Onyeka Okongwu’s expectations with Hawks? ‘Obviously to win’

Hawks draft USC’s forward/center with the No. 6 pick

Credit: Atlanta Hawks

Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk comments on why the team targeted USC’s Onyeka Okongwu as their top pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Onyeka Okongwu came right out and said it — not only does he want to be impactful as a rookie, but he hopes to do so on a playoff-caliber team.

“Obviously to win,” Okongwu said of his expectations for the upcoming season. “Obviously we want to be able to make the playoffs. I want to be able to be impactful but to go into the East, go to the playoffs. I want to really help this team out.”

Okongwu, who the Hawks selected with the No. 6 pick in the NBA draft Wednesday night, is an explosive center/power forward with great defensive ability. He added 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game as a freshman at USC (he has a fractured left toe right now, but it’s not expected to limit him in the upcoming season).

The Hawks went 20-47 last season, but Okongwu will join a team that feels it is turning a corner in its rebuild and should begin improving and winning more games this year. Coach Lloyd Pierce and several players have said this will be a playoff team. That would necessitate huge improvement on defense from last season, which Okongwu feels he can help with.

“I play a lot of defense, so I’m defensive-minded,” Okongwu said. “I love playing (defense). I anticipate everything. I know what’s going to happen before it even happens, this natural ability I have.”

Okongwu is ready to contribute to a Hawks team that is still quite young, and spoke highly of Pierce and Trae Young.

“Coach Pierce is a great coach,” Okongwu said. “I had my meeting with him, seemed like a smart guy, knew what he was doing. Trae Young is a great guard, All-Star point guard. Going to be a star for a long time. I’m just ready to build up this young team and help this team win games.”

With the addition of Okongwu, the Hawks will have quite a few bigs on the roster, including power forward John Collins, center Clint Capela, center Dewayne Dedmon and center Bruno Fernando. They also have power forward Skal Labissiere and center Damian Jones, who will be free agents.

Okongwu will have to compete for minutes, per general manager Travis Schlenk, but Schlenk sees that competition as a positive.

Whether the Hawks can truly reach the postseason or contend for a playoff spot remains to be seen, but that mindset is shaping Schlenk’s roster-construction philosophy going into the season – it’s about talent acquisition more than assets/future picks.

Although the Hawks had been mentioned in plenty of trade rumors, they decided to hang on to the No. 6 pick because no team offered a future first-round pick, per Schlenk, and they didn’t want to slip too far in the draft.

“Obviously, we liked O (Okongwu), but to be completely frank with you, we let it be known that if a team wanted to trade up, it would cost them a future first, and nobody was really willing to do that,” Schlenk said. “The other caveat we had is we didn’t really want to fall back outside the top 10. We were comfortable sliding back two or three spots, but we didn’t want to go back to the mid-teens. There were some offers to go back that far, but we really felt like, the group of guys that we liked, it was best for us to stay inside the top 10 and get that pick, and at the end of the day, no teams wanted to do that.”

The first five players selected in the draft were: No. 1 Anthony Edwards (of Georgia and Holy Spirit Preparatory School) to Minnesota, No. 2 James Wiseman to Golden State, No. 3 LaMelo Ball to Charlotte, No. 4 Patrick Williams to Chicago, No. 5 Isaac Okoro to Cleveland.

At No. 50, the Hawks selected former LSU guard Skylar Mays.

After a delay because of the coronavirus, the 2020-21 season will begin Dec. 22, and training camp is rumored to start Dec. 1. The schedule will be released in two halves, with some time in the middle to make up any games that have to be postponed.