“Situational Analysis” is a series of articles that seeks to examine the circumstances that most often influence an NBA prospect’s success. Each player will be scored on a scale from 1-10 in four different categories: NBA-specific skill(s), fatal flaw(s), collegiate/overseas/pre-NBA environment, and ideal NBA ecosystem.
Onyeka Okongwu is a 19-year-old (20 on Dec. 11) big man from Nigeria and Chino Hills, California, who averaged 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game in his freshman season for the USC Trojans. He is expected to be selected among the top-10 picks in the upcoming NBA Draft and as high as No. 1 overall. NBADraft.net currently has him projected at No. 4.
NBA scouts and front-office executives spend hours upon hours of their lives breaking down film of draft prospects, often reviewing the same batch of clips over and over again in hopes of gleaning some detail, some angle that could serve as a clue toward projecting a player’s future.
That hardly seems necessary with a prospect like Onyeka Okongwu. In fact, you can do most of your scouting just by looking at a still photograph of Okongwu flying through the air at an impossible angle, his 6-9, 245-pound frame somehow gliding and exploding simultaneously, with his elbow well above the rim and his hand positioned to prevent the flight of an opposing shot attempt.
But what if that photo is a lie? What if it just happened to catch an athletic marvel accidentally getting in the way of the ball? Then you start watching the film and, as it turns out, Okongwu is even better than that.
Okongwu was one of college basketball’s most ruthlessly efficient and physically imposing big men. According to Synergy, Okongwu ranked first in the Pac-12 in scoring efficiency. It wasn’t all just lobs and putbacks, either – although, he excels in those areas. Okongwu can get it done with either hand on either block. He can score as the prototypical dive man on the pick and roll. He can backcut slower, less-attentive defenders to death. He can jump hook and drop step. And he can hit his free throws.
As good as he is in the paint on offense, he is rocketing up draft boards due to his defensive upside. He is a halfcourt defense unto himself. He possesses the rare ability to erase attempts at the rim (2.7 blocks per game) and seal off drives on the perimeter. He is strong enough to handle himself against big centers and quick/long enough (7-1 wingspan) to switch across the perimeter.
Okongwu passes the eye test and the stats/analytics test, and he seems to only be getting better. What’s not to like?
On a scale from 1-10, Okongwu’s body and his defensive upside rates at a 9.
NBA decision-makers often stress how important it is to employ as many players as possible who know how to shoot, pass, and dribble.
Right now, Okongwu is either below-average or straight-up bad in each of these three categories.
Part of what helps Okongwu’s efficiency numbers is he rarely takes a shot he can’t make. Almost all of his shot attempts at USC came within five feet of the rim. Other than the occasional elbow jumper, he hardly took any shots that required him to square up and take a proper jumper. He offers no floor spacing whatsoever, as he attempted only four 3-pointers this past season.
At this stage of his career, Okongwu is a finisher – not a hub through which you can run your offense. Unlike Bam Adebayo, a team can’t install Okongwu at the elbow and run cutters around him. He racked up only 30 assists in 28 collegiate games (compared to 56 turnovers) and has yet to exhibit the kind of vision or playmaking ability we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from this new wave of centers.
Okongwu’s raw floor game is perhaps one of the limiting factors in developing those playmaking skills. It’s rare to see Okongwu take more than two consecutive dribbles on any possession, as he is either decisively finishing the play or getting rid of the ball to reset the offense.
These are skills that can improve with time and coaching. His decent free-throw percentage (72%) shows that there is room for him to extend his range. And his floor game will evolve with added experience and maturity.
A true Okongwu skeptic, however, might look at this rawness alongside his lack of height compared to traditional centers and worry that his potential could hit a hard ceiling when he faces players like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic.
On a scale from 1 (not a concern) to 10 (serious hindrance), Okongwu’s relative rawness offensively rates at an 8.5.
It’s hard to stand out when your high school teammates are the Ball brothers, but Okongwu took advantage of all that extra attention that trio generated and made a name for himself as a young freshman at Chino Hills High School.
His profile only elevated from there, as he captured two Mr. Basketball awards in California – something that had only happened four times prior.
It was clear that Okongwu was going to be a special prospect (both ESPN and Rivals rated him a 5-star recruit), but few expected to see him dominate college basketball so quickly and so thoroughly. He added some serious bulk between the end of his Chino Hills career and his debut at USC, where he almost racked up a triple double (20 points, 13 rebounds, 8 blocks) in his first college outing.
His offensive consistency was remarkable as a freshman, and his defensive acumen and awareness evolved to the point where he was no longer a mid-first-round type of NBA prospect and is now mentioned in the same breath as his former Chino Hills teammate LaMelo Ball.
On a scale from 1-10, Okongwu’s pre-NBA career rates at a 9.
Ideal NBA Ecosystem
Okongwu’s stratospheric rise up NBA draft boards has as much to do with the sport’s continued evolution as it does his physical gifts.
Athletic big men who can simultaneously protect the rim and blow up high screens are a rare commodity. And when they can also efficiently score without requiring any post-ups or a bunch of plays designed around them? Even better.
It will be tough to pair Okongwu with another paint-bound big man, unless his frontcourt partner is a high-volume 3-point shooter like Brook Lopez, so don’t look for a team with a young, promising big man to spend a lottery pick on Okongwu, as well.
NBADraft.net currently has him projected to go No. 4 to the Chicago Bulls, where he would have to battle Wendell Carter Jr. for playing time – not ideal for either player.
If the Charlotte Hornets miss out on James Wiseman, Okongwu would be a logical fallback plan at No. 3 – and perhaps an even better fit for everything the Hornets need.
Depending on how the middle of the lottery shakes out, it’s not impossible to envision Okongwu dropping as far as No. 9, where the Washington Wizards would be doing backflips if he fell to them. Okongwu provides everything that roster is currently missing.
Watch for Danny Ainge to perhaps package some of his picks (14, 26, 30) and pieces to move into Okongwu range, as well. Would the Atlanta Hawks elect to move back in the draft and add a veteran player at a big salary (Gordon Hayward?) in their attempt to make the playoffs?
On a scale from 1-10, Okongwu needs the right environment to thrive. Every team needs a high-energy, hard-working big man with his defensive upside, but his need for the right fit to maximize his potential is at an 8.5.