Atlanta Hawks: Former top-10 pick urged to take game to the next level

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

The Atlanta Hawks season ended disappointingly but the future is especially bright for one of their young players says general manager Travis Schlenk. A 97-94 loss to the top-seeded Miami Heat sent the Hawks on vacation earlier than they would have liked. But exit interviews provided players, head coach Nate McMillan, and Schlenk to decompress.

It was just three months ago that Schlenk went on 92.9 The Game and declared that it might have been a mistake to bring everyone back this season after last year’s improbable postseason run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

While some have taken the opportunity to point out the fluke nature and delegitimize the Hawks run entirely.

Schlenk took used the moment as an opportunity to issue a challenge for Onyeka Okongwu.

Travis Schlenk thinks Onyeka Okongwu can be an ‘All-Defense-type player’

Okongwu just completed his second season out of USC after being selected sixth overall in the 2021 NBA Draft. A year after putting up 4.6 points and 3.3 rebounds on 65.5% true shooting, Okongwu averaged 8.2 points on 71.4% true shooting with 5.9 boards. His defensive rating worsened by two points but his offensive rating rose by 13 points.

He nearly doubled his postseason production from last year, averaging 5.2 points and 5.4 boards

That, in part, led Schlenk to place some lofty expectations on the young big man, assuming he can rise to the challenge.

Lofty praise, indeed. But can he do it?

It is important to make the distinction that what Schlenk said, that Okongwu can be an “All-Defense-type” player, is different from the Hawks boss saying he will or that he expects Okongwu to make one of the teams.

Still, we can look to those players that did make it to see if there is a plottable course for Okongwu.

Four bigs made the two All-Defensive teams last season including Giannis Antetokounmpo among the likes of fellow-first teamer Rudy Gobert as well as second-teamers Bam Adebayo and Joel Embiid.

Okongwu most closely resembles Aydebayo in body type, if not their skill set.

The Heat pivot has the height and weight advantage, though. He has also proven to be an adept passer averaging 4.7 assists over the last three seasons.

To Schlenk’s point, Okongwu averages 1.9 more offensive rebounds than Adebayo per 100 possessions but 3.4 fewer defensive boards. Adebayo’s defensive rating is also 6.3 points better than his counterpart.

But the former is in his fifth NBA season and has made quite a name for himself already. That is hardly a fair comparison to a second-year pro.

In his second season, Adebayo averaged 8.9 points on 62.3% true shooting with 7.3 boards while drawing 47 starts in 151 games compared to Okongwu’s 10 starts in 98 games. COVID wiped out nearly half of Okongwu’s rookie campaign and a shoulder injury delayed Year 2 until mid-December.

Okongwu’s defensive rebounding still lags behind Adebayo’s at the same stage in their careers. But the former has been the more efficient offensive player, again, to Schlenk’s point.

He vowed to come back next season with a jumper in his exit interview.

For what it’s worth, Okonwu is credited with holding Adebayo to 17 points on 45.5% shooting in the series.

Okongwu had just four points on 2-of-8 shooting against Adebayo.

None of the names on last year’s list figure to be moving out of those posts anytime soon – Gobert at 29 years old is the elder statesman among the foursome. And there are others such as Cleveland Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen to contend with as well.

Next. Trae Young blasted for old comments with Hawks eliminated. dark

That is why adding “type” to the end of the assertion is key. Okongwu can certainly reach that level of production and the recognition still lag. Going so would immediately pay off for the Hawks next season.