The USC big man is flying up draft boards and could be the answer to the San Antonio Spurs frontcourt problems for years to come
It takes diligent scouting and a little bit of luck for an NBA team to nail a draft. While the San Antonio Spurs will need more than just a bit of luck to capitalize on their 9.4 percent chance of getting a top-four pick in the 2020 NBA draft there is a gem waiting for them if the basketball gods are in their favor.
He’s not as well known to casual NBA fans as LaMelo Ball or James Wiseman but Onyeka Okongwu flew up draft boards after an impressive freshman season at USC. He’s a two-way threat who can answer many of the Spurs’ needs in the frontcourt and give them the flexibility they need to maximize the potential of the other big men on the roster.
Right now the Spurs frontcourt is centered around LaMarcus Aldridge. The big Texan is one of the best players in San Antonio right now but he’s going to be an unrestricted free agent after the 2021 season. The Spurs need to consider how their draft selection will play with Aldridge in their rookie season, but looking beyond that is the more important consideration.
This season we saw San Antonio shy away from playing Jakob Poeltl with Aldridge because of how close to the basket he likes to operate, preferring to play Trey Lyles with Aldridge. Like Poeltl, Okongwu is an excellent pick and roll threat, but over time he looks more able to build an ability to step out behind the arc and stretch the floor as well.
It’s not something he did much of with the Trojans. He was more typically used as a pick and roll threat or lob catcher. And while he does have some inconsistencies in his shooting motion there’s still reason to believe that there’s a floor stretching part to his game that just needs to be unlocked.
Free-throw percentage is a relatively good indicator of a player’s ability to extend their game beyond the paint at the next level. Okongwu hit on 72 percent of his free-throws this season, an impressive mark that should give teams hope that he can continue to add range to his game.
He’s got tremendous touch inside as well, he’s frequently able to hit fading jump hooks from odd angles thanks to his good instincts and soft touch around the rim. That’s not as relevant to his potential as a distance shooter as his free-throw percentage but does add to his case.
Adding an outside shot to his game is something that Okongwu knows he needs to do to be successful as the next level and he’s working accordingly. Mirin Fader did an incredible profile on him for Bleacher Report and in her piece, she included notes from both his former high school teammate Lonzo Ball and his college coach Andy Enfield where both spoke to his work ethic and dedication that he has shown in adding to his game year after year. The great ones add to their game year after year and early signs indicate that Okongwu is diligently taking that approach to his growth.
Thankfully Okongwu’s inside game is already as well developed, if not better, than many NBA big men. He’s got a smooth up and under, drop steps well, can hit running hooks over both shoulders, and has the aforementioned leaning hook that he uses to terrifying effect. He’s a bit undersized for a center, standing only 6’9, but he’s so skilled at floating his shot over a defender that you don’t have to be too concerned with him getting blocked in the paint.
In transition he’s shown off an impressive handle for his size and combines it with an eye for hitting open teammates. He can make long outlet passes to start the break or be on the receiving end as well. Looking to the future the Spurs should have the ability to push the pace. With speedsters like Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker streaking up the floor, Okongwu should never be short of outlet targets if he ends up in San Antonio.
His offensive game is solid but Okongwu’s skill on defense is what really makes him shine as an NBA prospect. In the above video, Okongwu tells Mike Schmitz with ESPN that he believes that he can guard all five positions in the NBA.
Frankly, I agree with him 100 percent. He probably shouldn’t be isolated on the Steph Curry’s of the world but if he gets switched onto a guard like that there’s no reason to panic. He’s very similar to Bam Adebayo in that both have the quick feet and low center of gravity that big men need in order to keep on their man out on the perimeter.
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Like Adebayo, Okongwu has all the potential to be one of the better defensive big men in the league. That’s crucial for San Antonio because outside of Poeltl, neither Lyles nor Luka Samanic are going to bring that rim protection ability for the Spurs. And while Okongwu does have room for improvement, his high floor on the defensive end is assurance enough that he should be an asset on that end of the floor.
He does need to add muscle to his frame. We saw Adebayo hold his own against giants like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid this year, Okongwu is a ways away from doing that. Packing muscle on will have to be a major point of emphasis throughout his rookie season.
Finally, Okongwu does the grimey stuff, setting screens, fighting for second-chance points, grabbing rebounds, making hustle plays. You don’t ever have to worry about his motor or will to do what is necessary to win. Maybe it’s their youth and energy but he reminds me quite a bit of Keldon Johnson in that regard.
Between Johnson, Murray, White, Walker, and potentially Okongwu, the Spurs could be a league leader in hustle stats before long. They already have two of the best guards in the league in terms of shots blocked, steals, and passes deflected. Add in another big man who shares their passion for defense and San Antonio could go from a bad defensive team to a great one in just a few years.
All of that said, the San Antonio Spurs chances of landing a talent like Onyeka Okongwu are slim. If they don’t luck out on their 9.4 chance of getting a top-four pick they would need to move up to select him. As talented as he is there is no chance he is on the board when the Spurs will likely be on the clock at pick 11.