In preparation for the 2020 NBA Draft, Babcock Hoops’ Director of Scouting Derek Murray breaks down prospect Onyeka Okongwu of the USC Trojans.
Position: C/PF | Height: 6’9” | Weight: 245 | Team: USC | Class: Freshman
Low Post Scoring
Shot Blocking Instincts
Feel for the Game
Footwork + Polish
Can be Turnover Prone
The big man in today’s NBA has become a divisive topic. There are those who believe that centers will always have a firm place in the game, while others view them as nothing more than a supporting cast that can't help a team much during the playoffs. While there is some truth to the diminishing role of a traditional center, versatile, athletic big men have proven to be incredibly valuable over recent years. During the Cavaliers' run of 2015-2018, which included multiple NBA Finals appearances, Tristan Thompson played a vital role by dominating the glass and impacting the game on both ends. In 2020 we saw Bam Adebayo average 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, while helping propel the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals. Ranked #19 in the 2019 RSCI, I believe that Onyeka Okongwu is the next forward-center that can have a major impact on winning at the NBA level.
Okongwu’s combination of power, footwork, and coordination is truly special. He put together a phenomenal season on the offensive end, averaging 16.2 points per game, primarily scoring in the post. He finished the year ranked in the 94th percentile operating in the post on offense, and 98th percentile on post-up shots, which I’m confident will translate smoothly to the NBA. On the block, Okongwu operates at his own speed and rarely rushes into a decision or shot; his awareness in the post is phenomenal, as he feels the defender’s position and makes him pay. He employs a hook shot that he can hit with either hand, which is set up beautifully by his footwork. He also possesses a valuable and uncommon trait for elite post scorers, as he is ambidextrous. While many centers are only truly comfortable operating over one shoulder, Okongwu has flashed the ability to hit tough shots on both sides. His agility and fluidity allow him to shed shot blockers, and occasionally he also uses one or two creative dribbles to fly past his man to the rim. While he isn’t the craftiest finisher, he has flashed that it can easily become part of his repertoire. He showed off his fancy footwork throughout the year by using various spin moves, drop steps, and a mean euro step, showing promise as to what he can become offensively.
I expect Okongwu to excel as a roller and lob target at the next level as well. Among the bigs in the 2020 draft class, he’s one of the strongest screeners and most potent finishers. He stands firm with his wide base, allowing the ball handler to use the screen as they see fit, and generally doesn’t bail out prematurely. Some bigs are extremely non-committal to their screens, often defeating their own purpose; thankfully, Okongwu is not one of them. After the screen, his athleticism and explosiveness pop as he rolls to the rim. He’s explosive, very flexible for his size, and possesses a reported 7’1 wingspan, making him a force to be reckoned with as he gets downhill for dunks. When Okongwu gets rolling down the lane, it’s over. He soars above the rim, routinely dropping violent, earth-shattering dunks. This season he converted 72.6% of his shots at the rim and finished 7th in the NCAA in dunks with 58.
One area that Okongwu will need to improve on is his passing. It’s one of the only things he does on offense where he doesn’t look completely comfortable; he often telegraphs his looks, which leads to the occasional turnover. He ended the season with more turnovers than assists (56:30), but his reads did improve as the season went along. Early in the year, he played with a bit of tunnel vision but he made strides as the year progressed by connecting with cutters and open shooters more effectively. Floor spacing and comfortability on the perimeter are oftentimes prerequisites for bigs in the NBA these days, so for Okogwu to hit his offensive ceiling at the next level, it’s imperative that he improves his perimeter passing and becomes more comfortable in dribble hand-off actions.
Okongwu’s shooting is one of the only question marks I have about him going into the draft. His spot-up shooting, while not overtly negative, has not shown enough to indicate that it’ll be a big part of his arsenal moving forward. He ranked in the 20th percentile as a catch-and-shooter, albeit on only 16 attempts. His shooting mechanics leave a lot to be desired, as there is a little-to-no dip with the ball, and his movements were very herky-jerky with no rhythm. When faced with pressure or a strong contest, he falls away on the shot and his balance gets out of whack. His touch around the rim, as well as his 72% clip from the free-throw line, provides hope for at least a serviceable shot from deep in the NBA at some point. However, despite my concerns about Okongwu’s ability to stretch the floor, his ability to score in the post is so profound that it is probably a moot point, as he is likely to be extremely effective at the next level even without much development of his shooting.
Another thing that makes Okongwu so impressive is his rebounding energy and free throw rate. He’s an absolute menace on the glass, using his strength and length to go up and over his opponents. He finished in the 90th percentile on the offensive glass and put backs, scoring on 69.1% of his attempts. He also registered a free throw rate of 50.4% thanks to his attacking mindset and ability to absorb contact with his physical profile — he’s a beast!
In basketball, bigs generally take the longest to develop. What makes Okongwu so impressive is his polish, physicality, and footwork at just 19 years old. He has such a great foundation of tools already and is so far ahead of his peers, that I could envision him becoming one of the best finishers in the game, given proper development. His ceiling and potential may be limited due to the lack of shooting as a floor stretching big, but his dynamic interior presence gives him a high perceived floor.
Okongwu has some of the best innate shot-blocking skills in this draft class. He’s highly instinctual with how he protects the rim and uses his length and vertical pop incredibly well. He finished his freshman campaign with 2.7 blocks per game, good for 9th in the NCAA. Among power forwards and centers projected to get drafted this year, he has the second-highest block percentage at 9.8%, trailing only Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike. He’s not reactive with his timing but he anticipates at an elite level and times most of his jumps perfectly. When contesting a shot, he remains disciplined with upright verticality, allowing him to maximize the window of opportunity, leading to many shots being spiked off the backboard or into the crowd.
Much of the divisiveness surrounding big men today revolves around switchability, or lack thereof, and getting played off the floor down the stretch in big games. This is where Okongwu can really make his money. He has phenomenal mobility for a player his size, allowing him to stay in front of opponents in both isolation and pick-and-roll situations. At times, Onyeka relies on his length to defend on the perimeter rather than focusing on moving his feet. In college, he was able to get away with it due to his ability to recover; his length and explosiveness were able to mask a good bit. Still, at the NBA level, his hesitancy in space may cause a few issues when defending a guard with a quick release, putting him in jail. Pump fakes have also given him some problems, but overall he is incredibly disciplined.
Okongwu does a fantastic job using his motor and length not only to contest shots but to deny passing lanes. He uses active hands, quick reflexes, and remarkable anticipation to rack up steals and deflections. Since 2008, only 4 high major NCAA freshmen have logged a block percentage above 9.8% and a steal percentage of 2.3%: Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, and Onyeka Okongwu. He’s committed to boxing out and doesn’t let the game come to him; he attacks the glass. He averaged 8.6 rebounds per contest by using his long reach and incredible flexibility to gather boards that other bigs may lose. Okongwu is already incredibly strong for his age and it shows in traffic. If his hands are on the ball, it’s his. At the end of the day, Okongwu is my favorite big man from a defensive perspective. Not only do I envision him being a positive on defense, but I also don’t see a scenario where he has to be pulled from the floor. With time, he is likely to excel in any pick-and-roll coverage he is asked to perform and should be able to defend multiple positions at a reliable level with proper development. Okongwu has outlier fluidity for someone with his size and power. I think that can be an elite defender and a defensive anchor for an NBA team.
The Chino Hills product was named California’s “Mr. Basketball” as both a junior and a senior, and the success carried over into the NCAA as expected. Onyeka Okongwu’s unique combination of power and coordination make him a force on both ends of the floor, and I believe we are looking at one of the next high-impact big men in the NBA.
“Like many, I have compared Onyeka Okongwu to Bam Adebayo. Although I think a more accurate comparison for Okongwu would be a hybrid between Adebayo and former NBA player Al Jefferson. Okongwu possesses comparable physical tools and athleticism to Bam Adebayo. However, his offensive skill set is much more in line with Jefferson’s, as his footwork, touch with both hands, and overall polish as a low post scorer is at an extremely high-level,” said Matt Babcock, an NBA draft analyst for Babcock Hoops.
“Although he’s widely considered a top-ten pick, I still don’t think everyone realizes just how good Okongwu can be… when it’s all said and done, he has a chance to be one of the best players in the 2020 NBA Draft, if not the best,” said Babcock.
Needless to say, come draft night on November 18th, Okongwu should be one of the first names off the board. I expect him to have a successful career, and look forward to watching him impact winning at the next level.