Okongwu
Onyeka Okongwu soars for a dunk. Photo from usctrojans.com

Prospect: Onyeka Okongwu

Birthday: 12/11/00

Height: 6’ 9”

Weight: 235+ lbs.

Wingspan: 7’ 1”

College: USC

Position: Big

With both the NBA and NCAA basketball seasons on hiatus, there is no better time than now to take a look at some of the lottery prospects coming out in this years draft. I’m “scouting” prospects a little differently this year, I’m only watching full games that they play in, not just highlight reels or break down videos. I’ve been focusing on how prospects fit into the flow of the game and scheme of their team.

Today’s prospect is USC big man Onyeka Okongwu. The draft experts are comparing Okongwu to breakout Miami Heat star Bam Adebayo, and I can see why. Both players are 6’ 9” and fluid athletes. Okongwu and Adebayo are two way players filling up the stat sheet on both ends of the court. And both players are perfectly happy not being the focus of their teams offense. Just like Adebayo, Okongwu appears to be a great complimentary piece, with star potential after a few seasons of development.

That’s the top end of Okongwu’s potential. If he “maxes out”, that’s how most draft experts see his career going. I’ve learned over the last few years never to cap a players potential, so of course he could be a slightly undersized Giannis Antetokounmpo, but that will take a lot of work, just like it did for Giannis. So, if the “ceiling” of Okongwu’s potential is Bam Adebayo, who does his “floor” look like?

When I was watching USC trudge up and down the court against teams like Arizona and UCLA, one thought kept invading my mind: Onyeka Okongwu looks an awful lot like Bulls rookie Daniel Gafford. Lobs, put-back dunks, rebounds, and shot blocking, the basics of Okongwu’s game reminded me of what Gafford does best. I think that’s Okongwu’s talent “floor.” In my most cynical outlook, Okongwu is nothing more than a marginally effective big, that’s good for some spot starts, but is mainly a bench rotation player. That’s not to say that Daniel Gafford can’t grow into something more that what he was in his rookie season, and that’s certainly not what I expect from Onyeka Okongwu and his career. But if he doesn’t progress in the NBA, if he stagnates or regresses against better competition, Okongwu might only ever come off the bench, which is not what you’d hope for out of a lottery pick.

Let’s talk about Okongwu in the flow of USC’s offense. They mostly used him in the “dunker” position, on the baseline under the basket, ready for lobs, put-backs, or dump-off passes on dribble penetration. Okongwu also played in the post and has a solid back-to-the-basket post game. He’s got several moves from that position that allow him to get good looks within 6’ of the rim, and he finishes pretty well from inside the paint. Okongwu was not used as a perimeter offensive player. USC didn’t try to stretch him out to the 3 point line, they kept him in traditional big man spots under the basket and in the paint. Okongwu shot 72% from the free throw line on over 6 attempts per game, so his shooting stroke isn’t the worst in the world, an NBA team might try to move him out to the perimeter at some point in his career, but I’m not holding my breath for him to have any real success as a three point threat. In fast break situations, it was normal to see Okongwu in the “trailer” position, following behind the breaking players. His job was to run down the middle of the lane and dunk the ball, either off a pass-back from the player leading the break, or off an offensive rebound from a missed shot. Okongwu is a great rim runner, and he times his trailing runs to the rim very well. He gives his teammates enough space to operate the fast-break while still being a last ditch option if they get stifled at the basket.

On defense, again, USC used Okongwu in the more traditional big man roles of paint defender and rim protector. In pick-and-role defense, Okongwu would use a drop coverage, sagging off of his defensive assignment as they set the pick, dropping into the paint to defend against the ball handler attacking the basket. He averaged 2.7 blocks a game with 8.6 rebounds in that traditional big man role. I don’t recall seeing Okongwu defend the perimeter very much, USC did a good job of limiting the number of times their players got mismatched on defense. I feel like he is athletic enough to stay with most offensive players that might try to take him off the dribble, but you never really know until you see it.

Maybe it’s because I don’t really care all that much about USC basketball, or maybe it’s because I wasn’t paying enough attention while watching the games, but I feel like a lot of what Okongwu does on the court is easy to ignore. There would be times when the TV announcers would say something like, “Onyeka Okongwu has put up 8 of the last 12 USC points, and the Trojans are on a 12-0 run!” And they’d run a little highlight package of Okongwu tipping in a dunk, throwing down a couple lobs, or scoring off a nice post move, and I’d think to myself, “Oh yeah, I guess he did do that.” What I’m trying to say is that as productive as Okongwu is, I was never really “wowed” by him. He did what he had to do, and he did it efficiently and effectively. He even did it with passion, letting out primal screams as he dunked on people, it just never really made me sit up and take notice. Like I said, maybe it’s because I’m not a USC fan, but more likely it’s because he wasn’t doing anything extraordinary.

Onyeka Okongwu is going to be a solid lottery pick for some team. They are going to get a traditional big man with star potential, someone with a decent set of fundamentals, a nice all-around game to build off of, and a player that doesn’t need to have the ball in his hands to be effective on offense. Okongwu, whether he blossoms into a player like Bam Adebayo, or stagnates at the current level of Daniel Gafford, is an NBA player who can contribute to winning basketball; He had a 5.4 win share when the NCAA season was cut short. It’s just too bad we’ll never get a chance to see if he could step up his production during tournament play.

That’s it for this week. I plan on doing these “Prospect Watch” posts until the NBA decides what they want to do about the rest of this season. I might sprinkle some free agency options into the draft talk, we’ll see how ambitious I’m feeling. Until then, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!