Onyeka Okongwu and Skylar Mays Are Finding Their Way

Eight-game road trip takes the rookie Hawks through their own basketball backstories
Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Story by K.L. Chouinard (@KLChouinard)

The Hawks' eight-game road trip has taken rookies Onyeka Okongwu and Skylar Mays to a lot of places, including the site of their first head-to-head matchup. The trip will also bring each to his respective home state, as well as to a game against a collective childhood favorite

Fifteen months ago, Okongwu's USC Trojans faced Mays' LSU Tigers in a neutral-site game at the Staples Center. In a game that was decided on the final possession, both players came up with big performances. Mays scored a game-high 21 points, while Okongwu finished with 10 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists.

"We were losing the whole time, but we made a late-game push," Okongwu said. "I had a bad turnover at the end of the game and just threw the ball away."

After Okongwu's error with 49 seconds left, the duo made big plays back and forth. Mays drove for a quick layup. Okongwu snagged an offensive rebound that led to a USC score. Mays made a spin move to score on a lefty layup. After an intentional foul and a missed free throw, LSU had the ball, down 2, with five seconds remaining.

"They came down and Javonte Smart, he was just so fast," Okongwu said. "He got up a three, but I blocked it."

Okongwu's fourth block of the game sealed the win for USC. Mays recalled his current teammate's defensive prowess in that game.

"I remember the scouting report being heavily about 'O' and them talking about how good he was," Mays said. "He lived up to the hype. Obviously, he was like probably ten games into his career, so he wasn't where he was when he finished the year, but you could see the talent. I remember how well he moved defensively, and how big of an impact he had on the defensive end. He showed a confidence that most freshmen don't show. His impact on so many shots – whether he was getting blocks or just altering shots – was impressive, especially for a 19-year-old."

As rookies on the Hawks, Mays and Okongwu have a number of similarities: Both are trying to make an imprint on the NBA in reserve roles. Each will make their first NBA homecomings on this trip. They both even rooted for the same hometown franchise player.

And for all the similarities that they have, age factors prominently in their differences. The Hawks roster might illustrate this point better than anything else. There are seven Hawks who are younger than Mays but older than Okongwu. (They are, in order from oldest to youngest: Nathan Knight, John Collins, De'Andre Hunter, Bruno Fernando, Kevin Huerter, Trae Young and Cam Reddish.)

"I do feel older than him," Mays said of Okongwu. "He definitely lets me know that I'm older than him. We were talking about Gordon Hayward when he was playing at Butler, and how he went to two NCAA championships. 'O' didn't know that. He was probably like 7 or 8 years old, and I was 11, and that's the difference."

When they were young NBA fans, it was the same player who turned their attention homeward, albeit with two different franchises at two different times.

Okongwu was like a lot of Southern California kids. "Wherever LeBron (James) went, I was bandwagoning," he said.

It was legendary point guard Chris Paul who helped convert Okongwu to an outnumbered fanbase in a region dominated by Laker fans.

"I grew up watching the Lob City Clippers when I was in elementary school and junior high," Okongwu said. "I loved watching Blake (Griffin) and De'Andre (Jordan) catching lobs from Chris Paul."

Years earlier, Paul turned Mays onto the Hornets in Louisiana. 

"When I really first started watching basketball, I loved Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen, and that San Antonio Spurs team," Mays said. "Once Chris Paul came to New Orleans, I became a big fan of his and those teams with David Wesley, Speedy Claxton and P.J. Brown – and Tyson Chandler with the Crescent City Connection."

(It's worth noting somewhere that CP3 had the same effect on the point guard who Mays backs up. When Hurricane Katrina relocated those same Hornets to Oklahoma, Paul left a lasting impression on Trae Young.)

Mays eagerly anticipates his first NBA tilt against the Pelicans Friday on the second half of a back-to-back set of games.

"It was the first game that I was looking for (when the schedule came out)," he said. "I won't spend too much time in Louisiana, but I'm excited to get home, get my feet on Louisiana soil and enjoy my family coming to the game."

The Hawks are now far enough into this eight-game road trip to know that there will be highs and lows, a voyage that mirrors what Okongwu's rookie season has been and will be like. Even as the youngest player on the team, he is mature enough to take the wide view on his rookie peaks and pitfalls.

"For me, since I wasn't at training camp, I was basically just thrown out into the fire," Okongwu said of starting the season with a foot injury. "When I'm going up against different players, they know all the tricks against someone like me. I'm just learning on the fly. I just don't have as much experience as I would have had if I had been in training camp. If I was in training camp, I would be a bit more polished."

Even as Okongwu strives to learn more, he remains largely undiscouraged.

"It's fun. I've experienced a lot of ups and downs. At the end of the day, it's a learning process and I'm having a lot of fun doing it. I'm a perfectionist. I want to make sure that I'm doing everything right. When I'm not, sometimes I can get a little down on myself. But I continue to stay confident and work."

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