Prospect of Interest: Onyeka Okongwu is the safe pick in unpredictable draft

Southern California forward Onyeka Okongwu dunks during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Stanford in Los Angeles, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. (Kelvin Kuo/AP)

A player who has been creeping up into the top three of a lot of mock drafts because of the Charlotte Hornets’ apparent interest in drafting a big man, Onyeka Okongwu is solid, versatile and, unlike a lot of other picks in this year’s draft, brings with him a certain amount of certainty and stability as a draft prospect.

Charlotte would reportedly like to draft James Wiseman and could be working out a deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves to trade up to No. 1 to take him, according to Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman. But in case that can’t come to fruition, Okongwu appears to be the pick for the Hornets at No. 3, as he looks like the second-best big in the draft and is probably more ready to contribute at the NBA-level right now than Wiseman is.

Here’s a little more on Okongwu and why you shouldn’t be surprised to see him picked high in this year’s draft, even if he doesn’t have as much hype around him as some of the other top prospects.

Age: 19
Position: Power forward/centre
Height: Six-foot-nine | Weight: 245 lbs
2019-20 stats: PPG: 16.2 | RPG: 8.6 | BPG: 2.7 | FG%: 61.6

Another Bam in the making?

Bam Adebayo has blossomed into a bona fide star for the Miami Heat. His ability to switch screens and recover in time has made him one of the NBA’s most feared shot blockers on defence, as well as being a lethal roll threat in the pick-and-roll and one of the best passers at his position.

Okongwu isn’t Adebayo, but he certainly has some of the Heat all-star in his game. He features explosive athleticism and has a feathery touch around the basket, a la Adebayo. His handle is also good for a man of his size, and while he’s best known as a rim protector with great shot-blocker instincts, he has uncommonly quick feet, again like Adebayo, that means he’ll be able to switch screens without much fear of getting beat by quicker guards.

Just about the only aspect of his game that isn’t Bam-esque, is his passing. It’s not overtly bad and he can probably develop into learning how to read and react to when to make the short roll pass like Montrezl Harrell has, but he simply isn’t in the same class as Adebayo as a passer and probably never will be — only Nikola Jokic is a better passing big man than the Miami centre is. That’s a special innate skill unique to Adebayo and isn’t one that will so easily be replicated.

Still, even without the elite-level passing, the skills Adebayo possesses make him among the best bigs in the NBA and with some refinement that’s what Okongwu could look like, too.

You know what you’re getting

An underrated attribute that Okongwu is bringing to the table is that, unlike other top prospects such as Wiseman and LaMelo Ball, teams should know what they’re getting with Okongwu as he’s taken a very conventional path to the NBA draft with impressive results along the way.

He played his high school hoops at Chino Hills where, in a strange twist of fate, he played with the three Ball brothers. But unlike that family, he opted to play his entire high school career there — becoming just the fifth player to be named Mr. California in consecutive years when he did it as a junior and senior in 2018 and 2019.

From there, he moved onto USC as a five-star prospect and dominated as a freshman, becoming the Trojans’ best player as he led them to a 22-9 record this past season and was named a First-team All-Pac-12 selection.

There hasn’t been much mystery with Okongwu’s path and that’s a good thing. It’s very clear that he can out-class competition his own age, demonstrating NBA-level skills since he was in high school with plenty of proof to show for it.

He looks like a safe pick, and in this draft safety may turn out to be the best bet.

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Areas of improvement

But this isn’t to say that Okongwu is some perfect prospect — if he was he’d obviously be a lock for No. 1.

There are holes in his game that he’ll need to shore up to be effective at the next level such as the need for better discipline on the defensive end.

Okongwu can be a devastating shot-blocker but he’s too apt to bite on pump fakes and get himself into trouble. Additionally, he’ll sometimes lapse with his defensive communication, something that will take him out of position as a team defender and could take him out of plays where he’d be valuable as a weak-side help defender.

On the offensive end, Okongwu has inconsistent shooting mechanics. He’s likely never to develop into a great stretch-big shooting threat, but he’ll have to at least learn how to drill little 15-footers in pick-and-pop action to make his dives to the basket reliably effective so defenders don’t just play him for the roll when he sets a screen.

That lacking shooting skill is probably the biggest reason why Okongwu isn’t as highly-touted as other prospects but he can improve and if he does, while in combination with his other skills, he could become a star.


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