It always feels much further away than it actually is. Before long, the NFL season will kick off, and soon after that, the Hawks will once again be playing meaningful games. The excitement around this team following the addition of Dejounte Murray is unmistakable, as the Hawks have legitimate pre-season championship aspirations for the first time in decades. Most people feel like Atlanta is still a piece away from challenging the likes of the Celtics, Warriors, and Bucks. I tend to agree; however, I think the X-Factor the Hawks need will come from within.
The Hawks actually have several players that could end up being the piece that puts them over the top. If John Collins ever develops a more threatening offensive game, he could be a legitimate third option on a championship contender. The entire world saw De’Andre Hunter‘s potential in the playoffs against the Heat last season. Then there are youngsters like Jalen Johnson and AJ Griffen that are oozing with talent. However, my X-Factor for the Hawks this season is former #5 overall pick Onyeka Okongwu.
Okongwu improved in every area statistically last season, averaging 8.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, and 1.1 assists in just over 20 minutes per game. That’s even more impressive when considering offseason shoulder surgery forced him to miss the first half of the season. His athleticism and touch around the rim make him a menace in the pick-and-role with Trae Young, and defensively, Okongwu consistently flashes Defensive Player of the Year potential.
What’s really holding him back from becoming a name people are familiar with is his lack of playing time and a one-dimensional offensive game. The promising news is both of those things can be solved with one simple solution — a jump shot.
The Hawks may not have a roster filled with stars, but they have a lot of good but not great players — particularly in their front court — that require significant playing time. John Collins and Clint Capela need to be on the court for 30 minutes a game, and because Okongwu can’t stretch the floor, it limits what the Hawks can do with their rotations. But if Okongwu can add a three-point shot to his arsenal, something he’s vowed to work on this offseason, then Nate McMillan can find more opportunities for him, featuring Okongwu with Collins, Capela, or by himself.
There is genuine potential for De’Andre Hunter and John Collins to blossom into All-Stars. I’m also giddy to see how Jalen Johnson and AJ Griffin perform this season, but Okongwu is the guy I would put my money on to breakout. Reports have already surfaced that the organization wants to find more opportunities for him, but I think he’ll make it easy for them when he returns with a jump shot. This is the first offseason Okongwu has been healthy and free to work on different aspects of his game. Injuries have hampered him early in his career, and that extra time to practice could make all the difference. Look for Okongwu to become a vital piece to this team during the upcoming season.
Photographer: Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire