With a difficult season ahead for the second year USC product, can he come back better?
Onyeka Okongwu will be entering his second year in the NBA when the season tips off in late-October. Okongwu was drafted No. 6 overall by Atlanta in the 2020 NBA Draft, following one season at USC, and gave Hawks fans quite a bit to be excited about despite missing the first ten games of the season with a fractured toe. He was then eased back into the rotation slowly, but eventually made his way into regular minutes by mid-February. Unfortunately, Okongwu will miss a large portion of his second season due to a torn labrum which was operated on in late July. Hawks fans should expect Okongwu to be back in early-February 2022, barring any setbacks.
In the 2020-21 season, Okongwu averaged 4.6 points, 3.3 rebounds, 0.7 blocks per game over 50 regular season games. Not eye-popping numbers to be sure, but they were exactly what the Hawks needed behind Clint Capela on the depth chart.
It was in the playoffs that Okongwu showed his potential, averaging just under ten minutes a game and providing the Hawks with critical backup center minutes. Okongwu’s defensive upside was palpable, as he frequently made the right rotations to cut off penetration, demonstrated his great footwork when defending the point of attack, and showed potential as the roll-man in the pick & roll.
Okongwu has not gotten the benefit of Summer League and a full training camp in this off-season, so Hawks fans shouldn’t expect linear improvement from last season to this one. When he does return, it will be important for Okongwu to continue improving as the primary paint defender. This should be his bread & butter and will be his path to minutes. If Okongwu can demonstrate the defensive versatility that was so tantalizing in his first year, it will be difficult for Coach Nate McMillan to leave him out of the rotation, as Okongwu’s defensive skills cover a lot of ugly spots in the second unit. If he can continue to defend both the paint as a vertical defender and the perimeter in a switching scheme, it would allow the Hawks to throw different defensive looks when either Capela or Okongwu are in the game. This is critical as we think about postseason basketball.
Okongwu has a nose for rebounding and finding soft spots on slashing actions, so he can hold his own offensively, but this is the area of his game that needs to be expanded. Okongwu has nice touch around the rim, and occasionally would hit a short to mid-range jump shot. Ultimately, if he can develop this to the point where it needs to be defended, it opens so many options for the Hawks offensively. This is likely the big question mark for Okongwu’s upside. Another stretch skill that could be a boon for Onyeka is transition playmaking, he has occasional flashes of grab & go ability and getting the ball up the floor quickly. At the pace the Hawks like to play, having a Center who can find the right man in transition to get into early offense would improve the team’s efficiency and effectiveness.
Of course, this is a tall order for the 20-year-old Chino Hills alum, but this is the high-upside case for the sixth overall pick and could be attainable in the future. There’s plenty to like in his game, but Okongwu will have to work hard in the upcoming season to take a step forward after returning from injury and it’s clear that there are areas where he can improve (other than changing his number to No. 7 to make OO7 a reality). This upcoming season will likely not be a breakout year for him, but he will be laying the groundwork for his third season, and that works just fine for the Hawks timeline as they continue to develop multiple young and enticing roster pieces.