Detroit Pistons draft preview: Okongwu a modern-day prototype big whose ceiling will be determined at offensive end

Onyeka Okongwu
Southern Cal freshman Onyeka Okongwu brings defensive versatility and an unfinished offensive skill set with a high ceiling to the NBA
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

History says it’s a virtual certainty a future All-Star, perhaps even a future MVP, will be available when the Pistons go on the clock to make the seventh pick in the 2020 NBA draft.

It’s too early to judge the 2018 and ’19 drafts – though early returns suggest form will hold as young players like Tyler Herro (13th pick in 2019) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (11th pick in ’18) already appear on an All-Star track – but go back a decade and every draft has produced players who either already are or will be multi-time All-Stars or even MVP winners who were taken with the seventh pick or beyond.

The 2017 draft has already produced All-Stars in Donovan Mitchell (13th) and Bam Adebayo (14th). Jamal Murray, a breakout star of the NBA’s Orlando bubble, was the seventh pick in 2016. Devin Booker was the 13th pick in 2015 and Nikola Jokic went 41st in 2014.

Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th pick in 2013 and three-time All-Star – and three-time NBA champion – Draymond Green was the 35th pick in 2012. His Golden State teammate, Klay Thompson, was the 11th pick in 2011 when two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard went 15th. Paul George was the 10th pick in 2010 and two-time MVP Steph Curry was the seventh pick in 2009.

So when Dwane Casey said in early October, after months of digesting video of top prospects, he was confident the Pistons would get a foundational piece at the seventh pick, he had history – and faith in the eye of new general manager Troy Weaver – in his corner.

Leading to Wednesday’s draft, Pistons.com will profile 12 candidates to hear their name called when the Pistons announce the pick. Next up: center Onyeka Okongwu.

FIRST-ROUND CANDIDATE: ONYEKA OKONGWU

ID CARD: 6-foot-9 center, Southern Cal, 19 years old

DRAFT RANGE: Ranked 5th by ESPN.com, 5th by The Athletic, 8th by SI.com

SCOUTS LOVE: Okongwu is the prototype of the modern-day center who 10 years ago would have been viewed skeptically as a tweener. It won’t hurt his case to go in the top 10 – perhaps the top five – that Bam Adebayo, the 14th pick in the 2017 draft, has developed into an NBA All-Star with a similar athletic/size profile. Okongwu became an immediate starter at Southern Cal, posting averages of 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 31 minutes a game while shooting 61.6 percent. His defensive impact goes beyond the innate shot-blocking ability, too. Okongwu, whose wingspan has been measured at 7-foot-0, exhibits fluid lateral movement and foot speed, qualities that should make him a disruptive force as a pick-and-roll defender who can dart from the 3-point arc to the paint without exposing vulnerability to either open threes or layups. Okongwu appears to have very good hands, an underrated but critical quality, plus impressive body control and balance that he uses to score effectively with either hand around the rim. He’ll be an immediate weapon in transition. Okongwu will also draw high marks for character by all accounts and coaches will have no quibbles with his motor.

SCOUTS WONDER: Go easy on parallels to Adebayo, at least until Okongwu becomes more fully formed offensively. Okongwu was a solid free-throw shooter, hitting 72 percent, and the form looks projectable. But he didn’t take a lot of jump shots at Southern Cal and when he did, it looked very much like a player who doesn’t take a lot of jump shots. There’s also not much to support the belief that Okongwu can become the facilitator Adebayo has proven to be, functioning often as the catalyst for Miami’s half-court offense with his comfort as a ballhandler, passer, screener and dribble handoff executioner who transitions into a dynamic rim runner. It’s not so much that Okongwu has proven he can’t do those things, only that he hasn’t been put in position to show that he can often enough to allow for meaningful extrapolations. Expecting his shot to develop is probably the easier leap of faith to make as opposed to assuming he’ll be capable of serving as the fulcrum of a functional half-court offense. While Okongwu’s quickness, length and leaping ability give him plenty of size to defend, he’ll need to maximize his strength to avoid being targeted by skilled and bigger post scorers or effective offensive rebounders.

NUMBER TO NOTE: 88.5 – That was Okongwu’s defensive rating at Southern Cal, an outstanding number that speaks to the impact he had on that side of the floor as a college freshman. It’s an apples-and-oranges comparison, to be sure, but for some smattering of perspective, Adebayo’s defensive rating as a Kentucky freshman was 95.8, a lesser rating. Anthony Davis, an NBA first team All-Defense honoree this year, posted an eye-popping defensive rating of 80.7 in his lone college season. An outcome that puts Okongwu somewhere between Davis and Adebayo would be a major win for the team that drafts him.

MONEY QUOTE: “He was making jump hooks, dunking on them, rebounding, running the floor, blocking shots. I told my staff, we might have to take him out before he declares for the NBA draft right now. Everybody kind of chuckled. But our coaches were thinking the same thing. ‘Let’s enjoy Onyeka this year and hopefully he helps us win a lot of games because we’re not going to have him very long.’ ” – Southern Cal coach Andy Enfield, as told to Ryan Kartje of The Los Angeles Times, when Okongwu showed during a preseason tour of Europe that his freshman center, the No. 19 recruit in the 2019 high school class and not considered an obvious one-and-done candidate, that he was more advanced than even the coaches who recruited him believed

BOTTOM LINE: Even with the general devaluation of big men in an NBA that more than ever values playmaking and shooting, Okongwu will hold appeal to teams picking in the lottery, perhaps as high as the top five – precisely for his ability to counter playmakers and shooters. The physical profile at that position on top of Okongwu’s consistent high motor give him the chance to grow into not only a true defensive quarterback but the rare player who raises the level of defensive effort around him. There is enough athleticism and skill to make it a reasonable expectation that Okongwu will flower into something more than he currently exhibits at the offensive end, as well. That will require development and, given the nature of an off-season where training camps likely will open within two weeks of draft day, there won’t be time to implement an off-season program tailored to Okongwu’s anticipated role on whichever team drafts him. So as a rookie, Okongwu’s contributions might be more limited than some of the perimeter players ticketed for the lottery. An investment in Okongwu is likely to be rewarded more in the long term than the short.

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