One responsibility I think every “Draft Twitter” person has is to try and raise the profile of unheralded college stars. I won’t pretend like we have all that much pull as a collective entity, nor do we get every one right, but I think it’s important to raise the profile of guys who can have an impact at the next level. For a recent example, Jaxson Hayes was an internet darling en route to becoming a lottery pick.
So when a guy starts off his college career in the same statistical categories as Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis, it’s our responsibility to give him props. Something like that is happening now with USC freshman Onyeka Okongwu. There’s been a run on Okongwu attention lately and I’m just adding to the fire here, trying to explain why he’s become such a hot ticket for draftniks.
Okongwu, who played on the same Chino Hills team as the Ball brothers in high school, has leapt out to a commanding lead in GBPM (Game Box-Plus Minus, courtesy of barttorvik.com) among freshman this season.
Despite not shooting or passing much at all (0-for-3 from three, only six assists in nine games), Okongwu has utterly dominated everyone he’s played against this year to one extent or another. Through the combination of his mobility, strength, and length, he’s just looked completely unstoppable. He has great touch with either hand in the paint and is a dunking machine, throwing down 20 times through nine games. He’s containing pick-and-rolls like an NBA vet and his huge, powerful legs allow him to wall off any conceivable post-up presence he’s faced. Here’s what he looked like against Harvard in probably his best all-around game of the season.
6-9 245 C USC
Harvard @ USC (12.1.19)
27 PTS, 14 REBS, 1 BLK
— Tyler Glazier (@tyler_glazier) December 4, 2019
Conference play hasn’t started yet, but USC’s schedule hasn’t been all that bad, with games against plausible tournament teams like South Dakota State, Nevada, Pepperdine, Temple, Marquette, and Harvard. He’s had three 20-10 games already, including a 33-point, five-rebound outing against the Waves.
Perhaps most promising of all, Okongwu is shooting just over 76 percent on 51 free throws this season, showing that he’s getting to and converting at the line at an impressive rate for a freshman big. The list of freshmen with 50 free throw attempts this season is Cole Anthony, Vernon Carey Jr., Precious Achiuwa, Trayce Jackson-Davis, and Okongwu, and the USC standout is shooting the best percentage. Only he and Dayton’s Obi Toppin, a lottery pick in his own right, are shooting 75 percent at the rim, 75 percent at the line, and have a block percentage of five percent or higher.
Toppin will be 22 years old when the draft comes around. Okongwu will be 19.
That’s perhaps the biggest factor here: this entire package of size, strength, mobility, touch, and high-level instincts as a rim protector are all amplified by the fact that, as of this writing, Okongwu has a week left as an 18-year-old. If you’ll allow one more threshold chart to perhaps further clarify how dominant he’s been, behold:
Pac 12 Freshmen with 10.0 GBPM and at least 50% of their team's minutes played, with their age at the start of the season
Kevin Love, 19
Onyeka Okongwu, 18
James Harden, 19
Lonzo Ball, 19
— TS% Eliot (@Cosmis) December 3, 2019
I don’t care if this is after five games, 10 games, or 30 games, if your name is alongside players as good as Love, Harden, and Ball, you can play.
I’ve been arguing that traditional bigs are not very valuable in the draft for a couple years now, but Okongwu looks to me like he is as good and NBA-ready as this kind of player can possibly be at this level. He’s ready to contribute right now, and his touch and lower body strength give him a real chance at growth that guys like Carey or Charles Bassey just don’t have.
Coming into the season, Okongwu profiled as a high-energy rim runner who might find himself being taken in the late first round. Now, barely a month later, he looks like some kind of unholy combination of Bam Adebayo and young Derrick Favors, and with the relative struggles of some of the more heralded guards this year, he’s a true dark horse contender to be a top-5 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.