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The Answer to the Hawks’ Problems Is on Their Bench

Atlanta may have found the Draymond to its Steph. Onyeka Okongwu is absolutely dominating in a reserve role and could turn out to be the perfect complement to Trae Young.

AP/Ringer illustration

Karl-Anthony Towns was surprised by Onyeka Okongwu in a game two weeks ago. Towns drove past the Hawks’ second-year center and then dropped his shoulder into him, seemingly creating an easy 5-foot shot at the rim. But Okongwu took the hit in stride and recovered quickly enough to swat the ball out of his opponent’s hands. The play was clean but Towns couldn’t believe it, screaming for a foul.

That sort of thing has happened to a murderers’ row of star big men this season. Okongwu blocked Giannis Antetokounmpo twice and forced a jump ball with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter. He even stuffed Joel Embiid at the rim in a game right before Christmas.

It doesn’t seem possible, given that he’s only 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds. But height isn’t everything on defense. Okongwu is built like an NFL left tackle. He could have easily added the necessary weight to his frame if he had chosen to play football. He can absorb contact from bigger players and hold his ground. He has long arms, surprising strength, impressive quickness for someone his size, and he knows how to position himself.

He has slowed down some of the NBA’s best big men this season:

How Have Star Big Men Fared Against Okongwu?

Player Number of Possessions FGM FGA
Player Number of Possessions FGM FGA
Giannis 44.2 2 12
Embiid 42.8 5 14
Towns 35.8 2 8
Adebayo 28.8 2 6
NBA Advanced Stats

Okongwu, whom the Hawks took at no. 6 in the 2020 NBA draft, is fairly anonymous for such a high lottery pick. He barely played as a rookie, averaging 4.6 points per game while backing up Clint Capela. He had some flashes in Atlanta’s run to the Eastern Conference finals, then missed the first two months of this season after an offseason shoulder surgery.

But he has hit the ground running since returning in mid-December. Okongwu’s numbers are good (9.7 points on 72.9 percent shooting, 6.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 1.1 assists, and 0.6 steals per game) but they don’t do justice to just how well he has been playing. The 21-year-old is playing just half the game (23.2 minutes), but the Hawks are destroying opponents in those minutes (net rating of plus-7.7). Their defensive rating goes from 113.7 without him (no. 27 in the NBA) to 105.8 with him (no. 4). That may not be completely sustainable, but something real is happening.

Okongwu isn’t just doing it on the defensive end, either. He’s second in the league in true shooting percentage (74.6) among players who have played at least 200 minutes. He rarely misses from 2-point range (72.9 percent on 5.3 attempts per game) and knocks down free throws (72.3 percent on 2.6 attempts) when sent to the line. The unusual thing about him is that he doesn’t have the same size or freakish athleticism as the players who are first (Mitchell Robinson) and third (Robert Williams III) in true shooting. Okongwu can play above the rim, but that isn’t the strength of his game. His teammates even make fun of him for his lack of ups. What makes Okongwu special is his ability to quickly process the game and make smart decisions.

He’s the rare young big man who came into the NBA already possessing a high basketball IQ. Okongwu is a great cutter with soft hands who knows how to find open spaces on the court and shoot before the defense can react. He’s also extremely unselfish. Even if he’s open, he will keep the ball moving if one of his teammates has a better shot.

Okongwu is a much better passer than his stats (0.9 assist-to-turnover ratio) would indicate. He just doesn’t get many chances to show it because he has such a small role. There are games when it’s easy to forget that he’s even out there on that end. He’s ninth in touches (28.6 per game) among their rotation players and he has one of the lowest usage rates (14.3) on the team. But good things happen when he does get the ball. He can make passes out of four-on-three situations and pick apart the defense from the high post:

The common theme with Okongwu is that he makes the most of the few opportunities he receives. That’s important for a young player on a good team. Developing prospects while still contending is one of the hardest juggling acts in the NBA. Okongwu hasn’t been able to learn through his mistakes. He had to be good right away. The Hawks were playoffs-or-bust when he was a rookie and expectations were even higher coming into this season.

Instead, he’s playing so well that he’s giving Nate McMillan a different kind of problem. Atlanta has made a big commitment to Capela, who is under contract for nearly $66 million over the next three seasons. He’s a veteran leader who played a huge role in their success last season both on and off the court. But all the numbers say that Okongwu is now the better player:

Okongwu vs. Capela

Player Minutes Net Rating True Shooting Block Percentage
Player Minutes Net Rating True Shooting Block Percentage
Capela 1,210 plus-2.1 57.3 4.5
Okongwu 418 plus-7.7 74.6 6.1

There are a few things Capela does better than Okongwu (most notably rebounding), but not enough to close the gap. Capela has struggled some while dealing with an ankle injury, but he’s still a good player. Okongwu is just that much better. The gap will only grow wider from here. Capela knows how these things go. He was the one in Okongwu’s shoes when he was backing up Dwight Howard in his first two seasons in Houston. It’s the NBA’s circle of life.

The good news for the Hawks is that their center problem is not one they need to solve overnight. Okongwu has played only 68 career NBA games. They can keep bringing him along slowly behind Capela and have one of the best big-man rotations in the league in the meantime.

Okongwu’s rise is part of a bigger trend. Atlanta has looked more like the team it was supposed to be over the past few weeks after an awful start in which it sunk toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. The Hawks are 7-3 with a net rating of plus-6.3 in those games and are now only 3.5 games behind Charlotte for the no. 7 seed. They have beaten four teams ahead of them (Milwaukee, Miami, Charlotte, and Boston) in that stretch. The improvement started after the Hawks traded Cam Reddish to New York for Kevin Knox II (who has barely played) and a future first-round pick. Reddish was unhappy and hurting the team (net rating of minus-10 in 797 minutes) when he was on the court. Now Atlanta’s bench, always a weakness in the Trae Young era, has become a strength. Atlanta has a net rating of plus-9.8 without its star point guard over the past 10 games.

Despite just missing the NBA Finals last season, this was always going to be a bit of a transition season for the Hawks. Trae is still their franchise player but his supporting cast is slowly changing from veterans (Capela, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Danilo Gallinari) to players his own age (23). It’s not just Okongwu (21). It’s also De’Andre Hunter (24) and Kevin Huerter (23), both of whom have benefited from no longer having to compete for touches and minutes with Reddish.

That foursome could fit well together on both ends of the floor for a long time. Trae runs the offense and Okongwu anchors the defense, while Hunter and Huerter are two of the better young 3-and-D wings in the league. But that fit is still mostly theoretical at this point. They have played only 84 minutes together this season because of injuries to Okongwu and Hunter, who missed two months with a wrist injury and returned in early January.

What Atlanta GM Travis Schlenk needs to figure out before the trade deadline is what happens with the team’s starting power forward, John Collins. He’s still only 24 despite being in his fifth season in the NBA, so he’s on the same timeline as the rest of their young core. He’s also versatile enough to fit on a front line with Hunter and Okongwu. The problem is his displeasure with his role on offense. Collins averages 16.7 points per game on 53.9 percent shooting but scores mostly off of his own energy. He doesn’t have many plays run for him and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

The Hawks have been linked to Ben Simmons and Collins would be the centerpiece in any deal. Trading for Simmons would improve the team’s defense, but Okongwu’s rise means that is no longer as necessary as it once seemed. Simmons would also be a trickier fit on offense. He would take the ball out of Trae’s hands and be in the same spots on the floor as Okongwu. Okongwu has taken only seven 3s in three seasons in college and the NBA.

This recent hot streak might have come at the exact right time. Atlanta no longer has to do anything at the deadline. The pieces are already in place. Trae and Okongwu could be the centerpieces of an elite team. The comparisons between Trae and Steph Curry have always been somewhat overblown because Trae is so ball-dominant and so much of Steph’s success comes from him playing off of it. But the one thing they do have in common is that both need a center who can protect them on defense and partner with them on offense in the pick-and-roll. Trae has always needed his own version of Draymond Green. Now he might have one.

There’s obviously no guarantee that Okongwu will become as good as Draymond any more than there is that Trae will become as good as Steph. But the skill set and the blueprints are there. The best version of Okongwu is an elite defensive center who can also pass the ball and finish around the rim at a high level. That’s exactly the kind of player Atlanta needs around Trae.

The Hawks’ struggles this season could end up being a blip in the bigger picture. Go back to that list of big men that Okongwu has guarded this season. Giannis and Embiid aren’t going anywhere. The road to the NBA Finals in the East goes through them over the next decade. Okongwu is already really good. The key for the Hawks going forward is just how good he can become.