The Atlanta Hawks have drafted well in recent years.
That much is evident by how far they’ve come from when John Collins was drafted through this past season in rookie AJ Griffin’s inaugural campaign. Many of their draft picks have been or will receive second contracts with the team and some – namely Kevin Huerter – were then turned into future draft capital that could even slot in a better spot than they were initially selected.
Okongwu, 22, was selected with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft and has long been billed as the Hawks’ center of the future.
But his path to a starting spot is impeded by the presence of Clint Capela.
Capela, 29, is under contract through 2024-25 and has been a trusted lob target for Trae Young since his arrival in addition to being the team’s best paint protector. He will be extension eligible in October, per ESPN front office insider Bobby Marks, who coincidentally also lays out a compelling case for why the Hawks may move on.
Atlanta posted a minus-0.9 net rating with Capela n the floor in 2022-23, per Cleaning The Glass. That rating shot up to plus-1.4 with Okongwu on the floor instead while the youngster also saw more minutes this past season. The Dallas Mavericks are said to be targeting the former Houston Rocket in a trade.
If the two sides were able to agree on a deal, it could allow the Hawks to jump up and get the candidate of their choice in the 2023 NBA Draft.
However, the Hawks went 7-9 in Okongwu’s 16 starts last season, and the 6-foot-8, 235-pounder has dealt with foul issues as an undersized big, an issue the 6-foot-10, 240-pound Capela has also dealt with at times.
Okongwu’s looming contract situation could also spur the Hawks into making a decision.
Atlanta Hawks expected to take bold stance with Onyeka Okongwu
“Normally, we’d say the Hawks should lock up Okongwu,” wrote Keith Smith of Spotrac on June 6. “But this team has so much long-term salary already committed for a middle-of-the-pack roster. Because of that, Atlanta may need to rebalance the roster a bit before taking care of Okongwu. That means this probably goes to restricted free agency in 2024.”
The Hawks are facing a $13.6 million luxury tax bill if they don’t shed some salary before next season. With a roster that was 41-41 this past season, prudence may be the right path but it does come with risks.
Collins was the last player the Hawks let get to restricted free agency, ultimately re-signing him on a five-year, $125 million contract.
Since then, Collins’ role has deteriorated and he has been mired in trade rumors.
Signing a new contract does not exactly save him, either – the Hawks signed Huerter to a four-year $65 million contract extension in October 2021 only to trade him to the Sacramento Kings for a lottery-protected first-round pick roughly eight months later. Forward De’Andre Hunter has been thrown into the fray with his four-year, $90 million deal kicking in.
Atlanta has also been linked to Duke center Dereck Lively II, a projected top-10 pick in this year’s draft. Moving up to select a player who profiles very similarly to former Quin Snyder and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert would say an awful lot about their future plans.
The Hawks own the No. 15 overall pick but general manager Landry Fields acknowledged they are exploring their options to move up during his press conference on June 17.
He did note that, if the draft started that day they would likely be picking in that slot.
But they could realistically pursue the trade with Dallas to get into position to select Lively and deliver on Smith’s prediction with Okongwu.