For the Hawks to return to the Eastern Conference Finals, they’ll need contributions up and down the roster. Obviously, Trae Young and Dejounte Murray need to play at an All-Star-caliber level. John Collins and Clint Capela will need to return to the version of themselves that got Atlanta to the Conference Finals. But that alone likely won’t be enough; Atlanta needs one of the lesser-known players to step up and have a breakout campaign.
De’Andre Hunter is a prime breakout candidate, especially after signing a four-year, $95 million extension. During his first year in the NBA, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Knee injuries hampered his sophomore season, and the most recent season was riddled with inconsistent play. It’s been a rollercoaster for Hunter.
Hunter averaged 13.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting 44.2% from the field and 37.9% from beyond the arc. Still, he has flashed the potential to be a premier 3-and-D wing. Hopefully, we get more of the Dre that we saw against the Heat in the playoffs, but he’s not my top choice to break out.
That would be third-year big man Onyeka Okgonwu, who has flashed serious versatility as a two-way player. There were moments last year where the USC product looked like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate against the best big men in the league. And he improved in every facet of his game in his second season.
OO increased his field goal percentage from 64.4% to 69%, his field goal attempts from 3.0 to 4.7, his free throw percentage from 63.2% to 72.7%, his rebounds from 3.3 to 5.9 per game, his blocks from 0.7 to 1.3 per game, and his points from 4.6 to 8.2 per game. And the former Chino Hills star is Zach Buckley’s most likely breakout candidate for the Hawks too.
The eye test and the stat sheet both agree: Okongwu is ready for a leap year.
His biggest obstacle to this point has been a lack of opportunity. Significant floor time may not elude him much longer, though, given the offseason departure of Danilo Gallinari and the trade winds that perpetually swirl around Clint Capela and John Collins.
Okongwu is already up to the task on defense, and on offense, his finishing is ready, too. His per-36-minutes marks of 14.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.9 assists paint him as a potential juggernaut. Clearing him for takeoff could be the final tweak needed for the Hawks to soar into the elite tier.
On the defensive end of the court, everyone knows what he’s capable of; his versatility is undeniable. He’s able to step out on the perimeter and defend smaller, quicker guards and also defend the best centers in the Association in the paint. But his development on the offensive end is where he’ll take the biggest step this season.
On offense, as I said earlier, Okongwu has improved in most areas. He’s a very nice pair with Trae Young in the pick-and-roll, with the ability to score and facilitate in those sets. His touch around the rim is already miles ahead of running mate Clint Capela. Even more impressive, OO is developing a new facet of his game, telling media members in his exit interview last season that he vows to return with a jump shot.
The team recently picked up the fourth-year option on Onyeka Okgonwu, and though he’ll be coming off the bench, the 21-year-old should garner just as many minutes as the Hawks starters.
Photographer: Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire