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USC Big Man is a Force Around the Rim on Both Ends
For years, it’s seemed like the league was about to cycle out of the center position. The Rockets simply called Robert Covington their 5.
But the Association can’t completely shake its ongoing affair with the big man. Guys like Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, and Joel Embiid have just reinvented the position.
Onyeka Okongwu, the dynamic 19-year-old center from USC, is unique in his own right and will certainly be one of the first bigs to come off the board on November 18. He played just a single collegiate season, but after a stellar, high-profile high school career, Okongwu’s been on scouts’ radar for some time.
That’s not to say he didn’t make noise during his lone year with the Trojans. Okongwu made an immediate splash – becoming the first USC freshman to notch a double-double in his debut since Taj Gibson. The native Angeleno finished the season averaging 16.2 points, 8.6 boards and 2.7 blocks per contest – all-team-highs – and was named first team All-Pac-12 and to the Pac-12 All-Freshman team.
The pandemic shut down both the Pac-12 and NCAA Tourneys, so Okongwu never got to fully show his stuff against the nation’s best. But he posted some huge regular season games with USC – including a 23-point, 14-rebound, six-block performance against Oregon and a 27-point, 12-rebound showing against Washington State, going 12-of-14 from the floor.
On the season, Okongwu’s .616 field goal percentage was tops in the Pac-12.
Okongwu – who wears uniform No. 21 to honor his younger brother, who died after a skateboarding accident – started as a freshman for the famed Chino Hills High School squad that featured all three Ball brothers – Lonzo, LiAngelo, and LaMelo. That team went 35-0, and over the next four years, the Ball trio garnered national attention while Okongwu steadily ascended as a college and pro prospect.
Next month, both Okongwu and LaMelo will likely be top 10 picks. The only questions are: which one will go higher, and where will they both land?
STRENGTHS Okongwu is not a finesse player. He’s exceptionally explosive above the rim on the offensive end and is a superb shot-blocker on the other. The man doesn’t get cheated around the basket.
Listed as 6-9, Okongwu has a 7-2 wingspan and an NBA-ready body, with a thick base (not unlike Tristan Thompson). He’s extremely athletic, with quick feet in the post and the ability to run the floor and finish.
Okongwu doesn’t shy away from contact, can finish through it and draws a lot of fouls – shooting 72 percent from the stripe when he does. His conference-leading field goal percentage indicates the amount of work he does in the paint. He’s an outstanding rebounder – again solid on both ends, averaging 3.3 of his team-best 8.6 boards on the offensive glass.
Although he won’t be able to bully NBA guys like he did at USC, Okongwu is an excellent shot-blocker – his 2.7bpg was 2nd-best in the Pac-!2 and 17th-best in the country. He’s also athletic enough to switch onto smaller opponents and can alter shots all over the floor.
WEAKNESSES Going back to the reinvention of the center position in the current NBA, today’s big men are drifting farther out onto the perimeter. Even the aforementioned Tristan Thompson splashed home three threes in a game this year.
Okongwu shot just four three-pointers on the year – hitting one – and doesn’t yet have a polished perimeter game. His free throw mechanics and accuracy indicate that he can grow into more of a shooting threat, but he’s not there yet.
The basic knock on Okungwu is whether he’ll be a one-dimensional player at the NBA level. He’s not big enough to bully bigger centers and isn’t polished enough outside the paint to scare defenders on the perimeter.
HOW HE'D FIT Not all big men are built the same. Consider Cleveland’s four top bigs at the end of last season – Kevin Love, Andre Drummond, Larry Nance Jr. and Thompson. Their individual games couldn’t be more different.
So where would Okongwu fit with the Wine & Gold?
For starters, he’d immediately benefit a Cleveland team that finished dead last in blocked shots for the second straight season in 2019-20, with three teams actually doubling the Cavs’ swat totals. J.B. Bickerstaff has some talented big men, but none could be considered a true rim-protector.
And while Okongwu won’t be splashing home three-pointers any time soon, he’s a true rim-rocker – throwing down demonstrative dunks off lobs, put-backs and his own creativity around the paint. The Cavs have big (and little) men who can shoot the ball. What’s wrong with having a beast on the block?
Defensively, Okongwu’s not quite a finished product, but he’s close. And, as a 19-year-old with tons of upside, able to contribute immediately, bringing all the qualities teams – including the Cavaliers – covet on that end.