How Onyeka Okongwu can help power Atlanta Hawks past CHO

Atlanta Hawks Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Atlanta Hawks Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

If the Atlanta Hawks (43-39) want to get a win and move on to the next round of the Play-In Tournament, they need Onyeka Okongwu to keep Charlotte Hornets big man P.J. Washington in check this time around. Both teams are led by dynamic young point guards in Atlanta’s Trae Young and Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball.

Young has had a historical season that saw him lead the NBA in total assists and total points scored. He averaged 20.8 points on 10.8 assists against the Hornets on 53.6% true shooting this season and 20.0 points with 9.3 dimes on 51.6% true shooting for his career.

Ball averaged 18.7 points, 8.7 assists, and 7.7 boards this season on just 49.8% true shooting and 18.2 points, 8.4 assists, with 8.6 rebounds on 55.5% true shooting in his career.

Still, the Hawks cannot let Washington be a difference-maker again.

The Atlanta Hawks need Onyeka Okongwu to be the x-factor vs CHO

These teams split the regular-season series, but the Hornets came away with the 116-106 win in the most recent meeting on March 16. Charlotte had six players reach double-figures in that contest, four of whom came away with at least 18 points including Montrezl Harrell who had 20 points off of the bench.

Miles Bridges had 18 points, tallying 12 in the first quarter on 66.7% shooting from the floor and from three-point range while Ball led all scorers with 22 points and 11 assists.

Yet and still, the Hawks withstood nearly all of that, falling down by six points early in the fourth quarter but getting to within one point at 99-98 on De’Andre Hunter’s made free throw (he split the pair) with 4:05 to go on a Kevin Huerter triple.

Things went downhill from there.

Washington, who “only” had 16 points in the contest and checked in roughly a minute earlier, single-handedly outscored the Hawks 11-8 the rest of the way.

Zach Lowe of the “Lowe Post Podcast” discussed Washington’s impact in this game with guest Kevin Arnovitz.

“I wonder how quickly the Hornets are…gonna pull ‘let’s just go super small and play P.J. Washington at center’ which is how they closed their last game against the Hawks and they won. And they won because that lineup kind of confused [Clint] Capela, confused the Hawks, stretched them to the breaking point.”

Lowe is speaking of that stretch we mentioned above in which the Hawks shot 4-of-5 from the floor as a team to Washington’s 4-of-4 with two triples.

The ESPN personality continued his assessment.

“And this to me is where Collins’ absence, or potential absence, looms large. Because…I’m more willing to go small against the Hawks without Collins because either you’re keeping Capela on the floor for his defense and rebounding and we can exploit that. Or it’s like, is Hunter playing the five? Are you going to leave Gallinari out there for us as chum to just destroy? What are you going to do? And so I’m curious how quickly we get to that…to that look.”

Something or, rather, someone slipped Lowe’s mind and that is second-year big man, Onyeka Okongwu who is averaging 8.2 points on 71.4% true shooting with 5.9 rebounds this year.

He had 14 points in 17 minutes in the last meeting with five boards and two blocks.

The 2021 sixth-overall pick saw little of Washington as his primary assignment in that game and, instead, had his hands full with Harrell. It is entirely possible switching this matchup could pay off.

Washington is 0-for-1 from the floor when Okongwu is on him, though, the sample is minuscule.

In two games against each other this season, the two have locked horns for fewer than two minutes. Okongwu matched up with 55 other players more this season, per matchup data. 16 of those also came in just two games with another 25 coming in just one game against an opponent.

Okongwu has also defended better on the perimeter, allowing his assignments to shoot 33.4% from deep compared to 37.4% against Capela.

He did this while facing an identical 35.3 attempts per 100 possessions.

What the Hawks lose in rebounding – Okongwu averages 6.7 fewer boards per 100 possessions – is offset by the Hornets’ shortcomings that Lowe describes.

“It is leaky on defense. It doesn’t rebound well. But, for two or three years running now, the Hornets are good with P.J. Washington at center.”

Things will get murky when Washington – who is averaging 10.3 points while knocking down 36.5% of his triples with 5.2 boards and 2.3 assists this season – is on the floor with another big as he was 46% of the time this season, per Cleaning the Glass.

To Lowe’s point, though, Washington has been most effective for the Hornets as a small-ball five where his net rating is 3.2 points higher.

Okongwu has not logged any minutes there outside of garbage time, which Cleaning the Glass removes from their calculations. But Basketball-Reference lists him as having played power forward 2.0% of the time this season.

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There will surely be other factors to impact this game. However they decide to go about it, this is one wrinkle that the Hawks cannot afford to allow to get the best of them or it will be the reason that they go home.