Onyeka Okongwu deserves recognition as a top-3 NBA Draft prospect

Onyeka Okongwu, USC Trojans, (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
Onyeka Okongwu, USC Trojans, (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images) /

Thanks in part to versatile pick-and-roll defense, rim-protecting upside and high-level finishing ability, USC center Onyeka Okongwu looks the part of a top-three prospect.

Let’s start with a simple premise and progress from there. To be a very good NBA player, you likely need to be a very good college player. Checks out, right? Drafting very good collegiate players, particularly those who meet the vague “NBA-caliber athleticism” threshold, is a sound strategy. Assuming we’re still on the same page, allow me to argue in favor of USC center Onyeka Okongwu as the second-best prospect in this year’s class.

Many of those who sit in front of Okongwu on consensus Big Boards — for instance, Georgia’s Anthony Edwards, Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey and Auburn’s Isaac Okoro — have been drastically worse than him this season. All three are ranked inside my top 10 but Okongwu’s performance to this point dwarfs theirs.

To project someone as a good NBA player, it’s important to assess how good they currently are. In that regard, Okongwu’s data point is a significant positive, especially since he’s not some upperclassman benefiting from years of experience. He’s a 19-year-old freshman severely out-playing those of a similar age, boasting per-game averages of 16.6 points (64.9 percent true shooting), 8.8 rebounds, 2.9 blocks and 1.2 steals. Oh, and his Box Score Plus-Minus 2.0 (BPM) of 11.2 ranks third nationally (first among freshmen). The only freshmen in history to post a higher BPM 2.0 are Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis, Kevin Love, Karl-Anthony Towns and Michael Beasley. Pretty solid company.

Much of Okongwu’s prowess stems from defensive capabilities this season and his excellence reveals itself on film. He is a dominant pick-and-roll defender capable of hedging, dropping or trapping. His mobility and fluidity enact versatility in ball-screen coverage. Whichever franchise drafts him will not have to shape its pick-and-roll scheme around his limitations. The 6-foot-9 big man can don a number of caps. He excels in hedge-and-recover scenarios that deter drives from ball-handlers, while his lateral mobility and quick leaping ability afford him some margin for error in drop coverage (though Cameron Purn of The Stepien astutely notes that Okongwu’s footwork could use some improvement).

Considering the popularity of pick-and-rolls in today’s NBA and how often the league’s best initiators (Doncic, Lillard, LeBron, etc.) frequent them, Okongwu’s scalable nature and defensive impact against that action are particularly valuable traits. His understanding of when to retreat back to the big on hedges is impressive for a youngster and his timing as a shot blocker helps explain his gaudy rejection totals.

That pick-and-roll expertise translates offensively. Okongwu consistently makes contact as a screener to create an advantage, is a lively/bouncy roller and outstanding play finisher. His instincts as a roller, recognizing how long to hold the screen before diving to the rim, further provide value. He can snare tough-to-handle passes, score with either hand and owns the coordination to convert in traffic. As a roll man, he ranks in the 77th percentile in pick-and-rolls and 87th percentile (65.4 percent shooting) in half-court scoring at the rim.

While Okongwu ranks in the 98th percentile (1.439 points per possession) as a post-up scorer, I’m concerned his underwhelming length (7-foot wingspan) and upper body strength will mitigate some of his effectiveness down low at the next level. He’s struggled at times against strength/length this season and is susceptible to coughing it up against double-teams. His ambidextrous finishing touch, advanced footwork, quick jump ability and lower body strength — the last of which enables him to seal off defenders for deep catches and fend them off once he does begin to attack — should ensure he’s still a threat on the block. But physical dimensions likely prevent him from replicating the absurd degree of success he’s enjoyed as a freshman, which is okay because if everything he does carried over 1:1 to the NBA, he’d be the undisputed No.1 pick.

Where I find his touch, footwork and leaping — along with his ball-handling and fluidity/mobility — to be most intriguing from an NBA perspective is as a face-up scorer. It’s not something we’ve seen a whole lot of yet but the flashes are rather promising and suggest there’s a legitimate path to self-creation for Okongwu. Allowing him to leverage these skills in space, rather than down low, preserves his offensive upside, even if the post-up well dries out.

NBA-caliber athletes and opponents won’t make his face-ups look as effortless but this is clearly a scoring avenue for Okongwu. He’s light off the ground, sports deft touch with both hands andhas coordination that most bigs can’t emulate.

Despite a negative assist-to-turnover ratio, I hold some optimism regarding Okongwu’s passing. He already exhibits the weak-side sling from the post on a semi-regular basis — though it often looks premeditated, as if he expects it to be open rather than actually seeing it — and has dished out a few short-roll dimes as well. He remains slow processing double-teams and tends to give the ball away in those situations but the baseline display of upside is encouraging. If afforded time and repetitions to establish consistency as a passer, he could be a secondary offensive hub, given his face-up scoring, pick-and-roll aptitude and low-post game.

Okongwu’s shooting projection is a positive one as well. He’s shooting 72 percent at the free throw line, 40.2 percent on 2-point jumpers and the interior touch he shows all indicate that developing into a pick-and-pop release valve is a legitimate possibility. Such a maturation would expand his offensive impact even wider. There might even be some opportunities to attack closeouts off the catch if defenders hastily contest his jumper and he wields the athletic tools to capitalize on those situations.

Yet expecting him to be an offensive star is overzealous. Okongwu projects as a very good NBA player because of his two-way contributions and looks the part of a high-level defender, where his impact will likely outpace his offensive footprint. The pick-and-roll exploits have already been laid out but the same traits that power him there are prevalent in his team defense and switch-ability. Averaging 2.9 blocks and 1.2 steals per game, he’s a terrorizing off-ball defender. His activity level and motor are absurdly high (they also help him on the glass), and when those qualities exist with a player of Okongwu’s athleticism, you’re left with someone who’s going to be a purveyor of chaos when on the floor.

Broadly speaking, the two most valuable defensive skills, as I see it, are turning teams over and deterring players from reaching their desired spots on the floor. Okongwu does both quite well; he can short-circuit possessions or blow them up. His rim protection impact should moderately decrease in the NBA, as his size (6 feet 9 inches) and length (7-foot wingspan) are underwhelming for a center, but excelling in both areas is a massive positive.

Aside from thriving as a drop defender or hedging ball-screens, Okongwu also looks capable of switching on occasion. His lateral mobility isn’t elite but the size, fluidity and timing as a shot blocker are the outlines of a big man who can intermittently survive on an island.

To reiterate: this is a center with versatility in pick-and-roll coverage, sharp instincts/timing and the vertical pop to protect the rim. Bigger, explosive wings will exploit his lack of upper body strength and certain quick-twitch guards will torch him but Okongwu is well-suited to shut down many pick-and-rolls through a variety of schemes. The utility of these wide-ranging skills cannot be overstated.

Many prospects function in sub-optimal team contexts and Okongwu is no different. What’s noteworthy, however, is the degree to which he’s dominating despite those issues. USC’s guards struggle to execute entry passes and are middling, at best, decision-makers. Most game, a handful of consecutive offensive possessions occur when he doesn’t touch the ball. He starts alongside Nick Rakocevic, another big man who makes his living as an interior scorer.

The point, then, is that whichever franchise drafts Okongwu doesn’t necessarily need to be the perfect fit for him to spin a positive return on investment. He’s going to make guys uncomfortable in ball-screens defensively, offer an expansive catch radius in pick-and-rolls and spark disruption as an off-ball defender. All of that is, mostly, independent of team context and influences the game prominently.

Truly, the most valid gripe with Okongwu are physical traits. A 6-foot-9 center with a 7-foot wingspan who requires added upper body strength is going to encounter problems in the NBA. Hurdles have already presented themselves at times on both ends this season. The size disadvantage he’ll operate from could mute much of his self-creation in the post while capping his rim protection to a ceiling lower than I anticipate. And if he’s not handed face-up repetitions, his scoring value will come almost exclusively as a roller, which is useful but not enough for a top-three pick. This is mostly devil’s advocate, though, because I’m confident in Okongwu receiving the chances he needs, while believing that his vertical bounce can help compensate for many of the size concerns.

So, in Onyeka Okongwu, we have a diverse scorer with self-creation/long-range shooting upside and a defender who can play the perimeter, erase shots inside, occupy passing lanes and is fluent in an array of pick-and-roll coverages. Acknowledge his NBA-caliber athletic tools — lower body strength and vertical pop — in conjunction with his statistical dominance as a freshman, and you have one heck of a prospect.

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