Onyeka Okongwu Deserves Your Attention

By KL Chouinard 

What is the most overused NBA trope for the year 2022? Is it "People don't talk enough about X"? Cliché or not, I beg your indulgence to use it one more time when it fits perfectly.  

People are not talking enough about Onyeka Okongwu.

In some ways, it makes sense. For both of his two seasons in the NBA, Okongwu has missed out on some preseason hype because it was known that he would not be healthy enough to start the regular season. Additionally, he is playing behind Clint Capela, and by the time Okongwu returned to action, Capela himself had gotten healthy and swung some attention his way with a series of dominating defensive performances. 

But make no mistake: Okongwu has been the real deal, and his play passes both the numbers test and the eye test. 

Head coach Nate McMillan made a point early in the season of saying that young players were not going to get playing time solely for the purpose of development. They were going to have to earn their minutes. Okongwu did, and the 21-year-old elevated his play from a high starting point to an even greater level.

"He has earned minutes to play, and yes, he's still developing," McMillan said. "That will be the case for the next couple of years. He's a young buck that has a lot of potential. We're seeing his growth."

For the season, Okongwu has averaged 8.2 points and 5.9 rebounds while playing 20.7 minutes per game. Among players who attempted more than 200 shots this season, Okongwu had the fifth-highest field-goal percentage in the NBA: 69.0 percent. He has incredible touch around the rim -- with either hand. 

"I'm trying to dunk everything around the rim," Okongwu said, "but I've been working on my shot since seventh grade, predicated on making sure whenever I go, my right hand is going to go with it. I've been working on my right hand – hook, floater – (since the) seventh grade, just the same routine, same motion. And now it's muscle memory."

Of the ten most-used Hawks as measured by total minutes played, i.e., the ones in the regular playing rotation, Okongwu also led the team in net rating. The Hawks have outscored their opponents by an average of 5.5 points per 100 possessions in the 55 games he played. 

The remarkable aspect about Okongwu's play does not lie just in the basic stats. It sits somewhere in the little nuances, the stuff that makes you say that he plays more like a 31-year-old than a 21-year-old. 

As a center, Okongwu's first obligation is to defense and he has shown the ability to use both his strength and his quickness with shrewd proficiency.

On offense, he does all of the little things incredibly well. Consider this screen that Vince Carter took note of on the broadcast. As Trae Young probes the paint and draws multiple defenders from the Clippers' zone defense, Okongwu sees where the open shooter is. Then he steps to the side to get in the way of the would-be help defender. Trae makes the play happen, but Okongwu ensures that it is a wide open look.

Similarly, here is a pick and a re-pick against the Pacers where Okongwu again plays well with Trae against a trapping Indiana defense that would like to guard Trae with more than one defender. Okongwu does a couple of things here. First, he comes up for the initial screen in a way that doesn't reveal on which side of the play he will set the screen. By waiting until the last possible moment to pick a side, the back defender, Goga Bitadze, has a hard time choosing where to go. Then Okongwu rolls to the hoop and gets in the way of Keifer Sykes when Trae changes direction for an impromptu second screen. As a result, both defenders are gone and Trae gets an open shot.

Perhaps the savvy little thing that Okongwu does best is set himself up as a receiver of passes. Look at this play against the Nets. James Johnson is trying his best to do two things at once: guard Okongwu and help Cam Thomas on Danilo Gallinari's post-up. The closer Okongwu stays to the baseline, the easier it will be for Johnson to do both. Instead, Okongwu darts up near the free-throw line at the exact instant Johnson has to clear the lane to avoid a defensive three-second violation. He is in the perfect spot to get open for a pass where he can attack with momentum. 

Okongwu has been catching assists from high-level passers for quite some time now. He began his prep career at Chino Hills High School before his 15th birthday playing with Lonzo and LaMelo Ball. Together, they strung together a 35-0 season, a state title, and a consensus No. 1 national ranking.

"It has been like that my whole life, really," Okongwu said. "In high school I was playing with Lonzo and Melo, and when I was in AAU, I was playing with the Mobley brothers, Evan Mobley and Isaiah Mobley. I've been playing with high-level talent for my whole life. So with that experience, I just know how to play with really good basketball players. I know how to make them better and they know how to make me better, and that's how we mesh on the court. That's why in AAU with the Mobleys, we were so successful. That's why in high school with Melo, we were so successful. We know how to play competitively and we know how to play the right way."

For Okongwu, playing the right way means that he gives out passes as good as the ones that he receives. He can make an outlet pass with enough haste to maintain a competitive numbers advantage. He also has supersophistication in short-roll situations after he sets a pick for his point guard, rolls and catches a pass on the move. These are uncommon skills for an NBA big man. Additionally, McMillan said that there is great potential to ramp up his usage in future seasons as a passer from the elbow in dribble-handoff situations. 

Meanwhile, it is going to be a big week for Okongwu with the Play-In Tournament and two potential matches against old friends. It will start against Charlotte and LaMelo Ball Wednesday, and if the Hawks advance, Okongwu could be playing against Evan Mobley and the Cavaliers on Friday. 

Without a doubt, Okongwu will demonstrate in those games the lifelong basketball acumen he has developed through playing with both as teammates. 

 

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