Why Onyeka Okongwu Should At Least Intrigue the Knicks

Kris Pursiainen

[This is the seventh prospect in the 2020 draft that I've done a breakdown on. You can read about Cole Anthony here, Deni Avdija here, Tyrese Haliburton here, Anthony Edwards here, RJ Hampton here, or Killian Hayes here.]

Onyeka Okongwu is a 6'9", 245lb big-man who can essentially do it all on either end of the court. As a fierce competitor, Okongwu left it all out there on the court in his lone season at USC - which resulted in averages of 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 2.7 blocks per game on 61.6% shooting. 

Okongwu will excel as a pick & roll's "roll man" due to his calculated footwork around the rim and ability to finish once he has the ball down there. He's able to use his hands to catch passes that might be difficult to bring in for other players and finish softly in the paint; these two skills and the physical tools Okongwu uses to utilize them are reminiscent of one Bam Adebayo. 

In the post, Okongwu is able to put his good footwork to use through the way he keeps his defenders sealed off and the moves he utilizes once he has the ball down low. His size might be a negative here, as some larger NBA centers might be able to defend him with their height alone, but his skill and finesse around the rim will certainly be of aid to him.

I contend that every championship-winning starting center has to be able to play at least at the level of a replacement-level center, and then either be able to shoot or pass well for their position (save the few examples of less valuable centers who are surrounded by so much talent that their team wins a ring anyway). Okongwu's shot form is riddled with inconsistencies that will lead to some "uglier" misses, but with proper development he may be able to hit corner shots when open. 

As a passer, Okongwu flashes slightly more potential. Most of his passes were "easy" ones, whether they were simple looks out of the post to the corner, or something equally as straightforward; if Okongwu can hone in on finding open teammates out of the post and make strides there, he will be at worst a serviceable passer at the center position in the NBA. His ability to handle the ball like a wing player would should also help him develop an ability to pass while on the move, even if he is currently not at that level. 

Okongwu's energy and motor, traits that are valuable on both ends of the floor, stand out especially on defense. He consistently hustles and uses his size to do as much defensive damage in the paint as possible. Okongwu has a tendency to be easily sold on fakes, or over-commit to blocking a shot to an extent where he is unable to recover on the play, but both "bad habits" show a motivation to make a defensive play and can likely be coached out of his system. 

As a team defender, Okongwu has NBA ready awareness and has a good chance at being able to quickly correct any mistakes he may make thanks to his quick feet, hips, and overall movement. With some additional defensive confidence instilled in him by a good coach and the learning of an NBA-level defensive system, Okongwu should be able to make quick reads and utilize both his athleticism and IQ to his advantage on the defensive end of the court - and on offense as well. With this confidence will hopefully come some additional communication on the defensive end of the court; this is an aspect of the game that Okongwu must show improvement in if he hopes to one day anchor a team on that end of the floor.

Overall, I project Okongwu to be a defensively versatile big man who scores a good amount of points out of the P&R and can protect the rim. With improvement in either the shooting department, passing department, or both, Okongwu should be set to have a long NBA career, mostly as a starter. I cannot stress enough the extent to which: his movement is fluid and speedy; his feel for the game is natural and has a soft touch to it; his energy can benefit his team on either end of the floor. 

If the Knicks were targeting Okongwu in this year's draft, they would need to wind up with one of the draft's earliest selections to do so. After LaMelo Ball, Killian Hayes, and Anthony Edwards, I begin to run out of players who I would bet on definitively getting taken before Onyeka. If the Warriors wind up with the draft's first selection, Okongwu is certainly someone they should, and very well might, consider. 

The issue with the fit between Onyeka Okongwu and the New York Knicks is that there isn't much of one. If Okongwu is the best player available when we are picking, the logic that I've stayed with consistently throughout my prospect breakdowns is that he should be the pick at that point. However, the diminishing value of the center position and the fact that the Knicks already have Mitchell Robinson ready for a starting job in the NBA might lead them to reconsider that. 

The separation between lottery prospects in this draft is incredibly small, and it is as good a year of any to take someone who might not be the best player available if it results in a significantly better fit. For example - if the Knicks were to pass on Okongwu because Deni Avdija was available, I wouldn't have a problem with it.

If we were to select Okongwu, it's likely because Leon Rose and Walt Perrin truly believe he will not only meet, but surpass the potential that scouts currently view him as having. I don't think the team would immediately look to deal Robinson if they did bring in O.O., but dealing the player who proves to be the least valuable to the Knicks of the two might benefit the team in that it would allow New York to distribute some of its recent surplus of talent in regards to its big men out to the depth charts of other positions. 

I can't see the team bringing Okongwu to New York City through this year's draft, but I certainly hope that Walt Perrin and the college scouting department gather a vast amount of information on him so the team can plan accordingly when matching up against him.

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