All-Defense honors ‘aren’t out of reach’ for Hawks’ former top pick, analyst says

Atlanta Hawks. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Atlanta Hawks. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The Atlanta Hawks could have a future All-Defensive Team stalwart on their hands in fourth-year big man Onyeka Okongwu.

“Okongwu’s ceiling has as much to do with his defense as it does anything else,” wrote Andy Bailey of Bleacher Report on August 14. “Predicting All-Star or All-NBA nods might be a bit bold (though certainly not crazy), but All-Defense selections certainly aren’t out of reach.”

Onkonwu, 23, averaged career-highs with 9.9 points and 7.2 rebounds last season.

He was the No. 6 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, so he entered the league with high expectations but his first two seasons were marred by injuries. Last season, however, Okongwu made a career-high 80 appearances with 18 starts averaging 10.3 points and 9.2 boards in those games.

“I mean they got a great plan for him,” Dejounte Murray said via Wepa.Fm in March. “The great part about him is he’s a great person, a great teammate, he’s always smiling, and he works really hard…The sky’s the limit.”

The 6-foot-8 Okongwu is a bit undersized but the Hawks are still rumored to have explored moving on from starting center Clint Capela.

He set out this past offseason to add a usable jump shot to his repertoire – the former USC standout took 56 shots from the midrange after taking six total over his first two seasons. As useful as that is, and critical to his ability to stay on the floor, Okongwu’s calling card is still on the defensive end.

Even with his limited age and experience, Okongwu’s calling card is on defense.

Hawks big man Clint Capela working on jumper

Capela, 29, averaged 12.0 points and 11.0 rebounds last season. He is heading into the first year of a two-year, $46 million contract and, while the Hawks may not be averse to moving on, he is still a valuable piece.

He led the league in rebounds per game three seasons ago but has looked as healthy as ever this offseason.

The nine-year veteran also appears to be working on some new tricks for the upcoming season.

Okongwu posted the fifth-best net efficiency differential on the team while Capela ranked 10, per Cleaning The Glass, though the Hawks’ starters had a slightly better net rating with Capela than they did with Okongwu.

He is also barreling toward restricted free agency next offseason which could mean a breakout 2023-24 campaign as players on contract years are wont to do.

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It could also mean a big decision for the Hawks’ front office. They don’t have to make a decision until next summer. But the sooner they do, the sooner they find out if Okongwu can be the player he’s teased being for the last few years.