Over the past two years, Travis Schlenk has accelerated what was looking to be a tough rebuild in Atlanta. They’ve gone from having DeAndre Bembry, Dewayne Dedmon, and Kent Bazemore as three of Trae Young’s top three sidekicks to having Bogdan Bogdanovic, Clint Capela, and Danilo Gallinari as supplements to Trae’s pick-and-roll mastery and overall excellence. Atlanta’s projected aggression in free agency made their 2020 draft somewhat complex. The best player available is always the best overall strategy, and Atlanta took Onyeka Okongwu with their 6th overall pick. Minutes were going to be hard to come by for the USC product due to Clint Capela and John Collins both having the ability to play at the five. His arrival in the playoffs has shown the benefits of having depth in the long and grueling playoffs.
As a prospect, Okongwu was praised for fluidity, defensive versatility, and showed high indicators of touch on the offensive end. He’d flashed mid-range and free throw-making ability. He had the ability to make tough finishes and wasn’t limited to the use of one hand. Just, generally speaking, the movement skills for a center were rare, and made him a really fun prospect to scout and evaluate. The things he was attempting were rare and audacious. The blend of footwork, potential shooting flashes and overall fluidity made it fun to imagine him being a unique center in the NBA who could provide a new archetype.
Okongwu took some time to hit the ground running mainly due to coming from Andy Enfield’s scheme to NBA level coaching, and because rookies are just bad at times. That’s an incredible concept, I know. As the year has progressed, Okongwu has shown flashes that mean he should pretty much be seen as the best big man in this class moving forward. He’s played a small number of minutes compared to the domineering Clint Capela in the playoffs, but his minutes have been overwhelmingly positive and tantalizing.
Let’s begin with the defensive end. The most important job of a center in a playoff setting is to be able to change the shot profile of the other team and to be able to defend the rim. The former of these two is done generally by showcasing coverage versatility, something DeAndre Ayton has managed to ride to the Finals for the Phoenix Suns.
Okongwu impacts the game, especially from a statistical perspective. He was in the 85th percentile for block percentage in the regular season per Cleaning the Glass, and this rose to the 94th percentile in the postseason. His steal percentage also rose in the playoffs from the 54th percentile to the 86th. He manages to turn his fluidity, positioning, and hip flexibility into impacting the game and creating favorable opportunities for his team in transition.
Generally speaking, Game 4 vs the Bucks was pretty comfortably the best game of his career. His minutes were a big reason the Hawks pulled away in the first half and managed to build momentum. Okongwu executes the fundamentals extremely well and isn’t often out of a play. He showcased great defensive instincts in Atlanta’s team concepts and showcased some offensive plays that demonstrate high touch.
Okongwu has the tools to be a fearsome shot-blocker in the NBA. He puts his 7’1 wingspan to use and can be a legitimate deterrent at the rim.
The Bucks run a basic isolation look with four players spacing to the perimeter in order to tempt the Hawks into defending the baseline. Jrue Holiday performs a spin move on Lou Williams who is trying to cut the baseline off. Okongwu comes from nowhere and sends the shot away. He tagged from Brook Lopez but the timing on his rotation was perfect to the point he lulled Jrue Holiday into a false sense of security — he played the passing lane initially but then made a timely rotation after Jrue attempted the floater. Anything incorrectly timed leads to a wide open Brook Lopez three or a clean Holiday attempt.
Okongwu’s agility should increase his ceiling as a shot-blocker in the future. His ability to quickly switch assignments and angles means he can recover quicker if he initially takes a wrong angle. This means executing counters out of sets and plays could be harder against the Hawks when he is on the floor. The play below showcases this flexibility.
The Knicks run a pick-and-roll. The Hawks want to show Okongwu at the level of the screen to deter a Rose drive. Rose however turns the corner as Okongwu begins to recover to Nerlens Noel. There’s a strong argument to be made that Rose should find the lob threat, but either way, Okongwu does really well to spin round and approach Rose as he attempts the floater. Flashes like this are enticing and feed into the idea of Okongwu being a guy who Atlanta can run multiple coverages with. Ty Lue showed the value of being able to mix coverages in the Clippers’ playoff run. This is something that not many teams have the flexibility to do on a consistent basis. The beauty of Okongwu potentially doing it in the future is the Hawks wouldn’t necessarily be sacrificing size, unlike the Clippers who were mixing coverages without a traditional center a lot of the time.
The play below is a showcase of what mixing coverages might look like in the future.
The Sixers run a ghost screen to get Tobias Harris a mismatch. This is something they run a lot and probably rely on too often when Embiid isn’t on the court. Harris then attacks the baseline. Okongwu shows and stays on Harris while Gallinari comes and tags Dwight Howard. Okongwu then gets his hands up to stop an easy pass. Harris continues to power his way to the rim. As Gallo moves with Howard, Okongwu shuts off any potential attempt at the rim for Harris by mirroring his every move. Harris makes a good pass to Matisse Thybulle, but watch Okongwu. He quickly shifts from mirroring Harris to contesting the shot at the rim. Hip flexibility is essentially the main tool needed to be a recovery defender, and Okongwu’s flashes could become consistent in the future.
It’s easy to imagine a completed version of the Atlanta Hawks being able to run multiple coverages with Okongwu showing and recovering at the level of the screen, and their lengthy wings helping tag and pick up the pieces elsewhere. Travis Schlenk clearly had mixed coverages in mind with his overall roster construction. The Hawks won’t be a team anchored by personnel that pigeonholes them into running drop coverage all the time.
Okongwu was given a mammoth task during a reasonable chunk of his minutes in the Conference Finals: defend Giannis Antetokounmpo. Okongwu has done a good job on him, demonstrating a mix of strength and agility to mirror a lot of what Giannis tries to do on the offensive side of the ball. Take the possession below as a great example of Okongwu’s defense. It’s a multi-faceted defensive play of which I’ll break down every aspect.
The Bucks give Giannis an elbow touch and have a guard cut off the back of him into the paint. This is meant to occupy help and potentially open up the baseline for a drive. The cut works as Lou Williams has his back turned to the play as he tries to re-form the back end of the defense. Giannis takes this opportunity to try and blow past Okongwu with a filthy first step. Okongwu opens his body to mirror Giannis’ movement after a great first step. As you can see below, Giannis has a lane and the help defense is disrupted by the cut.
He ensures he gets his body into Giannis to disrupt the drive and potentially disrupt the gather. He does this without giving up a clearer driving lane. From a position facing the baseline, Okongwu then re-positions himself to defend Giannis straight on after he is comfortable with the fact he believes Giannis can no longer get past him. He optimizes this situation by putting his right hand down towards the ball, which stops Giannis in his tracks. He demonstrates excellent balance and verticality to contest the shot, after showing great agility to mirror Giannis while facing the baseline, then recovering to defend the hoop straight on. This was a possession where he showed the ability to react to an MVP-level player.
Okongwu’s balance stands out in the film, especially when he is in the paint. He is able to maintain verticality and uses his upper body well. He’s hard to move around because of his overall balance. Look at the contest below. He maintains perfect verticality, doesn’t lean in any direction. He’s just able to get straight up and make the shot. His balance is also why he can defend bigger than his overall height and weight would suggest.
The main knock-on Okongwu as a defender is that as of now, he fouls too much. This isn’t exactly uncommon for a rookie but it is something he needs to hone if he wants to play big minutes in the NBA. He’s in the 1st percentile for foul percentage and his numbers have gotten worse on that end in the playoffs. The fact he’s willing to get his body into people helps when disrupting wings and smaller bigs, but he struggles with bigger players. This will likely improve when he rounds his frame out. As of now, he’s willing to get physical with bigger players but doesn’t necessarily always play with the control needed to win these matchups. This will improve with time as the fundamentals and feel for playing defense are there already.
You may be wondering how I can praise the offense of someone averaging four points per game. The answer is simple: With younger prospects, especially bigs, you are looking for flashes of scoring and the answer of HOW they are scoring is pivotal to evaluating prospects. Are they just finishing lobs? Are they punishing mismatches against bench players? Are they hitting spot-up jumpers?
The answer is that he is flashing high touch shots from the short-mid range area, which are usually a good indicator of feel and overall control on the offensive side of the ball. Okongwu was a 54th percentile finisher from short-mid range in the regular season and he’s improved to the 71st percentile in the post-season. The offensive game is raw but like on the defensive end, it’s easy to foresee Okongwu becoming some form of an offensive threat because he is scoring in ways that make him a feasible fit alongside the Hawks starters. He’s crafty, patient, and ambidextrous, meaning he can finish with both hands. He’s not a domineering post threat and I would project his future perimeter shooting to be situational as opposed to someone such as Brook Lopez or Kelly Olynyk. But his free-throw percentage mixed with the touch suggests he can be a very nice offensive player inside the arc and on the short-roll. He has a high shot IQ and knows his strengths.
Atlanta’s offense became less set play-oriented when Nate McMillan took over. Okongwu was mostly low usage with the dunker spot being where he spent the majority of his time in non-pick-and-roll half-court possessions. However, the flashes as a roll man and numbers on floaters, runners and stuff around the basket are hugely enticing.
I try and take synergy numbers for low usage players with a pinch of salt, but Okongwu scores excellently in the half-court, ranking in the 85th percentile overall. He’s particularly adept around the rim as I noted, and the body control he plays with on film is perfect for validating these stats.
You can see above the majority of his work has been around the basket. He is right-handed but it’s not reasonable to suggest this is a completely dominant hand, he flashes finishes with his left hand such as on the play below.
Brook Lopez angles his body to funnel Okongwu towards his left. Okongwu puts a nifty finish through contact, using the glass and moving wide to deter any block attempt from Lopez. He’s smooth and can be reactive to whatever coverage is given to him because of this.
It’s easy to see Okongwu being a short-roll playmaker who can bail his team out with push shots and floater shots. Richaun Holmes is the big in the NBA who springs to mind as being the best at this archetype, with his push shot being the main reason the Kings are seen to be a good half-court team. Okongwu has some promising reps here.
The Hawks are trying to post up John Collins on the mismatch, which is something that they’ve tried way too hard to do. Connaughton fronts him so Okongwu flashes to the top of the key ready for a high-low action. The Bucks wall off Collins further which puts Okongwu in a position where he has to score. He dispatches the floater with relative ease, showcasing body control and a maximization of a scoring window by not allowing Giannis to recover out to him.
The short-mid and around basket stuff is pivotal for centers as they are a pressure point for the majority of defenses. Teams want to defend the rim and the three-point line so short-mid is an area given to you, the Memphis Grizzlies in particular have built their offensive philosophy around taking this shot in high volume.
Okongwu is also a good screener who mixes slips into his offensive game well. He’s fluid and it’s easy to imagine him generating a lot of easy looks alongside the abundance of primary and secondary ball handlers the Hawks roster is littered with. This is a good mesh with his above-average to excellent level finishing around the rim. See below as makes a proactive switch knowing Denver will send two towards the guard. He then uses the mobility and finishing ability to get the and one opportunity.
Nate McMillan didn’t give Okongwu many post touches purely because McMillan generally doesn’t give rookies high usage. He prefers them to play within the flow of the general offense. Okongwu was mostly a punisher of certain coverages and a guy who cleaned up plays late in the shot clock with a mix of precision and agility. It’s easy to imagine Okongwu’s offense being more self-sufficient than Capela’s in the future. What I mean by this is there is a good chance he won’t be reliant on lobs and rolls. The potential emergence of a push shot on a consistent basis meshed with his overall footwork and ambidextrous nature means he could legitimately be a plus offensive player to go alongside the enticing defense. The self-creation flashes are super fun and something we hopefully see more of as he begins to get more minutes in Atlanta.
The next step for Okongwu is adding the playmaking. He’s probably never going to be a guy you run things through at the elbow or high post but he doesn’t need to be. The key step is proactively and decisively manipulating the tag man to hit open shooters, and passing out of double teams in the post. These will become more plentiful as he increases the scoring arsenal and becomes seen as more of a threat to the defense. It’s likely more important he has the touch than the natural passing ability because playmaking becomes more fruitful and more simple the better a scorer you are.
The Hawks have been built around the fact Trae Young can execute pretty much every counter against any type of coverage. If you trap him, he kicks it to a variety of roll-men or excellent shooters who can then get you back into rotation if you close out well. If you drop, he hits the floater. This is all fueled by the fact he can legitimately pull up from 30-feet. There is a chance Okongwu can be the same on the defensive end. As in, he could be able to execute pretty much any type of coverage you want him to. He’s fluid plays bigger than his overall size and has some enticing defensive movement skills that you don’t see from many big men. It’s an A Plus in roster construction at the moment from Travis Schlenk. Having two cornerstones who are flexible from a tactical perspective is a huge advantage.