The Atlanta Hawks cashed in a lot of their bargaining chips this summer when they swung a blockbuster for Dejounte Murray. Their hope is that it moves them closer to being the team that went to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021 and away from the one that lost 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this past season.
It sounds good in theory. But there will be a lot of adjustments needed from everyone this season as they get acclimated to one another – a process Murray and Trae Young began this summer in pro-am action.
But “the others” will be expected to contribute heavily this season, a challenge that does not stop with the starters.
It also goes for the bench where the Hawks need one player, in particular, to break out.
Okyeka Okongwu could raise the Atlanta Hawks ceiling this season
“Through his first two seasons in Atlanta,” writes ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, “Okongwu has shown flashes of what led the Hawks to pick him No. 6 overall in the 2020 draft. And, between the combination of Danilo Gallinari departing this summer, the uncertainty surrounding the future of John Collins, and Clint Capela entering his ninth NBA season, the opportunity is there for the 6-foot-8 big man to stake his claim to a far bigger long-term role.”
Okongwu was urged to add to his game this summer by team president Travis Schlenk who insisted the former USC Trojan had All-Defensive potential.
He has teased as much so far in his career displaying nice mobility and budding touch. His defense has been a calling card but the caveat has been keeping Okongwu on the floor after his first two seasons were cut short.’
Last year began late following offseason shoulder surgery.
“Okongwu has played just 98 out of a possible 154 games over the course of his first two NBA seasons,” Bontemps notes. “But the basketball world saw what he is capable of during Atlanta’s run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2021, including when he was arguably Atlanta’s best option against Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo in that series. Okongwu’s combination of defensive prowess and efficient inside scoring is a recipe for success, and his growth could be the key to Atlanta exceeding expectations in 2021-22.”
Schlenk challenged Okongwu to come back as a better defensive rebounder. Okongwu vowed to come back with a reliable jump shot and we have seen the typical training camp threes.
If he is able to put all of those skills together with his defense, the Hawks would have close to a complete player. He already averaged 8.2 points and 5.9 rebounds with 1.3 blocks and 1.1 assists last season.
To Bontemps’ point, Collins has been the subject of trade rumors for the last two years.
Capela’sname has not been tossed out nearly as often after signing a two-year, $46 million extension last summer that won’t even kick in until next season.
Okongwu’s time would seem to be coming one way or another. It could also be the difference between another one-and-done postseason appearance or making another deep run.