The Hawks think Okongwu is ‘just scratching the surface’ on offense

Southern California forward Onyeka Okongwu dunks during the first half against Stanford in Los Angeles, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. (Kelvin Kuo/AP)
Southern California forward Onyeka Okongwu dunks during the first half against Stanford in Los Angeles, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. (Kelvin Kuo/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Onyeka Okongwu doesn’t shy away from comparisons with Heat All-Star Bam Adebayo.

The Hawks rookie hasn’t played in the NBA yet, but when you assess his strengths, it makes sense from a few vantage points — he’s a high-energy player, a disruptive, versatile defender and shot-blocker. He’s working on his handle, decision-making and playmaking, skills that distinguish Adebayo from other centers on offense.

“Me and him are great defenders, versatile defenders. Offensively he’s able to handle the ball, able to be a good playmaker, and right now I’m working on those aspects of game,” Okongwu said.

While Okongwu’s strengths may be defending, rebounding, rim-running and dominating in the paint, all talents the Hawks will welcome as they try to compete for a playoff spot, he said Friday he thinks he can go a step further and become more of a shooter, extending his range from the basket. If so, Okongwu’s value would skyrocket as a center (who may end up playing some power forward) who can effectively stretch the floor.

The Hawks feel their No. 6 pick in Wednesday’s draft can significantly grow and develop his offensive skill set, and Okongwu clearly agrees.

“I really took a lot of time into shooting at USC toward the end of the season, I started shooting the ball a lot more, because in high school I shot the ball a lot,” Okongwu said, referring to his Chino Hills team that went 116-24 during his four seasons, winning three state titles. “During this offseason, there was about six, seven months; all I’ve been doing is shooting the ball, shooting the ball. I really believe that with time I can really stretch the floor out consistently and be a great shooter.”

Playing alongside No. 3 pick LaMelo Ball, who is headed to the Hornets, Okongwu could barely miss in high school, averaging 27.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.3 blocks and 4.0 assists as a senior, shooting 62% from the field and 77% from the free-throw line.

As a freshman at USC, he averaged 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.7 points per game. According to Synergy, Okongwu scored 1.39 points per shot around the rim in the half court (92nd percentile), scored 1.13 points per post-up possession (94th percentile) and scored 0.91 points per jump shot in the half court (55th percentile). He was not much of a jump-shooter in college, though his free-throw percentage (72%) is promising.

Because of the coronavirus pushing back the NBA draft and start of the 2020-21 season, Okongwu had several months to work on his game after the college season (which the pandemic also cut short).

He spent most of that time focusing on shooting, from catch-and-shoot to taking 3′s to working on quickening his release, and he overall grew more comfortable as a shooter.

As far as what Okongwu can immediately contribute to the Hawks, that will be his defense, rebounding, screening, presence inside and as a lob threat. But as he gains experience in the NBA, we may see him increase his range as a shooter, as well.

“As a basketball player, what he does, we’re extremely excited about,” general manager Travis Schlenk said. “First of all, he’s high energy. He’s going to run up and down the floor. Defensively we’ve talked about his ability to slide his feet side to side, protect the rim. For a young player to have the ability to stay vertical, and to be able to challenge shots at the rim and not foul, is very impressive. And offensively, we think he’s just scratching the surface of what he’s going to be able to do.”

Okongwu (6-foot-9, 245 pounds) primarily will play center, Schlenk said, especially at first. But he may eventually be able to play some power forward.

Regardless of position, Okongwu views himself as a defensive anchor first and foremost. Because he’s active and moves around so much on the court, he sees himself fitting in well with center Clint Capela and power forward John Collins.

“Being able to be back there and be a defensive guy, rotating, block shots, get into passing lanes,” Okongwu said. “Offensively being a pick-and-roll guy, energy guy, hopefully being able to stretch the floor, being able to get offensive rebounds … being able to really cut around the basket. I just move around a lot. So I feel like I can play with Clint, with John Collins down there, so I’m able to be really interchangeable with those two.”

Okongwu’s second goal with the Hawks is to be an impactful rookie and help the team win games in Year 1. But his first is to get healthy after dealing with a stress fracture in the sesamoid bone of his left foot (essentially the ball of his foot).

Upon getting another MRI, he got some good news from the Hawks training staff Friday, as it looks like the fracture is healing well. Okongwu feels like he could play now if he had to, but obviously he won’t do that until he’s 100%. There’s no way to know for sure if he’ll be ready to go on opening night, but he’s confident he’ll be ready.

“It’s looking better than it was back when I was in Los Angeles, so that’s very positive and good to hear, so I’m excited to be able to get to work as soon as possible,” Okongwu said. “I really feel like I’ll be able to be good for the season.”

Skylar Mays

The Hawks also introduced their No. 50 pick Skylar Mays, who was a four-year starter at LSU. Mays (6-4, 205), a combo guard, is a good defender and averaged 16.7 points, five rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 steals as a senior, shooting 39.4% from 3-point range.

Whatever Mays’ role ends up being, he’s excited to bring his defensive mindset to the team.

“I think I bring a lot of things to the table,” Mays said. “I think I’m very versatile, I think I’m going to be a great defender in the league, and I’m really excited to bring that defensive intensity and bring that edge on that side and just be competitive and make winning plays, and I know that’s probably where my role is going to start and I’m hoping to expand from there.”

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