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Hawks fans have two things to worry about regarding Onyeka Okongwu. The first is finding a suitable nickname. 'The Big O' belongs to Oscar Robertson and no one else. I would like to propose 'Double-O-17' or 'The Officer,' but I'll let y'all figure that one out. Secondly is finding the right role for the sensational sophomore. 

Last week, Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk listed two players as "untouchable." Only Trae Young (because, duh) and Clint Capela (because he can't be traded until this offseason due to his contract). While I'm shaky on the nickname proposal, I'm resolute in saying Okongwu should be elevated into the untouchable category.

That isn't a hot take. Okongwu made a name for himself last year during the playoffs when he put Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo in handcuffs for important stretches of games. In a short amount of time, Okongwu has proven last season was no fluke.

After spending a crucial summer rehabilitating from shoulder surgery rather than further developing his game, Okongwu has not missed a beat. In fact, he is demonstrably better in his sophomore campaign. The under-sized center is now up to 9.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks in 24 minutes per game. Every one of those stats has nearly doubled from his rookie season.

"I'm always going to play physical. I'm always going to do what I do. You know be aggressive, physical, foul if I need to. I don't back down to anybody. That's how it's always been, how it always will be, and it's the type of player I am." - Onyeka Okongwu after the Hawks 121-114 Win Over Bucks on 2022 MLK Day.

Pop the hood, and you will see that his advanced stats are absurd for a 21-year-old who has played 72 regular season games in his career. Okongwu leads the Hawks with a 76.5 TS% and finishes around the rim at 83.3%. Compare that to Capela, who shoots 56.4 TS% and hits only 61.6% of his shots in the paint.

But offense isn't where Okongwu makes his bones. Defensively, the man is a menace. He strikes fear into the hearts of opponents. Veteran players shrink when they see Okongwu checking into the game, much like characters from The Wire when they heard Omar's whistle (RIP Michael K. Williams). 

Opponents shoot a putrid 37.1% at the rim when Okongwu is the defender. Even better, he has a -10.0 DIFF% (percentage points difference) - that is like Shaq in NBA 2K2. For example, Rudy Gobert, 3X NBA Defensive Player of the Year, has a -5.5 DIFF% this season. It goes without saying that Okongwu leads the Hawks in Defensive Box Plus/Minus.

The scary aspect of this situation for the league is that Okongwu is still learning on the job. Last night, Hawks head coach Nate McMillan told the media that Okongwu was confused on help defense with Karl-Anthony Towns, who hit all five of his field goal attempts in the first half. They switched the defensive assignment, put Okongwu on the ball, and had John Collins help on Towns, who shot 1-8 from the field in the second half.

Additionally, Okongwu has a habit of getting in foul trouble. He gets whistled for personal fouls 3.6 per game and 7.2 times per 100 possessions. At 6'8, 235, Okongwu is at a natural disadvantage for his position. He's not just surviving but thriving on defense thanks to his uncanny strength and athleticism. But even Draymond Green commits fewer fouls than Okongwu. It's an area where he can and will improve with time. 

"Clint is our starter, and Onyeka, I think he just makes us stronger. Do we have to go there right away, we'll see. But he's done some good things. His play will challenge Clint, okay, to get out there and play because Clint is seeing what this young guy's doing in and he can come in and play. But you know, Clint is our starting 5 and we'll see when Clint comes back how we work him back into the lineup." - Nate McMillan after Hawks 134-122 Win Over Timberwolves on January 19, 2022.

So, we can all agree that Okongwu should be elevated into the untouchable class of players on the roster. The nickname situation is still a work in progress. But, perhaps most importantly, the next question that must be answered is, should Onyeka Okongwu permanently replace Clint Capela in the starting lineup?

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