The league is onto Atlanta Hawks big man Onyeka Okongwu and his rapid improvement.
His former teammate Lonzo Ball told the story of Okongwu first arriving at their high school, Chino Hills, while also noting how fast the Hawks pivot improved once he got a chance to play.
That ability to improve rapidly has followed him to the NBA where, in his first healthy season, Okongwu averaged career highs with 9.9 points and 7.2 rebounds in 80 appearances with 18 starts.
Now, Okongwu finds himself on the shortlist of candidates for Most Improved Player from ESPN’s “Summer Forecast” panel which previously tackled some of the league’s lingering questions as well as a list that saw the Hawks tie for eighth among teams expected to be at the center of the most drama next season.
Okongu ties three other players for 10th on the list.
It’s a solid group including a trio of teammates in Dillon Brooks, Jalen Green, and Alperen Sengun of the Houston Rockets.
The three Rockets players could effectively cancel each other out, leaving Okongwu in an even better position to come away with the award than his ranking would suggest. But there is still one significant roadblock preventing him from ranking higher: Clint Capela.
Perhaps part of the math factoring into their place on the drama list, Capela was rumored to be on the trading block with multiple teams also rumored to be interested in trading for him. The 2020-21 rebounding champ, Capela has been a double-double machine since arriving from the Houston Rockets via trade, averaging 12.0 points and 11.0 assists last season.
He will begin a two-year, $46 million contract next season.
The Hawks boasted a plus-3.8 net rating with Onyeka Okongwu on the floor last season alongside the remaining three starters from last season, ranking in the 76th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.
However, they were even better with those same three players and Capela on the floor together, posting a plus-4.1 rating, ranking in the 78th percentile.
Is that difference marginal enough to trust that, with increased opportunity and development, Okongwu will surpass Capela’s impact on the floor? The Hawks can experiment with that a bit in the preseason but they have had a lot of success with Capela – who shared a video of himself working on his jump shot – on the floor.
Onyeka Okongwu only Atlanta Hawks player on ESPN awards predictions list
The most notable thing about ESPN’s list might be the players not listed, namely Hawks stars Trae Young and Dejounte Murray. Neither player was even listed under the “others receiving votes” categories for MVP or Defensive Player of the Year.
Veteran swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic? Absent from the Sixth Man of the Year ladder at this point despite averaging 14.0 points and shooting 40.6% from deep last season.
Even De’Andre Hunter could make a case for being on one of the DPOY or MIP lists.
If the Hawks had named their starting power forward already by acquiring Pascal Siakam or officially promoting either Saddiq Bey, Jalen Johnson, or even AJ Griffin, one of those players may have found their way onto this list. One of the latter trio figures to step into a sizeable role if no deal comes to fruition with the Toronto Raptors or any other team for a starting power forward.
Instead, it is Okongwu holding down the fort and possibly being overlooked, especially if the Hawks do trade Capela.