2022-23 Breakout Candidate: Onyeka Okongwu (8/10/22)

The East is better than ever, and the Atlanta Hawks are shaping up to be one of the top teams in the conference. A disappointing first-round exit in 2022 after their 2021 Conference Finals run raised questions about the team’s ceiling, and they responded by adding All-Star guard Dejounte Murray to pair with offensive phenom Trae Young. The two will make Atlanta a contender for seasons to come.

Every backcourt needs a big man behind them to hold down the fort in the paint (especially when one of your guards is perhaps the worst defender in the league). Clint Capela has done that excellently during his tenure in the A, but the Hawks have a star anchor hiding in plain sight on their bench.

That guy? 2020 sixth-overall pick Onyeka Okongwu.

Okongwu received limited opportunity in his rookie campaign, playing just 12 minutes per game across 50 contests. After missing 28 games to start the 2021-22 season, his playing time increased upon his return and he became Atlanta’s full-time backup center. That’s when he showcased why he’s their big for the future.

The perfect place to start when breaking down Okongwu’s game is a January meeting with the Milwaukee Bucks. He put his entire skill set on display, posting 12 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks, and a steal. Most importantly though, he locked up the best player in the world.

Giannis Antetokounmpo shot a woeful 2 for 12 and turned the ball over three times when Okongwu was the closest defender that night. Very few people have forced the Greek Freak to struggle that much.

The standout facet of Okongwu’s game is his paint defense. He’s virtually immovable on the block and rarely falls for fakes.

He has given fits to the likes of Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, and many other stars in his young career.

Not only can he guard up one-on-one, but Okongwu is also a spectacular shot blocker. He sent back 1.3 attempts per game in 2021-22, and his block percentage of 5.4% beats out renowned rim protectors such as his teammate Clint Capela and Jarrett Allen.

Driving on him is a terrible business decision. You will be met with a powerful rejection.

Small guards stand no chance against his size.

Even if you think he’s out of the picture, Okongwu will come out of nowhere to swat your shot to oblivion.

What makes Okongwu a truly special defensive talent though is his ability to switch. When tasked with guarding a smaller player, he moves his feet well to stay in front and turn the mismatch in his favor. That versatility has drawn him many comparisons to Bam Adebayo, a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

He does a great job of walling off drives and preventing players from getting easy looks.

On the other side of the ball, Okongwu is a perfect pairing with Trae Young’s pick-and-roll wizardry. He sets strong screens, rolls hard, and catches anything that comes his way.

He put up 1.44 points per possession as the roll man this past season, which puts him in the 94th percentile (via NBA.com).

He is also a sneaky good passer out of the short roll. He plays with his head up to find open shooters on the perimeter. This might look like a basic read, but most centers would go up with it here instead of kicking it out.

Outside of the pick-and-roll, Okongwu has some craft as a finisher. He uses a combination of euro steps, spin moves, and floaters to score.

The Bam Adebayo similarities don’t end on defense. The one-time All-Star also makes a variety of moves in the paint to get most of his buckets.

Something to keep an eye on when it comes to Okongwu’s game is his jumpshot. Before he was drafted, he was pinned as a guy who could have some shooting upside. He has attempted less than 5% of his shots from the mid-range for his career, but his 72.7% free throw success rate from 2021-22 suggests he could expand his range in the near future.

Overall, Okongwu plays the role of a modern center perfectly. He can switch, protect the rim, rebound, and catch lobs. It’s time for the Hawks to move on from Clint Capela because Okongwu should be their starter for the long term.

Even if he’s still coming off the bench, I’m expecting a breakout year from Onyeka Okongwu in 2022-23.

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