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2020 Hornets prospect scouting report: Onyeka Okongwu

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The USC big man was arguably the best freshman in the nation last season, and is poised to become a top-10 draft pick.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As most readers know by now, I, along with multiple other ATHers, am a big fan of Onyeka Okongwu, the freshman big out of Southern California. After winning three state championships in four years at Chino Hills high school, where he played alongside Lonzo and LaMelo Ball, Okongwu continued producing at an extremely high level in his lone season as a Trojan.

I wrote a lengthy scouting profile on Okongwu back in January, and which can be found at this link. Since this is a bit of a re-hash with some updated stats and opinions, this scouting report will be short, but I wanted to get an updated report up on my favorite lottery prospect. Read the one from January for a longer, more-detailed report on Okongwu’s abilities.

Measurements

Height: 6’ 9”

Wingspan: 7’ 1”

Weight: 245 pounds

Strengths: defense, rim protection, athleticism, interior scoring

Okongwu was probably the best defensive freshman big man in the country last season. Not only does he provide rim protection in the form of blocked shots, he provides rim deterrence, in that opposing players were just not as willing to attack the cup if Okongwu was waiting beneath it. He’s a switchable defender that can hang with positions 3-5 easily, and won’t look lost when out on the perimeter against guards. He plays sufficient drop coverage in pick-and-rolls, and he can stay on top of screens and challenge the point of attack, too.

An All-Pac-12 First-Team selection, Okongwu posted staggering per-40 numbers of 21.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 3.5 blocks on 64.5 percent true shooting and 72.0 percent from the charity stripe. He finished the season with a 9.8 block percentage, second in the Pac-12 to Oregon State’s Kylor Kelly. In multiple field goal percentage metrics, such as eFG and true shooting, Okongwu led/was near the top of the conference. The lack of floor-spacing is obviously an issue, but he doesn’t need to be a 3-point shooter to be an effective and efficient scorer.

The biggest knock against Okongwu is that he’s “undersized” (though 6’ 9” is a common height for modern NBA centers). His head may not be as high in the air as other centers, but he has a 7’ 1” wingspan and weighs 245 pounds, more than enough to beat and bang in the paint. Combine that with high-level mobility and lateral quickness and NBA-level verticality, and there’s no longer a size issue. Okongwu’s length, athleticism and mobility will make up for being a half-inch shorter than the average center.

Question marks: 3-point shooting, playmaking

The one 3-point make of Okongwu’s college career was a half court heave that came just before the halftime buzzer against Arizona, and he missed his other three attempts. It’s safe to say that floor-spacing is non-existent in Okongwu’s game, but he did shoot 15-of-35 on mid-range jumpers in the half court and 72.0 percent from the line. He probably won’t be a stretch-five, but there’s reason to believe he could shoot a decent percentage from 3-point land on a low volume in the future.

In terms of passing and playmaking, Okongwu actually showed some growth throughout the season. He did finish the year with more turnovers (56) than assists (30), but as the season went on, he showed an improved ability to read the weak side of the floor with his back to the basket and deliver a crisp pass to a shooter or cutter. As a short-roll playmaker in pick-and-rolls, he’s gotten better, but that’s an area where substantial growth would go a long way. He’s not a shooter yet, so forcing defenders to play the pass and the roll when he’s the roll man, instead of just the roll, will give him more options with the ball in his hands.

Overview

Is Okongwu the prospect that should be taken if the Hornets land a top-3 pick? Probably not. Is Okongwu the prospect that fills the biggest need and helps the Hornets the most in the short-term? Absolutely. A rim-running, rim-protecting, switchable, athletic center is exactly what this team needs. The Hornets have a porous interior defense and they were the worst defensive rebounding team in the league last season, and he’s elite in both of those areas. Okongwu may not be an “exciting” pick, but in terms of fit and team need, he’s the best option. He’d be able to start or play big minutes right away. Okongwu is a low-risk, low-floor prospect that has an All-Defense ceiling. That’s worth a lottery pick in a weak draft, to me.