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Onyeka Okongwu is the two-way center the Hornets so desperately need

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It’s never too early to be looking at draft prospects. This is the Hornets, after all.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 15 Long Beach State at USC Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Happy New Year, everyone. The calendar has turned to 2020, which means that my brain has given itself the O.K. to start talking/writing about 2020 NBA Draft prospects. The Hornets are rebuilding. You can never get started too early on this stuff.

My esteemed colleague Andrew Waters already has you covered with very informative James Wiseman and Vernon Carey Jr. scouting reports, and I recommend you brush up on those two before reading my following report on Onyeka Okongwu, a supremely-athletic freshman center from USC that can score and defend in the paint.

Profile

Age: 19 years old

Height: 6 feet 9 inches

Weight: 245 pounds

Wingspan: 7 feet 1 inch

Okongwu is a mobile, versatile big with an NBA-ready frame that can finish inside and protect the rim.

NOTE: Every stat I use for college prospects is per-40 minutes. It’s a better indicator of a player’s quality of play compared to their playing time than traditional per-game numbers. All stats per cbb-reference.com and stats.nba.com

Most NBA draft websites and analysts have either Wiseman or Okongwu as their top center as of right now. Wiseman is easily the more mainstream candidate, coming out of high school as the #1 overall recruit yet playing just three games at Memphis before kicking the NCAA to the curb and preparing for the draft on his own after being suspended and fined for... moving to Memphis with his family??? The NCAA is dumb but that’s for another article (or book). Okongwu is definitely the “Draft Twitter” candidate for the #1 center in 2020, putting up absurd per-40 advanced stats (5th in the nation with a 13.7 box plus/minus) while fitting the physical profile of the modern, versatile NBA center.

We all know the Hornets badly need big man help, especially when it comes to rebounding (28th in REB%) and defending (23rd in opponent FG% within 5 feet of the rim). Fortunately, those are two of Okongwu’s best skills. So far in his lone season at USC, he’s averaging 12.7 rebounds, 4.5 blocks (!!!), and 1.9 steals per-40. His BLK% (percentage of opponents’ shots blocked by a player while he’s on the court) is a laughable 12.1%. Here’s a fun stat for ya:

He may be a bit short, but he makes up for it in wingspan and athleticism. Though he doesn’t jump out of the gym, Okongwu is mobile and especially laterally quick, which allows him to work through switches on the perimeter and efficiently rotate in help defense. He shows excellent timing on his blocks and steals, and can get into the passing lanes well for a center. When watching film on him, I thought he showed an instinctual ability to see the play develop before it happens, and then get in the lane to intercept/alter the pass. His long arms and mobility help a lot with that. One more thing with Okongwu is that he shows an ability to defend without fouling, something a lot of promising young bigs struggle with (see: Jaren Jackson Jr.). He has just 26 fouls in 12 games, and only averages 3.1 fouls per-40. He can defend on the perimeter in a pinch, while locking down the paint without giving the opponent a lot of free points at the line.

Aside from Okongwu’s potential as a defensive anchor in the modernizing NBA, he projects as a solid interior scorer and rim-runner as well. He’s quite a versatile player. Currently, he is putting up 25 points per-40 on 62.4% from the field and 70.8% from the free-throw line. One glaring negative to Okongwu’s game at this juncture is his utter lack of a three-point shot. Not only does he not shoot them well, he doesn’t even take them at all. He’s 0-for-3 in his college career, and never really shot them in high school, either. Though he does have a confident stroke from mid-range — where he can hit baseline and elbow jumpers off the catch, which would be awesome to pair with Devonte’ and Terry when they attack the rim — he has yet to even consider expanding his range beyond the arc. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him add a three-point shot to his game, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him stay inside and keep scoring efficiently from the painted area. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess. Hitting six or seven out of every 10 shots would make me want to stay in that area if I were playing, too.

For a center, his ability to attack off the dribble is impressive. His lateral quickness and long strides give him a head start on most of the bigger, slower defenders he’ll be matched up with both in college and the NBA. He rips the ball through with confidence, puts the ball on the floor and goes hard to the rim. Here’s an example;

He went strong to the rim on that play, and he does it often enough, but Okongwu’s free-throw percentage and free-throw generating is important to note. His FTr (free-throw rate is the number of FT attempts per FG attempt) is .489, meaning he takes about one free-throw for every two field goals he attempts (not a math guy, I hope that’s right. Correct me in the comments if it isn’t). For how solid of a free-throw shooter he is, he could be getting to the line more. He doesn’t often seek contact underneath the basket, preferring to use his ambidexterity and coordination to finish around or over defenders. This is fine sometimes, because he’s so good at it, but he is strong enough to hold his own and finish through the contact. Okongwu would benefit from getting some easy buckets from the line/getting his man into foul trouble.

Apart from three-point shooting, Okongwu’s passing and decision-making are the only things that strike me as true “negatives” in his game. He currently averages 1.4 assists and 2.4 turnovers per-40, which is bad but not as bad as it seems to the naked eye. A guy named Shaquille O’Neal finished his pedestrian NBA career with more turnovers than assists. Ever heard of him? Albeit Shaq played in a different era, it’s not uncommon for good big men to turn the ball over more often than they get credited with an assist. It would be nice to see Okongwu develop as a playmaker considering the attention he draws on the low block. Kick-outs and skip passes to shooters in the corner like this one would unlock a new facet to his game:

Personally, I don't think there’s a better fit for the Hornets among the 2020 big man prospects than Okongwu. He’s athletic and agile, so that makes up for him being an inch or two undersized for the center position. He’s an elite rebounder and rim-protector. He finishes inside with ease with both hands, has the ability to take defenders off-the-dribble from the baseline or elbow, and shows touch that few players his age and size have. Okongwu is extremely skilled and efficient offensively, with two glaring-yet-fixable weaknesses, while being one of the best rim defenders in the nation. You certainly cannot say that about James Wiseman. Folks, if you’re looking to solve the rebounding and paint protection issues the Hornets so-clearly have, look no further than Onyeka Okongwu.

Here are some Twitter clips and YouTube highlight videos of Okongwu in case you guys want to check him out for yourself: