One of the most common “butterfly effects” in sports is when a veteran player suffers an injury and opens the door for a younger prospect who never lets the chance go. One of the more famous recent examples came with the Golden State Warriors when a David Lee injury led to a starting role for Draymond Green and a four-championship dynasty. While not as close to being a contender, it is something that may be happening for the Atlanta Hawks as we speak.
Onyeka Okongwu, taken by the Hawks with the 6th pick in the 2020 draft, has loudly asserted himself as the starting center of their future and potentially of their present. After playing the role of backup center for the past two years behind Clint Capela, Okongwu’s number was called to start after Capela went down with a calf strain a few weeks ago.
Over Okongwu’s last fifteen games, all of which he’s been the starter outside of the December 23rd match against the Detroit Pistons, he’s boosted his stats up to a healthy 11.4 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game on 62.2% shooting from the field. That’s a big improvement on how he’s done all year, thanks to the increase in minutes played.
Across those same fifteen games, the Hawks have gone 8-7 with the 12th-best net rating in the league off of the strength of the 10th-best defensive rating. Both were improvements over Atlanta’s performance before Capela’s injury (23rd in net rating and 17th in defensive rating), and the offense has only been a tad worse as well.
Where has Okongwu improved most for the Hawks?
The biggest area of improvement for Okongwu has been in his uptick in blocked shots. Although he isn’t the tallest center, he uses his rare mix of instincts, timing, and ferocity to incinerate attempts at the rim. Okongwu’s rim presence is simply more imposing than Capela’s ever was:
Although it’s always going to be difficult to construct a top-half defense that features Trae Young, Okongwu’s ability to affect shots at the rim, cover ground with his quick feet, and switch onto smaller players at least gives the Hawks hope.
Another area that Okongwu has excelled in as a starter is his rim pressure on offense. He’s been a titanic lob threat and imposing screener since he entered the league, but playing increased minutes alongside Young and Murray, he’s been able to showcase his alley-oop and pick’n’roll finishing even more:
The thunderous finishes were already something that Okongwu had in his bag; what’s been more interesting are the other types of paint finishes that he’s demonstrated during this run. Using lithe footwork combined with aggressive moves to score off the short roll is not what Okongwu’s had the chance to show at the NBA level until this breakthrough and he’s taken full advantage to show them off:
Most of these plays are flashes of Okongwu’s development, but they paint a compelling picture: not only can Okongwu provide the same defense, rebounding, and finishing as Capela, but he still has room to grow on both ends and raise the team’s overall ceiling.
Where does Okongwu’s development leave Atlanta?
With the NBA trade deadline fast approaching, it’s worth thinking about whether now is the time for Atlanta to move in a drastically different direction with their roster. While most of the trade talk centers around John Collins, as it seems to every year, there may be some credence to moving Capela to another team instead.
From a purely financial perspective, moving on from Capela in favor of Okongwu would free up enough money for the Hawks to sign a premium role player in the offseason. They’ll have Okongwu locked up for the same time period as well, along with his Bird Rights to help their extension negotiations.
It’s not like Capela is washed, either. He may not be as productive from a rebounding or scoring perspective this season, but he’s a capable center in his prime who can still positively affect winning basketball for a team in the hunt for the playoffs.
Shams Charania at The Athletic has already reported that Boston and Toronto are looking at Jakob Poeltl in a trade. Capela could come cheaper and give them a similar bruising interior player. Atlanta could potentially grab a player like Payton Pritchard, or Gary Trent Jr. to juice their offense.
From the Western Conference, both the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks may want to cash in their trade assets and grab Capela to boost their interior presence. Snatching a plus shooter like Lu Dort or Reggie Bullock would help Atlanta’s spacing and shooting hierarchy.
Or the Hawks could keep Okongwu and Capela. Most teams in the NBA would appreciate the skilled depth that the Hawks have in their frontcourt.
One day, the Hawks will hand the reigns of their defense and interior scoring off to Onyeka Okongwu. With how he played during his starting stretch, it looks like he’ll do his best to make that timeline shorter and shorter.