Heading into this season, USC big man Onyeka Okongwu was largely considered somewhere between a borderline first round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft and a kid destined to be a two or three year player at the collegiate level.
As of today, he’s almost a lock to go in the top ten with a very real chance of hearing his name called as one of the first five picks. Part of that meteoric rise in draft stock has to do with the caliber of the 2020 NBA Draft — disappointing seasons from the likes of Kahlil Whitney, Matthew Hurt, Scottie Lewis and Jaden McDaniels makes it much easier to stomach drafting a 6-foot-9 center that made one three in 28 games in the top five.
But the other side of it is that Okongwu has the tools to play a very specific, and very valuable, role at the next level: A ball-screen switching, shot-blocking, lob-catching center. Put another way, he has all the warning signs of being the next Bam Adebayo.
The thing that immediately stands out when watching Okongwu’s tape is his explosiveness. He has what I like to call Go Get It ability. No matter where the lob is thrown, no matter how much arc is put on that floater, Okongwu can Go Get It. He stands 6-foot-9 with a wingspan that is reportedly in the 7-foot-2 range and a vertical that is … let’s just say high.
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This gets to the core of what will make him a valuable piece on an NBA roster. On the defensive side of the ball, Okongwu averaged 3.5 blocks per 40 minutes as a freshman, showing an impressive ability to protect the rim from the weakside of the floor. It’s not just the blocks, however. He understands how to be a presence around the basket. In this clip, you’ll see Okongwu shed a seal, scare the driver off going up to the rim and stay on his feet until the shot is taken. He can go vertical and contest at the rim, and he also blocked a surprising number of jumpers for a player that didn’t spend much time on the perimeter.
That, however, is only half of what makes him so intriguing as a defender, because Okongwu has been proven to be quite adept at moving his feet out on the perimeter. It will be different defending NBA point guards, but locking up good college guards on switches is impressive for a 245 pound freshman that turned 19 in December. USC used a number of different ball-screen coverages throughout the year, but it’s not hard to find examples of Okongwu executing drop coverage, which is prevalent in the modern NBA.
Offensively, more than 44% of Okongwu’s usage came on post-ups and offensive rebounds, which also happened to be where he was the most effective and efficient. Those are two things that are slowly being phased out of the modern NBA, but that’s not necessarily a huge concern for Okongwu. For starters, he’s more of a finesse post player than he is straight-up bruiser. He can finish with jump-hooks over both shoulders, and he has a habit of spinning back to his left hand, where he’s developed a nice little floater. Put another way, he has touch around the basket, which, when combined with his 72 percent free throw shooting and a handful of made 17-footers, makes the possibility of Okongwu one day becoming something of a floor-spacer feasible. He shot just 1-for-4 from three as a freshman.
As a vertical spacer, he’s going to be awesome. He has bounce, he has great hands and he didn’t even get a chance to play with a good pick-and-roll point guard in college to prove it.
When putting all of that together, Okongwu’s floor is high. As long as he stays healthy, I think the likelihood that he ends up being something in the neighborhood of Clint Capela is significant. But the difference between a guy like Capela and Bam Adebayo, or even Draymond Green before him, is the passing.
What makes Green so effective with the Warriors is his ability to pick apart a defense in 4-on-3 scenarios when teams send two defenders with Steph Curry or Klay Thompson. Adebayo made the leap from being a talented young big man to an All-Star when he turned into a guy that averages 5.1 assists. Both Green and Adebayo thrive as playmakers in short-roll actions, and that, to me, is the key to Okongwu reaching his ceiling.
He didn’t get too many chances in these actions last season, and when he did, it wasn’t always pretty. He finished the year with 30 assists and 56 turnovers, and ball-handling is clearly not yet one of his strong suits as it is with Green and Adebayo. But I do think the potential is there. Okongwu showed the ability to pass out of the post and hit drivers or weakside shooters, and there are more than a few examples of him making quick reads to create open shots for his teammates. Now, passing with your back to the basket and playmaking as a roller in ball-screens are two different things, but both require the cognitive ability to read and react to what a defense is giving you.
If Okongwu can do the former then it stands to reason that, with some coaching, he can do the latter.
Now, let’s put this into context. Adebayo averaged 16-10-5-1-1 in 2019-20. That line has only happened 11 other times in the 46 seasons since blocks were kept as an official stat, putting Adebayo in the same sentence as Kevin Garnett (3), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2), Giannis Antetokounmpo (2), Larry Bird, Bill Walton, Chris Webber and DeMarcus Cousins.
So when I say that becoming the next Bam Adebayo is within Onyeka Okongwu’s range of outcomes, understand that that’s a massive compliment.