for Clint Capela.

Back in the summer of 2020, the Hawks were coming off a streak of three straight seasons without a postseason appearance. Clint Capela had been acquired months prior, but he had not yet made his debut for the Hawks. There was no guarantee Capela could overcome his injury history and be a reliable starting center again like he was for the majority of his six-year stint in Houston.

But soon after being drafted by Atlanta, Onyeka Okongwu himself wouldn’t be able to prove his worth on the basketball court, as he dealt with a broken toe late in 2020 and missed the start of the 2020-21 regular season. By the time he debuted, Capela had been installed as the anchor of the Hawks’ defense, and thus Okongwu settled in his role as a premier backup center.

After struggling with injuries in his first two seasons, Okongwu was a portrait of durability by playing in 80 games this season — the most of any Hawk. He even logged more minutes that his direct competitor, Capela, winning that battle 1,849 to 1,730 in 2022-23.

Okongwu emerged this season as one of the best shot blockers in the entire NBA. He finished fourth in block rate — 2.8 blocks per 100 possessions — among players with at least 1800 minutes, behind just Nic Claxton, Brook Lopez and Myles Turner. Plays like these are why he made a case as the best backup center in the entire NBA.

His rebounding ticked up as well in his third year in the league, snagging a gaudy 14.9 rebounds per 100 possessions. Overall, Okongwu averaged 9.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, and 1.0 assists per game on just 23.1 minutes per contest.

He even added layers to his offensive game by showcasing his developing jump shot in spot situations. After taking fewer than 5% of his shots in the first two seasons of his career from outside of 10 feet of the basket, Okongwu took a career high 15% of shots from 10 feet and beyond, including 13 attempted threes and four makes. The bench celebrations for each of those triples speak for themselves.

Make no mistake, Okongwu is an accomplished roll and cut big man first and foremost. And he has formed a solid partnership with both Trae Young and Dejounte Murray in the staple pick-and-roll play of the offense over the past three seasons and more. Among qualifiers, Okongwu has the fifth-best true shooting percentage in the NBA this season — 67.8 TS% — largely due to his ability to finish at the rim off rolls.

After the season, Onyeka talked about the new relationship with basketball under head coach Quin Snyder, saying, “It’s been a lot of fun. Shooting up threes for me during the game, playoff games. So [Snyder] had a lot of faith in me. Overall he’s out there trying to help me execute the game plan. Help me be the best version of myself I can be out there.”

All in all, it’s clear that ‘OO’ has taken a major step forward in a lot of areas. Okongwu has become a major force on the glass, protects the rim at an elite level, has shown the ability to switch out onto the perimeter and hold his own, and has a projectable jumper when given space.

So what do the Hawks do now? Onyeka Okongwu is eligible for an extension this offseason as he enters the fourth season of his rookie contract. It doesn’t seem like sound business to offer him a large contract with a path to more minutes. Smart money is on the Hawks looking to move Clint Capela this offseason to open up minutes for Okongwu — or else the Hawks will have to consider kicking can down the road and wait until 2024 for an extension in restricted free agency.

If I were in a position of power over roster management — and are many, many, many reasons why I’m not — I would consider the first path and look to move the 29-year-old Capela for minimal salary in return. The next step would be negotiating with Okongwu’s camp on an extension, a conversation, again, I am not privy to. But in theory, his value could be devalued as a career backup up to this point.

Atlanta has to continue to bank on their young talent and development program to get ahead, which is something Quin Snyder has the players themselves raving about. Onyeka Okongwu’s talent was readily apparent coming out of USC, and that talent has frequently flashed itself in the NBA — albeit in sporadic minutes off the bench. So if the Hawks can lock the 22-year-old down on a friendly deal to keep in Atlanta for years to come, in an opportunity to shine in more regular minutes he could quickly make that deal look like a steal.