Atlanta Hawks warned against blocking one player’s breakout

The Atlanta Hawks have set out on a mission of improvement. That applies to the team as well as individual players. To the first point, general manager Travis Schlenk said that he regrets not making any moves last offseason or at the deadline. One analyst believes this offseason offers a chance at redemption.

There is a difference. This is not a call for a blockbuster trade or one that would see the Hawks give a big assist to their division rival.

Instead, this calls for self-reflection on the Hawks’ part as well as improvement from one player.

That player, Onyeka Okongwu, has already been challenged by Schlenk to take his game to the next level. If they follow the analyst’s advice, we could see him do just that and approach the “All-Defense” type of player Schlenk thinks he can be.

Leaving Onyeka Okongwu on the bench could be a big mistake for the Atlanta Hawks

In his exit interview, Schlenk said that he challenged Onkongwu to improve his defensive rebounding. He said if the former sixth-overall pick does that, then he believes that he can be an All-Defensive team-caliber player. That is lofty praise for a player that has yet to appear in 60 games in a season.

For what it’s worth, Okongwu vowed to come back next season with a jump shot.

Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes thinks Okongwu can achieve his goals and then some if he is given the proper opportunity.

Signs emerged this year that Okongwu is ready for a larger role. He averaged 14.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes while shooting a sterling 69.0 percent from the field.

But we have seen individual success not translate to the team with Cam Reddish who was ultimately traded to the New York Knicks for a draft pick and Kevin Knox in January.

As Hughes points out, that is not the case with Okongwu.

Okongwu’s minutes also coincided with a bigger positive net rating swing than Capela’s, with most of the gains coming on defense. We have to include the caveat that Okongwu saw more time against backups, but his skill package should translate against first-unit opponents.

In six starts this season, Okongwu averaged 10.5 points, 7.3 boards, 2.2 blocks, and 1.8 assists while shooting 67.6% shooting from the floor and 65% from the charity stripe. Those are not quite up to Capela’s numbers which is something Hughes alluded to.

If Onyeka Okongwu is going to break out, he’ll have to earn it. Clint Capela is on the books for $65.6 million through 2024-25, and the veteran center has averaged a double-double in each of the last five seasons.

Being mostly paint-bound limits how versatile the Hawks’ offense can be, though, Capela was proud to say he was healthy enough to switch onto littles again after dealing with Achilles pain for two years.

Okongwu held shooters to a lower field-goal percentage inside six feet than Capela this past season, and the 21-year-old big man’s quick feet make him a much more useful switch defender…Atlanta trusted Okongwu to cover point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, and power forwards more often than Capela, as indicated by his superior Defensive Versatility score.

Hughes wraps his argument by noting the importance of mobile bigs in the postseason when opponents can pick apart mismatches. As the Hawks found out first-hand, the ability to switch your center onto an opposing point guard can do a lot to stifle an opponent.

Whether or not that means they need to jettison Capela in favor of the less-proven Okongwu is something to keep an eye on.