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USC Basketball: Onyeka Okongwu proving Atlanta Hawks right so far

Jan 27, 2021, 10:01 AM PST
Onyeka Okongwu, USC basketball alum
Onyeka Okongwu, USC basketball alum | Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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Former USC basketball standout Onyeka Okongwu has gotten his NBA career started with the Atlanta Hawks.

After a delayed debut due to a toe injury, Okongwu has played in just four games and is starting to find his role with a Hawks team vying for their first playoff appearance since 2017. The Hawks have found him about 12 minutes per game in the contests he's appeared in thus far, and he's averaged 3.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game.

With so little playing time logged, it's tough to draw sweeping conclusions about what his rookie season will look like. That stat line doesn't tell the entire story of his 48 minutes or so thus far. There are some early observations to be made.

Onyeka Okongwu is showing the great defense in the NBA that he displayed as USC

Defense is basically everything Onyeka Okongwu brought to the table in his minutes so far. And that's OK, especially considering it's one of the primary reasons the Hawks drafted him.

In recent history, the Hawks have consistently put forth one of the worst defenses in the league, not a surprise considering they rostered extremely young teams in the early stages of their rebuild.

Over the last four years, the Hawks have ranked 23rd, 30th, 30th, and 11th (just last year) in points allowed. Having young talent that can also defend well is a major piece of the picture for the Hawks, and Okongwu was selected for that reason.

You can't say enough good about his minutes as a defender thus far. It's common for young rookies, even the best defensive ones, to get a little overwhelmed with the speed and talent at the pro level, and Okongwu has rarely looked out of place this season so far. He makes smart rotations, reads defenses well, and has acted as an effective last line of defense as a rim protector on many possessions thus far.

Okongwu has forced opponents to shoot 2.7 percent worse than average when he's logged as the defender, per the NBA.

When needed, Okongwu can close out and on the few occasions where opponents have gotten a switch with him on the perimeter, he's held his own.

For instance, on this play, Okongwu reads the pick-and-roll well. He sticks with his man while covering for Trae Young getting beat, ultimately elevating to make for a miss for Derrick Rose.

Rose, a former MVP point guard, is not an easy one to defend, and Okongwu makes the switch from his man to Rose in an instant, elevating straight-up so as to not foul. That's not intuitive for many rookie big men.

Onyeka Okongwu's offense has not yet met his USC basketball level

Per 40 minutes while playing at USC, Okongwu averaged 21.2 points per game. Adjusted per 36 minutes at the NBA level, Okongwu is averaging about 9.0 points per game.

USC basketball fans shouldn't expect to see their big man averaging his 16+ points per game that he got as a Trojan anytime soon at the pro level. It would take a major offensive leap as well as a personnel change giving him more minutes.

For as good as Okongwu is on defense, he has a long way to go on offense. This isn't a bad thing, nor is it unexpected. For a young prospect like him, having defense right out of the gate is an invaluable proposition for a rebuilding team.

Playing on a team with an All-Star point guard and master facilitator in Trae Young, Okongwu should have every opportunity to score when the time is right.

There are some notable positives from his offensive possessions so far. Firstly, he seems to be a great screen setter. He sets solid picks and instantly rotates his hands and body to be in position to receive a pass.

The main hang-up truthfully seems to be a lack of connection with Young and his other teammates on the offensive end. This is something that materializes over time, and shouldn't be a major concern with the limited minutes he's played so far.

It also doesn't help that he's shared the floor frequently with Young and John Collins, both proven scorers with a stronger connection than Young and Okongwu have.

With constant discussion over the possibility of a Collins trade, though, Okongwu could be Young's next frequent lob target.

On offense -- Don't panic about Okongwu. His defense is why he was selected, and the Hawks know he'll be a project on the offensive end.

Ultimate NBA report card for USC basketball big man Onyeka Okongwu is incomplete

Onyeka Okongwu has many more games ahead of him. With just four played so far, it's impossible to say he's doing great or that he's performing poorly.

There are bright spots, his defense being chief among them.

There are dim spots, his offensive game being the main culprit.

Ultimately, Okongwu has the stuff to be a great NBA player. USC basketball fans might want to tune in and see how their young former Trojan is panning out!

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