Onyeka Okongwu burst on the scene as a freshman at USC last year, showing the ability to do a little bit of everything offensively while dominating defensively. Because of that, he burst up mock drafts everywhere and was eventually selected by the Hawks with the sixth overall pick. However, a foot injury prevented him from getting off to the start he would have liked as a pro.
Okongwu missed the first ten games of the season, and even when he finally started to see the floor, it was sparingly off the bench and often in garbage time. He didn’t record his first double-digit scoring game until April 1st, but did so on six other occasions over the final month-and-a-half, including a 21 point and 15 rebound performance in the season finale against the Rockets.
It was clear by the end of the season he had found his footing in the league. He’s an efficient scorer on the offensive end that brings a ton of energy to the floor with his rebounding and defense. Still, I questioned whether the Hawks could really trust him with all the chips on the line in the postseason, but Nate McMillan has, and Okongwu’s been crucial in Atlanta’s second-round series versus Philadelphia.
In Game 1, Okongwu played the most he had all season, logging nearly 12 minutes in the Hawks triumph over the 76ers, and he did a little bit of everything, scoring two points with three rebounds, one assist, two steals, one block. Most importantly, he finished the game with a +13 plus/minus differential. Okongwu gave some more good minutes in Games 2-4, but he was instrumental in the Hawks comeback win over the 76ers, getting to the line and providing some energy with a critical putback layup to start the fourth quarter. Okongwu finished the game with six points, five rebounds, a steal, and a block in just eight minutes, resulting in a +12 plus/minus differential. For the series, his plus/minus is +17.
With the Hawks shorthanded and Okongwu playing so well, he’s earned minutes in each game moving forward and could be a critical piece to the team’s push towards the NBA Finals. However, regardless of what happens this year, Okongwu has shown enough for me to believe he will blossom into one of the best players in his draft class. He’s already an elite energizer bunny that can clean up the glass and play fantastic defense, but he has the tools to expand his offensive game to be more of a shooter and playmaker. Every Hawks fan should be thrilled with the progression he’s made after it looked like it could be more of a redshirt year at the beginning of the season.