Atlanta Hawks: Nate McMillan is developing Onyeka Okongwu already

Atlanta Hawks. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Atlanta Hawks. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

The Atlanta Hawks took Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth pick in the 2020 NBA draft. He was touted as the second-best big man in the draft behind the eventual second pick, James Wiseman. The problem is that Okongwu has had a massively interrupted rookie season.

He was out for the first ten games due to a foot injury. He has since missed two more games through injury but also has eight games where he did not play due to the coach’s decision. For a high lottery pick, this is too many games to miss, particularly with the injury issues of this roster.

While the play of Clint Capela has cut some of the minutes which would have gone to Okongwu, However, it appears that ex-coach Lloyd Pierce could not decide who was going to play the back-up big role. Towards the All-Star break, he was splitting the backup center minutes between Okongwu and Bruno Fernando.

How interim head coach Nate McMillan appears to be using Onyeka Okongwu

While it has only been two games, Nate McMillian appears to have a better handle on how to develop Okongwu. In McMillan’s first game against the Miami Heat, he only played Okongwu for ten minutes.

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Most of this time was against fellow rookie Precious Achiuwa which allowed him to make some plays that he was comfortable with. He was able to break up a lob into their backup big man, and while it was a foul, Achiuwa missed both free-throws so it was a good foul.

He also looked better offensively, finding his spots, hitting all three of his field-goal attempts which really helped the second unit. He played some time against Heat star Bam Adebayo, but not enough to dent the confidence he had gleaned from the rest of the game.

In the next game against the Orlando Magic, starting center Clint Capela sat out. This could have meant big minutes for the rookie but instead, McMillan decided to use the veteran Danilo Gallinari at starting center. This was an inspired move.

Gallinari is able to defend in the post as well as the perimeter which is crucial when defending against Magic big man Nikola Vucevic. Okongwu only got 13 minutes of game time, collecting four rebounds and missing both of his field-goal attempts.

McMillan also chose to play his starters for longer than usual, in part due to the All-Star break starting that night and in part due to the starters being the better unit for the night. McMillan did not ask for more from Okongwu, despite John Collins having five fouls.

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He gave some time to Bruno Fernando which also helped the Hawks as he was a vacuum on the boards, getting four in four minutes. However, McMillan has shown that Okongwu is the priority at the backup pivot position.

If Okongwu knows that he will get ten to fifteen minutes a night, then he is going to be able to develop more than playing solid minutes one night and then not making the court for multiple games. We will see better growth due to this.