Atlanta Hawks C Onyeka Okongwu showing progress in problem area

Atlanta Hawks. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
Atlanta Hawks. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports /

The Atlanta Hawks (39-37) have one of the deeper big man rotations in the NBA thanks in large part to second-year big man Onyeka Okongwu. A three-game winning streak finds them still sitting in 10th in the East, but with a chance to move into a tie with the Charlotte Hornets for ninth which would put the Hawks into ninth by a half-game by virtue of a better divisional record.

They will face the seventh-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday in a game that could also bring them within a half-game of the eighth-seeded Brooklyn Nets who take on the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks.

Cleveland is without All-Star big man Jarrett Allen as well as rookie sensation Evan Mobley while coming off of a loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday.

That hit to their interior presence is to the Hawks, and Okongwu’s, benefit.

The Atlanta Hawks should be encouraged by Onyeka Okongwu’s progress on the glass

Okongwu is on pace to appear in at least two fewer games than last season but will have also drawn at least two more starts this year. That hasn’t hindered him from making tremendous strides on the floor in any way. The former USC Trojan and sixth-overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft is averaging 8.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in just under 21 minutes per game.

That is up from 4.6 points and 3.3 boards in 12 minutes per game as a rookie. He’s also shooting 68.5 percent from the floor and 71.9 percent from the free-throw line, up from 64.4 percent overall and 63.2 percent at the charity stripe a season ago.

Okongwu’s 68.5 effective field goal percentage is fifth in the league among players to average at least 20 minutes and appear in 40 or more games.

Despite finishing the win over Oklahoma City with just three points (and three assists) in just under 28 minutes – his most action in over a month – his work on the glass lately has been most encouraging. And it isn’t simply because he pulled down a substantial number of rebounds, either.

Although, that did not hurt.

Big O’s 13 boards versus the Thunder set a new season-high and came just two rebounds short of his career-best mark set against the Houston Rockets last season. It is just the second time Okongwu has grabbed double-digit boards this year, matching last year’s count, and comes nearly four months after his first time in the campaign.

He grabbed nine defensive boards, tying his career-best mark, and that is where anyone looking for tangible signs of progress should start.

Per Cleaning the Glass, Okongwu has increased the percentage of the Hawks rebounds that he gets by 2.2 percent this season. At the same time, though, his share of the defensive glass has dropped by 2.3 percent.

Over the last month, however, he has grabbed over 16.0 percent of the Hawks defensive boards

He is well behind Clint Capela who ranks fourth in the NBA at 11.8 rebounds per game. He has improved his personal stats from 5.5 boards heading into March to 6.7 in 13 games since returning from a two-game absence while in concussion protocol. though. His overall rebound percentage has gone from 12.6 percent to 13.7 thanks to a 16.2-percent month.

His offensive percentage is 4.7 percent higher in March than it was through the end of February while his defensive glass share has jumped by 2.7 percent with Thursday’s tilt yet to go.

He had just his 17th-best night on the offensive glass but his third-best night on the defensive end against the Thunder. While the Hawks are still getting a smaller share of the offensive boards with Okongwu than Capela, the opposite is true on the other end.

We know Okongwu can score and defend with tremendous athleticism.

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His rebounding prowess was one question mark. Another was his propensity to foul early and often. It has been a bane for a coaching staff with an auto-bench philosophy when it comes to fouls. Experience plays a large part in that, though, and Okongwu is still giving tantalizing glimpses of what he will one day become if his trajectory continues.