Hawks’ big man among ESPN candidates for Most Improved Player Award

NBA: APR 04 Hawks at Bulls

The Hawks feature a core of young talent that few clubs have, but whether they develop into stars is another thing entirely.

We’ve seen multiple instances where youngsters don’t pan out. Cam Reddish is the most recent example, while De’Andre Hunter is teetering between becoming a consistent contributor and joining his former teammate in purgatory.

Still, there’s a crop of up-and-comers that should excite Hawks fans — Onyeka Okongwu, Jalen Johnson, and A.J. Griffin. One of whom has been included in ESPN’s candidates for the Most Improved Player Award.

OO came in tied for 10th, among several notable players — Cade Cunningham, Jabari Smith Jr., Evan Mobley, Jalen Green, and Josh Giddey.

Okongwu has steadily improved since entering the league, most recently developing a jumpshot. The USC product was drafted 6th overall and came in as a raw prospect. His defensive acumen, versatility, and athleticism were displayed early, but he’s refined his game each offseason.

Recently, Lonzo Ball told a story to Trae Young from their days at Chino Hills High School, noting how rapidly he improved.

“I never seen someone get that good that fast, bro,” Ball continued. “He went from not being able to do layups and stuff to like really just dunking s***, just catching it, hitting 15-footers. And then, yeah, he panned out being No. 6 overall so. O is like my little brother, man. I’m so proud of him.”

The eldest Ball brother is right. OO is now comfortable hitting elbow jumpers and some semblance of an outside shot. I wouldn’t be shocked if he became a serviceable three-point shooter in the coming years. The only thing working against him in the MIP award race is Clint Capela.

Okongwu averaged career highs with 9.9 points and 7.2 rebounds in 80 appearances with 18 starts last season. If he received more minutes, I feel confident in him outperforming Capela over a full year. He might not be immediately better because CC’s experience is valuable. However, Big O’s ceiling on the offensive end might be worth the risk of moving Capela in favor of the youngster. It’s a good problem for the Hawks to have.

Photographer: Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire


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