Addressing the Biggest Questions About NBA Draft Prospect Onyeka OkongwuAugust 24, 2020
NBA scouts weren't talking about Onyeka Okongwu in October. Now they're debating if he's the draft's top center.
Why was he overlooked in the first place? Maybe it had to do with the Ball brothers stealing attention during his early years at Chino Hills. Also, being left out of the McDonald's All-American Game and Nike Hoop Summit limited major scouting opportunities for NBA teams.
Still, Okongwu was visible enough. Bleacher Report and other scouts were in attendance when he totaled 35 points and 14 rebounds against Zion Williamson at the 2018 Hoophall Classic. He participated in multiple USA camps, and recruiting services all had him top 30.
His game and fit just didn't pop under the NBA scouting scope. "Isn't Okongwu's offensive game outdated for today's NBA?," one scout asked.
It's suddenly easier to picture Okongwu on an NBA floor after averaging 16.2 points and 2.7 blocks through 28 games at USC. The analytics say his season was historic—Okongwu joined Williamson, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns as the only freshmen to finish with a player efficiency rating above the 30 and box plus-minus over 13.
But the current questions surrounding Okongwu at the next level remain similar to the ones that led to zero draft buzz before the season.
How much upside is tied to Okongwu's offensive game?
How much love should teams show to a 6'9" post scorer? It's not an enticing label, particularly since he hasn't showcased much shooting potential. That's why there was never NBA hype out of Chino Hills.
Lacking traditional center size, face-up skills or shooting range, how effective/dominant can he be against NBA frontcourts?
Other than cuts, putbacks and rolls, the majority of his offense has been generated on back-to-the-basket moves. It's worth noting he finished in the 94th percentile at USC on post-ups, and not just by using tools or basic hook shots.
But there were plenty of instances where he passed up open mid-range jumpers, instead opting to get closer, only to wind up taking a contested one-hander in traffic.
Even working as a power forward, which he had to do alongside senior Nick Rakocevic, Okongwu still didn't attempt much around the perimeter, finishing with just 20 spot-up possessions on the year. Though capable of quicker, rip-through moves inside 12 feet using a dribble or two, he doesn't multitask well when putting the ball down in terms of executing the handle and seeing his man and teammates around him. His 2.0 turnovers per game typically occurred in these situations, whether he lost the ball, telegraphed a pass or picked up a charge.
And scouts on the fence about how well his scoring will translate could point to the Washington game on January 5, when he struggled inside (4-of-13) with the physicality of potential first-round pick Isaiah Stewart (6'9", 250 lbs).
Will Okongwu develop a jumper?
Concerns about Okongwu's path to stardom will start fading if his jumper comes alive. We saw it sporadically this past season, but not enough to bank on any degree of reliable shooting in the pros.
He shot 15-of-35 on jump shots at USC, with his lone three-pointer coming on a full-court heave to beat a half-time buzzer. Nine of his makes came inside 17 feet. He flashed decent touch on those shorter jumpers, while his 72.0 free-throw percentage was relatively encouraging.
How dangerous will Okongwu become, both as a catch-and-shooter and one-on-one scorer with the ability to rise up over his man? He didn't take any isolation jumpers this past season.
If he can't pick-and-pop, stretch the floor or shoot over his defender, how will it affect his offensive value?
Will blocks per game translate to effective NBA defense?
Okongwu registered a solid 9.8 block percentage at USC. For perspective, block percentages of recent lottery centers during their one-and-done college seasons: Jaxson Hayes, 10.6 percent, Deandre Ayton, 6.1 percent, Mohamed Bamba, 13.1 percent, Wendell Carter Jr., 7.6 percent and Zach Collins, 9.8 percent.
Okongwu's leaping, length and quick feet power his shot-blocking ability. He can get super vertical from a standstill position to challenge finishers and drivers. And when switched onto forwards or guards, he's capable of sliding his feet and staying attached to the rim.
The shot-blocking numbers weren't always indicative of textbook defense, however. Against Washington, he allowed Stewart to seal him off or play through him on the block. Guarding the post, he has a high center of gravity that makes it easier for opposing centers to bump him back or get him to bite on a fake.
Okongwu could use work technique-wise, as he often relies too heavily on being able to move fast or jump high.
Teams thinking about him early in the draft will want to be sure the 6'9" center can effectively anchor a defense.
Okongwu in the draft
Teams intrigued by the idea of upgrading their frontcourt will debate how to rank Okongwu versus James Wiseman and Obi Toppin.
Neither Okongwu or Wiseman can match Toppin's inside-out scoring. But his defensive outlook isn't nearly as promising, and he's roughly three years older than the (former) freshmen.
Wiseman's physical profile (7'1", 240lbs, 7'6" wingspan) beats both by a decent margin. But since he only played three games at Memphis, it's tough to feel confident in his development versus Okongwu's after the USC center put up special numbers, and not just by dunking or putting back misses.
Okongwu also has a stronger reputation for playing hard compared to Wiseman. One scout told Bleacher Report that at the very least, Okongwu could be a Patrick Beverley-type big man, valued for his energy and defense.
Evaluators all agree on the perception that Okongwu has one of the draft's highest floors. His mobility and athleticism should continue translating to easy baskets and blocked shots. The questions concern his ceiling for a 6'9" big who doesn't offer the scoring or playmaking versatility that fuels upside in today's NBA.
Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports, Basketball-Reference.com