Onyeka Okongwu’s importance to the Atlanta Hawks is on full display

Atlanta Hawks. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)
Atlanta Hawks. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images) /

The Atlanta Hawks currently sit third in the NBA Eastern Conference with a 9-5 record. In large part, they have the ascendence and defensive excellence of rising star Onyeka Okongwu to thank.

Okongwu’s value to the team has never been more apparent than in the last few games for the Atlanta Hawks, and the results speak for themselves. On Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers, Okonwgu was out for personal reasons, and the Hawks lost 109-121. On Monday against the Milwaukee Bucks, Okongwu returned and saw the Hawks to a 121-106 win.

Both opposing squads are consistently high playoff seeds, and the 76ers were relatively weakened by the fact that they were missing All-NBA guard James Harden. So, what is it about Okongwu’s game that guided these two results?

How is Atlanta Hawks young forward Onyeka Okongwu deciding games?

For starters, Okongwu is consistently guarding the opposing team’s best forward when he comes in for Capela. He is the de-facto leader of a bench squad that has, with the exception of a few players, struggled most of this season so far.

When he was missing on Saturday against the 76ers, superstar center Joel Embiid went off for 42 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists on 14-of-25 shooting from the floor. When he played against the 76ers two days prior, Embiid only scored 26 on 9-of-18 shooting and the Hawks won 104-95.

When he played against the Bucks, he guarded two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo when he had the chance. Giannis only mustered 27 points on an inefficient 38% shooting from the floor, which led to a comfortable Hawks win.

If you’re still not convinced that it isn’t a fluke, Giannis only scored 25 points on 45% shooting in his matchup against Okongwu on November 7. For context, Anteteokounmpo is averaging 31 points on 53% shooting, and Embiid is averaging 32 points on 54% shooting.

His presence is felt so much on the defensive end that Antetokounmpo singled Okongwu out in a recent interview – along with John Collins and Clint Capela – as a guy that takes pride in guarding the opposing team’s best player.

The stats bare out what Giannis is saying, too. The Hawks’ defensive rating in the 2021-22 season was the fifth-worst in basketball. In 2022-23, thanks in part to Dejounte Murray as well, their defensive rating has skyrocketed to sixth-best in basketball.

For Okongwu individually, his defensive box plus-minus is already up to 1.1 from 0.8 last year, and he’s already reached 0.4 defensive win shares in 13 games – a good sign that he will eclipse his 1.1 defensive win shares in 48 games from last season. He also has the 20th-best defensive rating in the league at 108.1, and the Hawks are five points worse in plus-minus when he is off the court – the biggest gap so far in his career.

Next. Deandre Hunter sends message after UVA tragedy. dark

Okongwu will no doubt continue to be the Hawks’ most important defensive building block of the future. He’s well on his way to becoming Capela’s long-term replacement.