Onyeka Okongwu realizing his potential for Hawks

Onyeka Okongwu isn’t sure what all the “undersized” talk is about.

Okongwu (listed at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds) has shown he can hang with a 7-footer in Joel Embiid and the 6-11 two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, so what does it matter? Plus, obviously, he’s still a pretty big guy.

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“I don’t know what y’all call ‘small,’” Okongwu said with a laugh after Hawks practice Tuesday. “I’m like 6-8, 6-8.5 barefoot, 6-9 on my good day, 6-10 with shoes on, and I play with shoes on, right? I don’t know what y’all really call ‘undersized.’ I think 6-9 for being a big man is solid. And obviously it gets the job done. So it’s like, no matter how tall you are, as long as you do what you do on the floor, it doesn’t matter. I’m athletic enough, long enough, I think I have all the intangibles. … I don’t pay no mind to that. I do what I do all day.”

As much as the second-year player brushes it off, it’s still notable for Okongwu to match up as well as he did against Antetokounmpo in the Hawks’ 121-114 win against the Bucks on Monday, which snapped a 10-game home losing streak for the Hawks. Especially given the improvement the Hawks must show on defense if they want to chip away at their 18-25 record and climb in the standings (they’re sitting at No. 12, out of the playoff and play-in tournament picture, after an uninspired start to the season).

“I’m always going to play physical,” Okongwu said of his mindset guarding Antetokounmpo. “I’m always going to do what I do, be aggressive, physical, foul if I need to. I don’t back down to anybody. That’s how it’s always been. How it always will be. That’s the type of player I am.”

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Credit: The Associated Press

Credit: The Associated Press

It’s also not the first time he’s shown that kind of ability on defense, holding his own against Embiid in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, which the Hawks won in seven games. They went on to lose to the Bucks in six games in the conference finals, with Milwaukee the eventual NBA champions.

Okongwu came back from shoulder surgery Dec. 17 and has mostly come off the bench, but started in Monday’s win with center Clint Capela sidelined (left ankle sprain). He played physical and stayed in front of Antetokounmpo on defense, and had some stellar finishes around the rim on offense, finishing with 12 points (6-of-9 FG), eight rebounds, three blocks, three assists and a steal, with five fouls and one turnover in 36 minutes. He also brought energy and intensity, something the Hawks have been lacking, to help earn a desperately needed win.

As much as Okongwu still has potential to realize, the more playing time he gets, the more that’s already underway. He’s averaging 9.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 23.7 minutes per game, shooting 78.2% from the field. He’s played in only 11 games this season, but is feeling just about back to normal, having recovered from a torn labrum he played through in last year’s playoff run.

With 3.8 fouls per game, Okongwu has gotten into foul trouble a few times, though against the Bucks he didn’t pick up his second foul until his 25th minute of play, which was huge for the Hawks.

“I’ve got six of them, so I’m definitely going to utilize my fouls,” Okongwu said. “Sometimes, I’ve got to save some for later, but I’ve never been fouled out of an NBA game. Never fouled out. So I know how to play with fouls. It’s always been that way. But I always tell myself, I’m going to foul. I’m not afraid to take one for the team. I’m not afraid to foul nobody. That’s what I do, be aggressive, but go out there and make the right play.”

Although slightly smaller in stature, Okongwu makes up for it with strategy and strength, per Hawks coach Nate McMillan.

“He’s really strong, and he understands leverage and he understands angles,” McMillan said. “He does a good job of getting leverage, getting underneath those guys so that they’re not able to just walk him or back him down. He’s very strong. … He doesn’t have the size, that length, but he understands leverage and does a good job of keeping his body between man and basket. And we’ve seen him be able to defend Giannis and a guy like Embiid.”

McMillan and teammates describe the 21-year-old as cerebral, always asking questions and watching film. That doesn’t just apply to defense, with Okongwu taking on more responsibility on offense, too.

“I think he has a high basketball IQ,” McMillan said. “He has a really good feel for the game on both ends of the floor. Not only was he doing some good things defensively for us, but (Monday night) with the trapping that they were throwing against Trae (Young), he was the outlet a couple times where he was catching the ball and making reads, making the right reads with the basketball. So he’s just shown growth, continues to show growth, really each time out.”

Young, undersized himself at 6-1, 164 pounds, sees similarities between his game and Okongwu’s. They may be smaller for their respective positions, Young at point guard and Okongwu at center, but it doesn’t mean anything if you play smart, as Okongwu is doing with his timing and staying low to the ground.

“He’s a lot like me in a lot of ways,” Young said. “We’re small, but we’re smart. He’s small for his position as a big and undersized, but he’s very smart. He knows angles. He knows guys, when they dunk, they bring it back, and he knows to go grab the ball. … He’s just a very smart player, and he’s going to only get better at his game as years go on, but for right now as a base, he’s a very cerebral player.”

In addition to the praise, Okongwu occasionally gets grief from teammates for his size, with wing De’Andre Hunter (6-8, 221) admitting he messes with Okongwu, telling him he’s only 6-5.

But Okongwu plays bigger than he looks, Hunter added, and he has a high motor.

“He plays really hard,” Hunter said. “He’s a lot stronger than he looks, and he’s really athletic. ... He did a hell of a job (Monday vs. Antetokounmpo).”

Okongwu always has been undersized, he said, since playing basketball growing up and his freshman year at Chino Hills (Calif.) High School (he played alongside LaMelo and Lonzo Ball, on a team stacked with NBA talent). So it’s nothing new to him.

He feels he has the physical stature to have success against bigger guys, paired with the mental side of knowing how to defend and adjust on the fly.

And a lot of it, for Okongwu, comes down to effort, which knows no height.

“Always having a low base, guarding guys, just being physical, getting in their grill,” Okongwu said. “I just feel like defense is all about effort and just wanting to guard, and that’s how I’ve always been growing up. I’ve always wanted to guard. I feel like it’s a pride thing. I’m always going to play defense. I’m always going to take on the challenge. And I feel like no matter who I’m going to guard in the league, I’m gonna go out there and do my thing.”