Onyeka Okongwu glad to stay with Hawks, ready to play ‘freely’ with new contract

The news of Onyeka Okongwu’s contract extension with the Hawks was released shortly before Monday’s 6 p.m. deadline.

And although it might appeared to have a “last-minute” feel to it, the fourth-year player knew all along it was going to happen – and he’s glad that it did.

“I’m the one that gonna sign it, you feel me, so I already knew beforehand what’s going to happen,” Okongwu said Tuesday. “So it was coming down to the wire, and I was just blessed to be able to you know, get it done.”

Okongwu (drafted sixth overall in 2020) and other members of his draft class had until Monday evening to sign rookie-scale contract extensions. Now that he has signed his four-year, $62 million deal, Okongwu is ready to focus on matters on the court.

“Definitely a stress relief because you know, you don’t want to have to go through all that next year,” Okongwu said. “Awesome. I love the guys here, coaching staff, my teammates. I wanted to stay here and do it with the guys. So I didn’t even want to do all that but now I can play basketball freely.”

The Hawks, who open the season Wednesday night at the Hornets, have looked to unlock Okongwu as a versatile center who can be a threat in the pick and roll and a potential threat from long range.

What that means for Okongwu’s future in the team’s rotation, Hawks general manager Landry Fields deferred to coach Quin Snyder. But Fields expressed his excitement for Okongwu’s potential and development.

“For him, his development has been really good over the past few years,” Fields said earlier this month. “Something he’s been working on a lot this offseason has been spacing the basketball. And what we expect of him is just like, we’ve got to learn some things that are new. And that’s not just for him. That’s for everybody.

“Obviously still have Clint Capela. And we have, as you mentioned, Onyeka. So starter, not starter, I’ll leave that to Quin, but Onyeka has been great. He’s been getting a lot of work, and so excited to see how you progress this year.”

Okongwu has left a positive impression on Snyder in the months since the team hired him in February. So, the news of Okongwu’s extension left Snyder excited about the ability to continue coaching the 22-year-old center.

Snyder and the Hawks coaching staff have asked plenty of the fourth-year center, including developing his skills as a facilitator and experimenting with him at power forward during the preseason.

“Yeah, I mean he’s been really, really good in the preseason for a lot of things that (are) taking him outside of his comfort zone, but I think (are) things that really make him take advantage of who he is as a player, and he’s embraced that,” Snyder said Tuesday. “And obviously, we were embracing him as an organization excited about, you know, finding a deal where he’s going to be a Hawk and we’re getting a chance, for me personally to get the chance to keep coaching him.”

An extension for Okongwu, as well as Saddiq Bey, had been among the things that Fields and the front office wanted to get done.

“Yeah, they’re a big part of what we’re doing,” Fields said before Monday. “And we’re trying to get something done with them. Love what they’ve done so far for that group. So we’ll look to try to get something done with them.”

The Hawks ultimately did not reach a deal with Bey by the Monday deadline.