Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Putting the microscope over the University of Southern California prospect.
For better or worse, it seems like basketball is edging closer to a return. That means the Minnesota Timberwolves might just get back to the hardwood at some point, and there is a very high probability we will get to smell the sweet aroma of playoff hoops.
While all of that is appealing, it’s not really important for the Wolves. They have no chance to make the postseason, and still need to add and improve in multiple areas if they’re to ever get an invite to the playoff party again. That’s where the draft comes in, which should be the number one priority in building this squad.
As of now, basketball and the world remain at a standstill, meaning Minnesota still holds the third-worst record in the league and could fall anywhere between the first and seventh pick. You can see those odds below. They also cradle Brooklyn’s first pick, which is currently at #16.
With that in mind, we continue to run the Canis Hoopus microscope over prospects who could end up in the Twin Cities. This time around, it’s the University of Southern California freshman Onyeka Okongwu.
Team: University of Southern California
Draft Age: 19
Position: Center/Power forward
Weight: 245 pounds
Per Game: 30.6 minutes, 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 2.7 blocks, 2.0 turnovers, 61.6 FG, 72% FT
Per 36 Minutes: 19.0 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 3.2 blocks, 2.3 turnovers
Advanced: 64.5 TS%, 61.8 EFG%, 23.6% Usage Rate, .252 WS/40, 13.6 BPM, +7.3 PIPM
After an impressive freshman season, Onyeka Okongwu has found himself rocketing up every big board. He came into his lone collegiate season ranked 19th in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI) Rankings and has ended as a consensus top-10 pick, with some mock drafts having him as high as first. That means he is in play with Minnesota’s first pick, but it could all depend on where the team lands in the lottery.
A strong, athletic big with a knack for a ferocious finish, Okongwu thrives as a rim-running big man. Immediately, it figures to be one of his biggest assets in the big leagues. Of course, that skill shines brightest in basketball’s most frequented wrinkle: the pick-and-roll.
His value begins with his ability to set proper screens at the right angle and the right time. Exceptional lower body and core strength, along with nimble feet allow him to get to his spot, sink his feet into position and lay legal contact on the point-of-attack defender. With a strong frame, it doesn’t take much to knock the opposition off-balance and create an advantage for his teammate.
After he has aided his ball-handler with a punishing pick, Okongwu really springs into action. As you can see above, he pivots out of the screen with breathtaking quickness, using his elite short-burst acceleration to launch toward the rim. With his direct opponent having to step up and cover the pick-and-roll initiator, Okongwu does his thing and finds an open pocket of space. To finish, he rises up to catch and slam the lob effortlessly.
He isn’t always the most graceful finisher, but Okongwu does have a soft enough touch to inspire confidence in his ability to finish over and around NBA-level rim protectors. When he does get the chance and a direct lane to the rim, his speed, bounce and length will be tough for any defender to handle. In that sense, he plays well above his 6’9” height.
Players who are exclusively pick-and-roll targets are losing value as NBA offenses spread further away from the rim, but they are far from a dying breed. Being able to dive toward the rim and finish in highly efficient situations will always be needed, and the ability to spread the floor comes in more ways than standing behind the 3-point arc and jacking triples.
Despite his own non-existent long-range shot, Okongwu is the biggest reason this shot attempt below is available and able to be made, which isn’t a rarity. Again, the solid screen and quick spin-out sees Okongwu bounding toward the rim in open space. This time, the defender from the corner is forced to zone off his man and stonewall Okongwu. Consequently, his roll gravity leaves the spot-up corner shooter wide-open and he makes the defense pay.
The half court pick-and roll ability encapsulates a good chunk of what Okongwu does as an offensive chess piece, but he does use his rim-running in other ways. Namely, his ability to run in transition after playing the passing lanes or trailing teammates on the fast break.
Despite the big frame, the former Trojan moves with haste and grace in the open floor. He isn’t going to wow with dribble moves or handles, but his long strides and finishing ability allow him to win most transition battles he enters. Nationwide, the big man ranked in the 72nd percentile in transition plays, registering 1.14 points per possession (PPP), per Synergy Sports.
It might not be the most important skill for a big man to possess these days, but Okongwu’s ability to put pressure on the rim and draw defenders with his gravity as a roll man is still a very desirable trait. Many teams will instantly benefit from a rim-runner like him.
- Versatile Defense
Similar to his ability to wreak havoc as a pick-and-roll and transition scorer, Okongwu has the ability to blow-up opposing offensive schemes with his versatile and advanced defensive instincts. At just 19-years-old, it doesn’t take a ton of mental gymnastics to envision him as a plug-and-play rim protector who brings a multifaceted approach to team defense.
Again, the main area Okongwu pops as a defender is his ability to play under control in pick-and-roll coverage. Most importantly, he has a flexible enough skill set where he can oscillate between drop and hedge schemes — making him the ideal defender in the current NBA.
When he pushes up, or hedges, and takes the responsibility of shadowing the ball-handler, Okongwu consistently displays quick feet and flexible hips, along with an ability to defend without fouling. Take this play for an example, you can see how he recognizes that fellow first-round prospect Nico Mannion is going to fly around the screen and try and get his shoulder past him. If Okongwu is a step late, Mannion is at the rim and getting an easy deuce.
However, Okongwu’s active side-steps and long wingspan create an impenetrable wall, forcing Mannion to fling up a wild shot that promptly gets sent to the stands.
When the offensive initiator makes the smart move and finds the Okongwu’s man (the roller), the former Chino Hills high school star is adept at recovering quickly and getting back to his man with time left to impact the play. Look how, after trapping the ball-handler, he gets back to his man and smothers the shot with expert verticality.
When bigs can’t pull this trait off, it dramatically limits their ability to play different schemes. Sometimes Okongwu can hang around on the hedge for too long, which may hurt him as he gets used to NBA big men who are another step up in athleticism and skill. Opponents slipping quickly out of screens and catching Okongwu lingering too long causes the rest of the defense to scramble and often results in an open look.
This will need to be sharpened quickly when he enters the NBA. He clearly has the capacity to hedge and recover, so he should become accustomed to the NBA technique quicker than many incoming big men.
As a drop scheme defender, Okongwu reads ball-handler’s movements expertly and comfortably disrupts shots. He can occasionally follow the ball too deep into the paint with tunnel vision fixed on blocking the shot, which can result in stretch bigs punishing him on the perimeter, but when he gets it right, it looks like this.
Okongwu doesn’t lack in other defensive areas, either. He is comfortable enough on isolation switches and uses his through-the-roof leaping, hand-eye coordination and timing to swallow up shots as a help-side defender. He also rarely struggles to make his mark as a post defender. At season’s abrupt end, Okongwu’s 8.0 defensive box plus/minus ranked 10th in the country. Not too shabby.
Rim protection and defensive versatility are invaluable skills to possess, and Okongwu projects to have them both in spades. And it might be the chief reason he spent the entire season climbing up draft boards.
He is boosted by the aforementioned leaping ability and rangy arms, but Okongwu’s rebounding proficiency is mainly shouldered by a hellacious tenacity to gobble up boards and intuition on where the ball is going to careen off the rim. He is an advanced rebounding prospect on both ends of the floor, but it’s the work on the offensive glass that really stands out to the naked eye.
Here is a quick compilation of the versatility and energy he brings to the offensive glass.
As you can see, Okongwu is a never-give-in player. He fights ferociously for every single loose ball and has no problem scrapping among multiple players to keep the possession alive for his team. He is a master of rebounding outside his zone and tapping the ball to himself to ward off would-be opposing rebounders.
When he does create a second offensive opportunity for his team, Okongwu has a super soft touch and displays patience in finding his shot. When he doesn’t have a bucket readily available, he isn’t selfish and opts for the right pass to an open shooter or a playmaker who can restart the offense.
It’s not the most attractive skill, but rebounding at a high rate is certainly an important one. Even at 6’9”, Okongwu’s technique and ferocity should allow him to mix it up with NBA bigs and grab his fair share of rebounds from day one.
- Post-Up and Face-Up Game
It’s not his go-to area of expertise, and there is certainly some refinement to be implemented, but Okongwu has a promising enough post-up and face-up ability to feel comfortable buying stock in it.
Although his bag of moves is limited to simple drop-steps, spins and fakes, the 19-year-old’s soft touch and ability to finish with both hands are still fairly advanced for his age. He also uses his core strength and wide frame to get in front of his defender, seal them and cement great position.
You can see here how he gets early position and maintains that as he shuffles around the block to get in-line with the passer. When Okongwu successfully receives the pass, which is made extremely easy with that strong positioning, his footwork to spin into the face-up, put the ball on the floor, dip his right shoulder into the defender’s chest and spin toward the rim is impeccable.
When the defense allows him to probe into the middle of the paint, he becomes a tough cover. He leaps high into his jump-hook and is unfazed by late double-teams. Unless the extra man comes early and forces the pass, Okongwu has no problem barreling his way through and knocking down the hook with either hand.
Here, it’s a silky left-hand finish.
Unfortunately, that kind of polished post move isn’t always the way with Okongwu. While he has flashed patience and the ability to work his way to his spot, it isn’t rare for him to rush and throw up a shot that probably should have been a pass back to the perimeter.
Additionally, having a strong post-up game isn’t the skill it once was. It’s a nice bonus to be able to grab a bucket or two on the block, but even if Okongwu was a master in the post (which he isn’t), he still wouldn’t be getting his number called there too often.
Nothing inspires confidence in one’s passing ability like a single assist per game coupled with 2 turnovers, right? Fortunately, that’s not the entire story for Okongwu, who displayed fleeting moments of really encouraging passing chops in his freshman season.
Deployed primarily as a rim-runner on offense, it was Okongwu’s role to finish plays, not make them. He was fairly pedestrian as a short roll passer to corner 3-point shooters, which limits his potential as a true playmaking big man, but he still shows potential in a few other areas.
Okongwu is very adept at catching the pass after the pick-and-roll and locating backdoor cutters or teammates lurking in the ‘dunker’s spot’ along the baseline. This is a fairly niche skill and might not be an option too much in the big leagues, but it shows that he does have a little bit of passing vision and can execute the dime when he has the chance.
Okongwu seems to recognize when to fire the ball out of double-teams and often chooses the right perimeter option. Although, he is prone to forcing the issue and trying to score instead. Perhaps he will learn to rein that in as he becomes surrounded by better players and shooters.
On the perimeter, Okongwu is a quick ball-mover. He is limited as a shooter and a driver, so moving the ball to someone who can do more or taking one dribble and executing hand-off action is his way to go. Nothing special, but it’s worth noting he doesn’t play out of his limitations as a passer.
It’s extremely unlikely Okongwu ever becomes a high-quality passer at his position, but he has shown enough to believe that he can execute on basic connections when the option presents itself and prevent his passing ability from hindering his game.
- Perimeter Shooting and Slashing
There aren’t a lot of holes in Onyeka Okongwu’s game, but the ones that jump off the screen are gaping and, in the modern NBA, extremely concerning. Of course, it begins with his inability to impact the game at all with his shooting. Whether it be from behind the arc or even from the mid-range, the limitations puts a pretty big cap on his offensive output and potential.
Okongwu attempted just four shots from behind the arc during his lone collegiate season. The one he did knock down was a 75-foot heave that miraculously connected. Outside of that, he has shown very little inclination to launch triples. It’s possible that this was a rule enforced by USC head coach Andy Enfield, but it seems unlikely given the Trojans started two non-shooting bigs and could have used the extra spacing had one of them proved they could consistently provide it.
On the rare occasion that Okongwu did jack-up a 3-pointer, there are mixed signals with his mechanics.
The good? His wrist action and rotation on the ball are solid, which trickles down to his free throw mechanics, where he shot a respectable 72 percent from the season. Many intelligent draft experts believe that free throw percentage is a better indicator for eventual 3-point success than 3-point percentage itself. However, that usually applies to players who shoot triples and don’t connect at a high rate, rather than complete non-shooters like Okongwu.
Unfortunately, there is more bad to parse through than good. Okongwu’s feet and body are twisted and not lined up with his shot, which is never a good sign. He also takes a long time to load up the jumper, which almost certainly will forbid him from getting them up at NBA level.
It’s not like he can substitute some of his inability to shoot with a skill set that allows him to attack off the catch and get downhill to the rim, either. His ball-handling isn’t close to being up to par for an NBA slasher and he has shown absolutely no evidence that he would be able to create space for himself off the dribble.
Instead, Okongwu opts for quick ball-movement and hand-off action, scarcely taking more than one or two dribbles outside of the post. It’s encouraging that he doesn’t force the issue, but it’s still a huge negative in his overall game. He will always have value as a rim-runner and defender, and his stock could rise if his post game continues to blossom, but Okongwu will struggle to ever become a top-tier big man without a reliable handle or jumper.
Fit With Minnesota
With the extra spacing provided by Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley, it’s much easier to envision Onyeka Okongwu in Ryan Saunders’ offense than it previously had been. Throw in his ability to defend multiple positions in multiple ways and it becomes abundantly clear that he would be a godsend for a team like Minnesota that struggles mightily to stop opposing teams from piling on the points.
This season was filled with cries from fans and pundits alike to pair Towns with another big who can fill the holes in the two-time All-Star’s game, and Okongwu really does have the potential to do that — even without a serviceable jumper.
At the end of the day, though, Gersson Rosas has openly stated more than once that his vision for this team revolves around a point guard, three wings and a big. Okongwu is nowhere near a wing, Towns isn’t going anywhere and you’re not spending a top-5 pick on a backup. So it’s very unlikely that Okongwu is near the top of Rosas’ big board. Whether that’s limiting the team or it’s the right move is yet to be seen, but you can color me extremely surprised if Okongwu ends up in the Twin Cities.