For Onyeka Okongwu, not immediately building on his encouraging postseason play is one of the toughest parts of missing the first few months of this season.
As a rookie, Okongwu showed promise during the Hawks’ sensational playoff run to the Eastern Conference finals, even in limited minutes. It turns out he did so while playing through pain, having needed surgery in July to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
“I feel like I had good momentum ending last year, and obviously doing surgery kind of stalled it a little bit, but the playoff experience really helped my game out a lot, my mentality a lot,” Okongwu said. “So I think I’ll be good to go from the get-go, whenever I come back.”
Okongwu’s goal still is to rejoin the Hawks by the end of December (that’s slightly ahead of the team’s timeline of getting him back in January), and he’s making good progress with his physical therapy and recovery. That’s great news for the Hawks, who certainly could use a healthy Okongwu back in the rotation.
Since Okongwu’s surgery, the first step was to simply get his range of motion back. Since then, he has been lifting (with his legs), running and focusing on conditioning and nutrition. When Hawks practice has opened to media, Okongwu can be seen getting shots up and dunking, and his shot looks good, stretching out farther and farther from the basket.
Most recently, he has started upper-body lifting and is continuing to strengthen and do functional on-court work as tolerated, with staff monitoring his daily workload. The next phase? Introduction to contact, or live play. There’s no firm timeline on when he’ll get to that point, but it’s next on the to-do list.
“I feel good,” Okongwu said. “I’m really ramping up. I feel stronger. Legs feel stronger, I’m getting my upper-body muscles back, and everything’s going well right now. … You could say that I’m definitely on track; my goal is still to come back in December, but I’m not going to rush or anything. I’m not going to be jumping into anything soon. I’ve just got to take my time with it. I get back when I get back.”
Okongwu figures to gradually have a bigger role with the Hawks this season. As a rookie, the 2020 No. 6 pick learned quickly as he got more playing time in the second half of the season under Nate McMillan.
In the past few games, McMillan often has staggered starters (usually Trae Young, John Collins or Clint Capela) with the second unit to keep it going, and Okongwu’s presence could give the bench a boost on offense, defense and with rebounding.
When he does return, though, Okongwu obviously will have to gradually ramp up to full game speed and shape. He originally banged up his shoulder in May, but decided to keep playing.
“I hurt it in two games, actually, but I just kept playing through it,” Okongwu said. “Hurt it again during a practice, and it kept getting hit over and over again, so the pain got worse, but I think the initial tear was in May. … They knew that my shoulder was hurt, but I told them I wanted to play through it. It wasn’t anything that serious where I couldn’t play through it. I just got treatment on it, and I made sure I kept it warm at all time, did the little things to be able to go out there and play.”
That decision mostly was based on the Hawks gearing up for a playoff run, and Okongwu wanting to contribute. Of course, the No. 5-seed Hawks went further than anyone expected, knocking off the No. 4-seed Knicks and stunning the No. 1-seed 76ers before losing in six games to the eventual NBA champion Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals.
“I knew our team really needed everyone to play in the playoffs,” Okongwu said. “Obviously I really wanted to play in the playoffs; I was going to push through it, give my team my all, whatever I could do, and just kept giving it all to my team. I was doing so much of the little things my team needed of me, and I just wanted to go out there and give it my all.”
Not long after a Game 6 loss vs. the Bucks, which brought the Hawks’ season to a close, Okongwu underwent an MRI. He decided to proceed with surgery to get it out of the way and start the healing process.
“They said that it was completely torn, and they gave me the option to either I didn’t need to get surgery, or I can get it and get it out of the way, and the front office, my agent, we all decided that the best thing for me to do was get surgery to just get rid of it all together,” Okongwu said.
Sitting out for months has been tough for Okongwu, with as eager as he is to get back playing, but he’s tried to keep his spirits high, knowing he’ll be out there soon enough.
“I want to go out there and help my team win,” Okongwu said. “I miss the feeling of playing basketball. I haven’t played since June, July. It’s been a while. So I’m eager to get out there, but until then I’m going to be wishing my team the best, supporting them throughout my recovery. … I love this game, it’s done so much for me, and I just get the ultimate joy playing this game. Just whenever I can come back, that’ll be the biggest prize, just being out there playing.”