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Onyeka Okongwu: "I can be one of the best shot-blockers in this league"

In an exclusive interview on The Fast Break Podcast, Atlanta Hawks center Onyeka Okongwu discussed his rise to becoming one of the best shot blockers in the entire NBA and why he believes people are sleeping on the Hawks heading into the postseason.

The 2020 NBA Draft produced several young, emerging talents in this league such as Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton, but Onyeka Okongwu was drafted sixth overall by the Atlanta Hawks in the 2020 draft and he is beginning to show why he was a top-tier draft pick.

Not playing much in his rookie season, Okongwu put together a really solid “sophomore” season in Atlanta and now, in his third year with the organization, he has very quickly become one of the better shot blockers in the entire league.

Currently inside the Top-10 in blocked shots this season, Okongwu continues to prove his worth to the Hawks, especially given that he has come off the bench a vast majority of this season.

In the midst of fighting for playoff position in the Eastern Conference, Onyeka Okongwu took some time to sit down and talk with Fastbreak on FanNation about the growth he has seen in his game during his third NBA season, as well as what the future holds for him with the Atlanta Hawks and how he has given back to the community around him.

The improvements you’ve made in your game every season are vast and now in your third season, you’ve become a key part of the Atlanta Hawks roster. In your mind, what has been the biggest difference for you this season compared to last season and when you were a rookie?


Onyeka Okongwu: Just staying prepared and constantly wanting to grow and get better in every aspect of the game. My guys like Dejounte [Murray] and De’Andre [Hunter] told me to be more aggressive entering the year and I think that’s really helped my mindset on both ends of the floor. Trae [Young] and Dejounte are the leaders of our team and they really help set the pace for all of us. Just playing my role to the best of my abilities and helping put my team in a position to succeed is what I strive for every night, every day. To me, I feel like I have really grown on the defensive-end of the floor and have really increased my defensive IQ. You know, whether it is blocking shots, rotating from the weak side, I’ve always taken a lot of pride in my defense and the work I have put in during the offseason has helped me take that next step in becoming a great shot blocker and rim protector for my team. I want to be a top defender in the NBA while also continuing to grow into one of the better two-way centers in the league. I know I can be one of the best shot blockers in this league.

You are one of the most underrated shot blockers in the league and it seems like every game you’re sending at least one of your opponent’s shots into the stands! What goes through your mind every time you see an opponent trying to challenge you at the rim or in the paint?

OO: I just take a ton of pride in my defense. I’ve always had a great instinct to block shots and knowing how offensive players are going to try and score on me. A lot of fouls happen of course, but you have to take the good with the bad and that’s where my game has really grown. You get six fouls and you have to use them wisely and at opportune times for your team. Not every foul is a bad foul and that’s something I have learned through my coaches and teammates since entering the league. This has helped me become more aggressive as a shot blocker and as an overall defender. Being one of the best shot blockers in the NBA this season while coming off of the bench says a lot about my game.

Compared to the first half of the season, how have you had to adjust your game with Quin Snyder taking over the head coaching position just about a month ago?

OO: I like Coach Quinn a lot. He’s a really, really good coach and he’s been really beneficial to my game. I’m looking forward to him being our coach heading into the future. He’s brought a different mindset to our organization and one that has helped put us in a position to succeed right away. We look forward to hopefully having a big run in the playoffs and then heading into the offseason, it will be great to have Coach implement the things he wasn’t able to do right away simply because of the timing of when he joined us. Coach is confident in my abilities, he challenges me in different areas of the game and I’m excited to see what the future holds for us.

You’ve hardly missed any games this season even though I am sure you’ve been tired and have had some bruises over the course of the season, but in an era where “load management” is constantly being discussed, what do you think constantly being available says about your character and mentality?


OO: I hate missing games. I never want to miss any games. I just feel different, I feel icky when I am not in the game. I only really missed one game due to injury this season, as the other I had a personal matter to attend to. I just want to show up for my team and no matter if I am hurting or whatever the case may be, if I can stand and play, I am going to do so to the best of my abilities. There will come a day where I won’t be as young and as ready as I am now, so I want to take advantage of the opportunity I have in front of me. I want to help provide for my team and that’s why they pay us the big bucks. I’m never going to miss a game if I believe I am able to go out there and play, so none of that load management stuff for me!

Some players are happy to get double-digit rebounds in a game, but you took this to a new level earlier this year with a career-high 20 rebounds against the Indiana Pacers. Were you aware of the monster game you had when you were on the floor or were you shocked looking at the box score after the game?


OO: That was a crazy game. I was just out there doing my thing and trying to get a rebound when I was in the game, but it felt like the rebounds were coming to me every single possession! Every time the ball would come off the rim, it was coming to me. I’ve been trying to work on being a better defensive rebounder all year and obviously offensively, I love gobbling as many offensive rebounds as I can. My people back home are always trying to tell me I need to rebound more or rebound better, so that’s what I try to do to make them happy. Hopefully that game was a testament that I can really rebound no matter the situation. I was a little surprised to see the number 20 in that rebounding category next to my name, but at the same time, I wasn’t surprised because I know I am capable of doing that every game I play. I was a stat sheet stuffer that game, that's for sure!

Take me inside your mind when a shot goes up. Other than your length, what makes you such a great rebounding threat for your team and when should we expect your next 20-rebound game?


OO: Man, I really don’t know. I’m just looking up and sometimes I can tell when the ball is coming off the rim, especially offensively, but overall, rebounding is all about positioning and having a will to want to go get the ball. It’s just being tougher mentally and physically than your opponent. I wouldn’t say I have a set technique every time a shot goes up, it’s just more of an instinct. Just go get the damn ball! That’s what I was told growing up and to answer your question about another 20-rebound game, hopefully that comes soon. I’ll keep it in the back of my head next game and dedicate that one to you!

You’re currently in the midst of one of the best stretches of your career from a scoring, rebounding and shot blocking perspective. What is your preparation like for every game and do you have a special pre-game routine that you make sure nobody interrupts?

OO: Honestly, my preparation has been the same thing since I was young. I play my music, stay calm and I will admit, I am pretty superstitious. I have my own little routine, so I can’t share my little quirks and give my opponents intel on me! Overall, I just like to keep my mind relaxed and not overthink about anything. Just go out on the court and do what is asked of me. I trust my instincts a lot and that has helped me get to where I am currently on the court. I may not be the most physical, the tallest nor the strongest player on the floor, but I know I have some of the best instincts and that’s helped me find success in my role.

Coming off of a first-round playoff exit a season ago, what was the team’s mentality entering the year?


OO: We felt embarrassed, I’m not going to lie. Losing 4-1 to the Heat, almost really getting swept, that didn’t feel right. We just knew we could be and were better than that, so the mentality quickly shifted to this current season and how we can make sure this won’t happen again in the playoffs. We all know as a team that this year, we’ve been pretty inconsistent. We’ve dropped games we weren’t supposed to lose like the one against San Antonio not too long ago. We were up 24 points and blew that lead, so we have to correct some things and we know that. At this point in the season, things like that cannot happen. We know we can still get a playoff spot and while others may not fear us as much, we know we are capable of making some noise when it matters most.

Do you feel this mentality has shifted at all given your position in the Eastern Conference standings?


OO: Our mentality is and has been on the playoffs for quite some time, regardless of our record. We obviously don’t want to be in the Play-In Tournament, hopefully we can string together some wins and go on a run to get that 6-seed, but the East is tough. From 1-10 in the standings, it is tough and anyone can beat anybody on any given night. Hopefully we can find a little bit of momentum, correct some of the things we have been doing wrong and carry this into the playoffs. Whether we get that 6-seed or have to earn our spot in the Play-In, our mentality remains the same and we know we can compete with any other team in our conference.

Currently in the Play-In region of the standings, what makes the Atlanta Hawks a sneaky, dangerous team that people are sleeping on?


OO: We have a lot of talent on our roster. If we really wanted to, we could go 15 guys deep, that’s how talented our roster is. We have shooters, we have guys who can score from anywhere on the floor and I have a lot of confidence in my fellow big guys. I just think we are more well-balanced than people perceive us to be. Saddiq [Bey] has helped give our bench unit a boost, Bruno [Fernando] and Garrison [Mathews] came over at the deadline and are both talented players, I just feel like we are on the cusp of playing some great basketball. When we really lock in, playing the right way and for each other, anything is possible. I truly do believe that we can compete with any other team out there and we really aren’t afraid of anyone.

Growing up, was basketball always your top priority or did you give other sports and hobbies a chance?


OO: I played basketball for the most part. I did play tennis at a younger age, my dad watched that a lot growing up. We would go to the park and play a little bit of tennis, so I did have a little bit of an interest in that. Basketball has always been my life though and that’s the dream I always pursued.

Before entering the NBA, who did you idolize and try to model your game after?

OO: To be honest, I really didn’t model my game after anyone. I just go out there and do what I do on the court. I want to be the first me really and be the player that people look at and put in a class of their own. Growing up, I used to love watching LeBron James and I was in high school when Steph Curry was winning those MVPs and obviously I watched “Lob City” with Blake Griffin and the Clippers too. I have just always wanted to be myself and not try to be anyone else, but those are the players I loved watching and now, I am blessed to be able to compete against them.

You played at Chino Hills in California, you were a four-year varsity starter and you played alongside some other notable names. What was playing with Lonzo, LaMelo and LiAngelo Ball like and did you and LaMelo ever talk about playing college basketball or in the NBA together since you were a part of the same recruiting class?

OO: Those are my dogs man. I’ve known them for a really long time, even before high school. Obviously we all loved playing with each other, it has always been that way. LaMelo has always had those conversations with me about playing together, even when we were looking at our post-high school careers. Hopefully one day we will be able to play together again, that’s a dream man. Everyone always wants to play with their best friends, but all we can do is dream it right?

You went from playing with NBA point guards in high school to playing with two All-Star-level guards with the Hawks. What makes both Trae Young and Dejounte Murray special players?

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OO: They both love looking out for their teammates. Trae is an unbelievable point guard and obviously DJ is very unselfish as well. They just want to do things to help us win and keep their teammates happy. They are both always the first to take responsibility for a loss and they are constantly wanting to be great leaders for this team. We all respect that a ton and it gives all of us in the locker room more confidence in our individual games. Trae and DJ love taking responsibility for everything that happens and their high standards for themselves has an impact on the rest of us to strive for more and reach new heights as a team. I love playing with both of them, especially when they are throwing those lobs to the rim for me!

Have you ever challenged either of them to a one-on-one game in practice?


OO: I always tell them not to sleep on me! I may be a center, but I always tell them I can take them to school! After every shootaround, me and DJ are always playing one-on-one. Some days he will score, other days I will score. DJ is great vibes, I love playing with him.

When you are not in the practice gym or in the arena, who is Onyeka Okongwu off the floor and what are some of your other interests outside of basketball?


OO: I just be chilling. When I am in my apartment, I love watching crime shows. I love playing PS5 with some of my guys from back home. I have a dog I love spending time with, so I just keep it really chill man. I sound super basic, but that’s me really, I have the little things in my life that bring me joy outside of basketball. I will say, I have watched a lot of “You” the TV show recently, I’ve watched “See No Evil” and I am into Marvel. I love their shows and movies, that's my thing.

How has the city of Atlanta impacted you and what’s your favorite thing about the area?


OO: I’m from Los Angeles, so the ATL is a little different. There’s a lot to get used to going from one side of the country to the other. It’s a little country, but not too country. For the most part, the city is really quiet where I am at. Not too much goes on over by me, which is nice and refreshing, but there’s always something going on in the city. In Los Angeles, we didn’t really have the four seasons. Here in Atlanta, we get everything! To experience some of the changes in the weather for the first time and see little things you wouldn’t think of like the color of the trees changing is something to see for sure. Atlanta traffic can be bad, but Los Angeles is a whole different monster when it comes to that! As far as the community goes, I’m working with this group from Atlanta called Kate’s Club. It’s an organization that helps kids, young adults and families who are struggling with the loss of a loved one. Growing up, I can relate to that. I lost my father in 2021 before my birthday and I lost my older brother when I was 13. I can really relate to these people in the organization. Right now, I am just trying to build a playground and a basketball court for the kids. Any way that I can give back and show love to the organization, I am going to try and do. All of these people are going through the hardest thing in life and I wish I had this support system in place when I was grieving, so any way that I can help, I am going to do so to the best of my abilities.

Set to enter the final year of your rookie deal in the offseason, have you given any thought to your future in Atlanta?


OO: Definitely. I am up for an extension this summer and we will get to that point when we cross that bridge, but I love Atlanta. As long as they love me, why not stay here? I have friends out here besides my teammates, some of my folks are out here, the city is nice, I mean, it is Atlanta. There’s always something going on and to do. I love the organization, I love the guys on the team and I have really grown close to a lot of these guys that have been here since I was a rookie. As long as I continue to be loved here, I’d love to stay here in Atlanta.

What do you personally want to accomplish over the course of your career and what do you want people to remember about you?


OO: I definitely want to win, man. I am a winner. I’ve been a winner all my life. To hold up that championship trophy at the end of June would be an unreal experience. Overall though, I just want to be remembered as that basketball player who was a great locker room presence and someone you can always talk to. In the future, hopefully I will be that dependable veteran that the young guys can look up to and learn from. Coming into the NBA, I was blessed to have some great vets helping me not only as a young player, but as a young man. I hope one day I can be in those shoes as well and help usher in the next era of talents. Time goes by so fast in the league. I remember being a rookie like it was yesterday and now, I am almost done with the third year! All of this goes by super fast, so I just want to be remembered as a great teammate. All of the accolades and potential championships would be great, but to me, the relationships I build with my organization and teammates means the world to me. 

Be sure to catch up on the newest episode of The Fast Break Podcast hosted by Fastbreak's own Brett Siegel!

Streaming on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, The Fast Break Podcast takes you inside the league with the latest news, intel, rumors and interviews from those close to the action for all 30 teams. Be on the lookout for a new episodes every Friday.