Onyeka Okongwu’s defensive prowess and improving offensive game
If there’s one thing you can say about Okongwu, it’s that he is never afraid of a challenge. Early on in his career, he has been credited for playing tough, opposing defense against some of the best offensive big men in the NBA such as Giannis Antetokounmpo. After giving Antetokounmpo some rough offensive outings earlier in the season, he had no choice but to give his props to the young Okongwu for his defensive efforts: “I always love playing against people that love,” Antetokounmpo said, “that take pride in guarding and he’s one of them… that take pride in defending and take the challenge.”
Looking at the numbers, Okongwu makes a clear difference, especially on the defensive end of the floor. Per 100 possessions last season, Okongwu had a defensive rating of 112 which was below the NBA average of 113.9 from this past season. Comparatively, the Hawks had a team defensive rating of 116.3 which ranked 24th in the NBA in 2022-2023. If the Hawks had Okongwu’s defensive rating, it would rank 5th in the NBA. On the contrary, when Okongwu is off the court, the Hawks’ defensive rating goes down to 115.7 which is below average.
In his career, Okongwu has notably held his own against some of the toughest offensive players in the NBA. Last season while guarding Anetetkounmpo, Okongwu gave him his fair share of fits only allowing the Milwaukee Bucks star and 2-time MVP to shoot 33.3% from the field in the opportunities he had to guard him. While taking on the challenge of Embiid in the 2021 playoffs, he held the reigning MVP to shoot 45% from the field in the 7-game series.
While Okongwu makes a major impact on the defensive end of the floor, his offensive game was still developing. When he first entered the league, Okongwu didn’t shoot many jump shots. He only attempted four 3’s during his one season at USC. After the disappointing exit that was the 2022 playoffs, Okongwu assured reports and fans that by next season he would “have a jump shot.”
To his credit, Okongwu did showcase that statement throughout the season. 0.74% of Okongwu’s shot attempts this past season came from an average of 16 ft to the 3-point line—a career mark in that category. Even though the attempts were limited, he shot 40.5% from that range. Okongwu is buying into the changing NBA as big men are seemingly required to stretch the floor.
His growing offensive game will be key for his development, but there is one major flaw in Okongwu’s game that is too big to ignore!