USC Basketball: How Onyeka Okongwu Fits With The Atlanta Hawks
It’s been 11 years since USC had a player taken in the NBA Draft lottery. Demar Derozan was the last one in 2009 when the Toronto Raptors selected him No. 9 overall. But the near decade long drought was broken Wednesday night when the Atlanta Hawks selected Onyeka Okongwu No. 6 overall.
As a freshman, Okongwu wasn’t just the best player on a 22-win Trojans team. But one of the most impactful freshmen in the school's history. He was the only player in the country to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 3.0 blocks per 40 minutes played, he set the USC freshman record with 76 blocks, and was named to first team All-Pac-12.
Okongwu stacked up the accolades, stats, and achievements at USC. But now he’s in the NBA where the style of play can be dramatically different for incoming rookies. So how does Okongwu fit with his new team the Atlanta Hawks?
Admittley, it’s not perfect. The Hawks traded a first-round pick for double-double machine Clint Capela at last year’s trade deadline. They also have John Collins coming off his rookie contract looking for his next big pay day.
The opportunity won’t be like some other incoming rookies who have a clear path to getting a hefty workload from day 1. Okongwu is going to have to fight for his playing time and prove that he can make an impact on the professional level at just 19 years old. As the season progresses, Okongwu should gain confidence in his ability and the team should gain confidence in him as a player, eventually leading to a larger role by season’s end.
So how does Okongwu immediately help a team trying to get into the playoff picture?
The most obvious way is his defense. Despite only being 6-foot-9, don’t let his small frame fool you, Okongwu is a monster on the interior. What he lacks in size he makes up for in athleticism, anticipation and instincts. He can jump out the gym to make a block on the bigger sized opponents, while also quick enough to switch and stay in front of smaller bigs and wings.
The Hawks finished last season giving up the third most points per 100 possessions (114.8) in the NBA. The Capela trade was supposed to help fix those issues, but he never suited up for the team due to injury. But now with a center rotation of Capela and Okongwu, the Hawks will get 48 minutes of elite interior defense on a nightly basis.
Offensively, Okongwu can get close to double-digits just off lobs and rolls to the rim. Trae Young is one of the most creative passers in the league, so those two running high pick-and-rolls is going to be devastating to stop.
When Collins and Okongwu are on the floor together, the Hawks will have two bigs with the potential to play inside-outside. Collins is definitely the more developed outside shooter hitting 37% of his threes the last two seasons. But there is potential for Okongwu to grow in that area as well.
He was efficient on his catch-and-shoot opportunities within the arc last season, and his 72% free-throw percentage suggests he could at least be a big with a consistent elbow jumper. The Atlanta Hawks GM has already suggested the team will be able to extend Okongwu’s range to the three-point line
Everyone wants Okongwu to be Bam Adebayo right away, but not even Adebayo was the player he is now coming out of college. It took three years for Adebayo to blossom into a big man that can initiate an offense and anchor a defense.
From the size to the college production, it's easy to see why the two get compared so frequently. But just like Adebayo, we have to be patient with Okongwu and let his skills develop.
In three years, we could be looking at Bam Adebayo as the poor man’s version of Onyeka Okongwu as they face-off in the Eastern Conference Finals.