Atlanta Hawks rising star being blocked from breakout campaign

The Atlanta Hawks see great things in the future for third-year big man Onyeka Okongwu. That much may have been evident in the fact they used the sixth-overall pick to take the 6-foot-8 Okongwu out of USC ahead of other intriguing options such as Obi Toppin, Deni Avdija, or Tyrese Haliburton.

Their faith in him was reiterated when team president Travis Schlenk said during his exit interview that Okongwu has “all-defense type” potential.

He has shown flashes of being an extremely versatile two-way player.

With the improvements he’s made to his game this offseason, Okongwu would seem poised to take off this season. But are the Hawks providing him with the proper environment to fully take advantage of his skill set?

Analyst suggests Atlanta Hawks are holding Onyeka Okongwu back

“The eye test and the stat sheet both agree: Okongwu is ready for a leap year,” writes Zach Buckley for Bleacher Report. “Okongwu is already up to the task on defense, and on offense, his finishing is ready, too. His per-36-minute marks of 14.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, and 1.9 assists paint him as a potential juggernaut.”

To Buckley’s point, Okongwu posted the efficiency differential last season among returning Hawks right behind Bogdan Bogdanovic and Trae Young, per Cleaning the Glass.

Okongwu averaged 9.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.0 assists this preseason; similar numbers to last year. The points and assists would be career-highs, hinting at even greater versatility. But there is something in his way.

His teammates.

“His biggest obstacle to this point has been a lack of opportunity,” suggests Buckley. “Significant floor time may not elude him much longer, though, given the offseason departure of Danilo Gallinari and the trade winds that perpetually swirl around Clint Capela and John Collins…Clearing him for takeoff could be the final tweak needed for the Hawks to soar into the elite tier.”

Collins has indeed been mired in trade rumors for nearly two years now. But part of his summer was spent teaming up with Young and offseason trade acquisition Dejounte Murray in pro-am action.

Capela was mentioned among a group of “untouchables” last season after signing a contract extension in the preceding offseason.

There has been little trade chatter around either at this point beyond hypothetical scenarios.

The Hawks recently picked up the fourth-year option for the 21-year-old and, whether it is at some point this year or after next season or, perhaps, even after Capela’s contract expires Okongwu figures to be a big part of the Hawks’ plans going forward. That doesn’t mean he isn’t being “blocked” by his teammates in some capacity.

But there is no need to rush or force things with a player such as Okongwu who still has plenty of room to grow after averaging 3.3 per game and going 1-for-9 outside of the restricted area in the preseason.