The Atlanta Hawks have one of the NBA’s more intriguing backups in fourth-year big man Onyeka Okongwu.
Selected with the No. 6 overall pick in 2020, Okongwu has flashed an enticing blend of athleticism and touch, 63.8% of his looks overall and even extending his range out to three-point distances this past season.
But he was not always so appealing to the eyes on the basketball court.
“Honestly, when he came, he wasn’t even good at it,” said Okongwu’s former high school teammate Lonzo Ball on the “From The Point Podcast by Trae Young” on August 20. “He just started playing. You could tell. He was super clumsy. He was our third-string center, actually, the year we went undefeated. … O was just the last one up.”
It took a pair of unfortunate circumstances – a torn ACL and personal reasons – for Okongwu to get his first chance in high school at Chino Hills where the Ball brothers were celebrities.
Two of the three brothers – Lonzo, who plays for the Chicago Bulls, and LaMelo Ball of the Charlotte Hornets – were selected in the top-three picks of their respective draft classes. But Okongwu had to work his way into top-10 pick status.
“I never seen someone get that good that fast, bro,” Ball continued. “He went from not being able to do layups and stuff to like really just dunking s***, just catching it, hitting 15-footers. And then, yeah, he panned out being No. 6 overall so. O is like my little brother, man. I’m so proud of him.”
Ball was good friends with Okongwu’s older brother, Nnamdi, who also starred at Chino Hill but passed away after a freak skateboarding accident. His collegiate jersey number (21) is retired by the Hawks in honor of Dominque Wilkins.
Okongwu switched to No. 17 upon entering the NBA to honor his brother.
“O’s big brother … Nnamdi was actually a good friend of mine,” Ball said. “He passed away that year so it was a different whole different relationship when Big O came.”
Hawks’ Onyeka Okongwu and Hornets’ LaMelo Ball saved the day for Chino Hills
Ball also told a story about his brother and Okongwu saving the day for their team that was favored against fellow NBAer Stanley Johnson’s high school squad but found itself down by double-digit points.
“I would say winning the State title because I had got there my sophomore year, and we basically lost to Stanley Johnson by himself,” Ball said. “Senior year, we finally got there. We’re supposed to kill this team, obviously. And we’re down by 10 or 12 in the first half. … And then Melo and O, bro, out of nowhere, just started going crazy.”
“They turned it around for us,” Ball said. “They got us going, and then we end up winning by 30 [points].”
Okongwu’s situation with the Hawks is similar to his time at Chino Hills in some ways. He has shown rapid improvement both on the court and in his ability to stay on the court after injuries marred his first two seasons making 80 appearances last season.
There is also an established player in front of him; this time it’s starting center Clint Capela.
Rumors surfaced that Capela was on the trading block, in part, to clear a path to more playing time for Okongwu, though nothing has come to fruition. The Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, and even his former team the Houston Rockets have been linked to him in some form or fashion this offseason.
This would normally be a good problem to have. But Okongwu is heading into the final year of his rookie contract and seems headed for restricted free agency.
A team could come in with a front-loaded offer to make the Hawks sweat next offseason if they cannot come to an agreement with Okongwu on an extension before the October 23 deadline.