“I love to guard.”
That statement isn’t one most young players lead with, especially not ones just shy of their 20th birthday who are expected to be taken in the lottery of the NBA Draft. It’s what separates Onyeka Okongwu from much of this year’s class, and it’s what makes him one of the most intriguing prospects for teams hoping to establish an identity during a rebuild.
Okongwu knows who he is, and knows precisely how he can contribute Day 1. It’s where he can go from here that is even more exciting.
“I feel like me coming into the league, right away I can provide just off of my defense,” Okongwu tells Dime on a mid-October zoom in preparation for his MyCover Shoot. “I really provide a lot to a team, plus I’m an athlete so I can run up and down the court well. I move well, I’m able to switch out to guards, I’m able to do all of the little things that coaches love. I’m a defender. I love to guard. I love to guard whoever the coaches want me to guard. I’m a rim protector and have a great natural defensive instincts and my awareness is unbelievable. I really believe in my defensive awareness and abilities coming right into the league. I feel I can be a defensive anchor on a team.”
Okongwu is an exceptional athlete, with ample skill and production on the offensive end, capable of skying above the rim and running with guards in transition, but it’s on defense where he thrives. His abilities as a defender at the rim and out in space make him exceptionally valuable in the modern NBA, where spread pick-and-roll is the name of the game and opposing offenses try their best to pick at weak spots and target mismatches. Okongwu’s ability as a shot-blocker will help cover up for mistakes, while also being able to switch out on perimeter players and not provide an easy weak point to prod at.
The 19-year-old has a presence beyond his years, and it shows in his commitment to defense. He’s not just good at it, but he enjoys playing on that end and working on his craft. That’s not often the case and when you bring together a true love of playing defense with the physical and mental tools he possesses.
The result – and Okongwu’s potential ceiling in the league – is pretty spectacular.
Okongwu prides himself on being a versatile defender, capable of blocking shots at the rim as well as stepping out to defend on the perimeter in switches. He is a tremendous athlete but couples that with strong instincts and basketball IQ that help him maximize those physical abilities in a way that so many similar athletes struggle to. He puts in the time in the film room to learn tendencies and makes sure his body is able to do what his mind tells it. He says he spends a lot of time on his hips and flexibility to be able to keep up with guards and wings when they drive from the perimeter, as yoga has become a big part of his workout schedule.
Still, at 6’9, 245 pounds, there are some who wonder if he’ll be able to remain as effective on the defensive end in the NBA as he goes up against bigger, stronger competition than he faced in college. For Okongwu, those concerns are the same as he heard as a recruit going from Chino Hills to USC, and if he allowed any of that doubt to creep into his mindset prior to playing for the Trojans, his success in college as a defender (2.7 blocks per game) only served to boost his confidence and belief that he’ll be able to carry his defensive skillset into the NBA.
“I’ve always been a good shot blocker and I always heard people say, like, ‘Oh, you’re not going to always block everything in college.’ I heard it all, but I was like, ‘Yes I can,'” Okongwu said defiantly. “I just always feel like blocking shots isn’t about height or anything, it’s about your instincts and when to block and when not to block. I just know when it’s the right time to go for the block.”
Part of his continued development is gaining that understanding of when to and when not to leave his feet. It’s among the critiques some have of his defensive game — that he will, at times, get himself out of position to go after blocks — but it’s something that he’s constantly working on and believes he’ll continue adapting to at the NBA level. There are times to go for blocks and there are times to stay grounded with your arms straight up to avoid fouling (something he was very good at in college, averaging just 2.7 fouls per game), and that’s an ever-present learning experience for a young player with the bounce and blocking ability Okongwu has. Still, his instincts for protecting the rim are tremendous, and as he enters the league, that figures to be his calling card.
Those instincts were honed as a middle schooler, playing for the RC Bulls Elite before he’d go off to star alongside the Ball brothers at Chino Hills High School and play for legendary AAU squad the Compton Magic. His mindset on defense is simple: no matter what’s happening for him offensively, it can’t affect the impact he’s bringing the team on defense.
It’s something he credits to his old coach Ron Austin, as years later his advice still rings through Okongwu’s head.
“I was probably like 13 or 14 years old and I was playing on a travel ball team and my coach, his name was Ron Austin, he told me, ‘You can have a bad day on offense, but never a bad day on defense.’ He told me that and it always stuck with me,” Okongwu recalled. “I always played defense hard, and it just came naturally to me. It became a natural ability to have a sense of what I’m doing on defense.”
Austin recalls Okongwu always taking well to defensive drills and coaching, developing those skills and instincts from an early age. While Onyeka shrugs off the idea that being a big for his whole career — Austin says he was about 6-foot in the fifth grade — was an advantage, Austin notes that it has helped him have a more refined ability down low on both ends, while also growing up in the modern era when bigs are asked to, as he put it, be like guards.
“Yeah, when he was young he learned a lot from my son [Rashad]. He always had that low game, box skills and he always continued to craft that, but he still wanted to spend the extra time to step out and take the three-point shot,” Austin said. “Once I told him he needed to develop that, he really started stepping out and shooting. He really took the time to learn how to learn that craft.”
Having a varied skillset is vital in the modern game, but Onyeka’s refinement as a big man is what figures to allow him to impact the game immediately at the next level. There’s plenty of potential to tap into with his jump shot, which many point to as the swing skill that would allow him to really become a star at the NBA level.
Teams will want to see him become a better playmaker, but he has a base ability that gives him a high floor as a rotation contributor right away. His efficiency in college in nearly every category reinforces that, as he was in the 94th percentile as a post scorer, 75th percentile as a roll-man, 72nd percentile in transition, and 82nd percentile off of offensive rebounds, per Synergy (via The Stepien). That comes from years of work to maximize his skillset as an athlete, as well as developing a mindset that he can and should be able to physically dominate any opposition.
It’s that last part that Austin has been most impressed with as he’s watched his former player advance through his career.
“He’s really developed his inside presence as far as blocking shots and basically dominating,” Austin said. “Cause I went to a couple of his games last year at SC and I was overwhelmed at how he could just go over the rim and just dunk on people. And how he was able to block a lot of shots. He ran the floor real well, he got out and ran to fill the lanes real well. He’s going to be something else.”
Okongwu has been a high school state champion, a 5-star recruit, and now an expected lottery pick in the NBA Draft. But while the spotlight has grown he is a bit reticent to embrace it.
He doesn’t get caught up much in the hype and his soon to be found stardom, and points to “humble beginnings” as the reason for shying away from attention off the court. His family is a big reason for his humility, a trait his mother, Kate, says is one of the things she appreciates most about her son. She regularly reminds Onyeka never to forget where he’s come from, as all of those experiences he’s had have led him to this point and will carry him beyond basketball.
“I always tell him basketball is going to go away some time – hopefully 10 years if you’re lucky to play for the next 10 years – but at the end of the day, remember to be a better person and a better version of yourself,” Kate said. “Don’t forget who you are, because if you remember who you are, usually thinks won’t go sideways.”
His maturity and work ethic as a player and person is something he’s always had. Kate recalls her son doing much of his homework in the school office while in junior high because, on top of schoolwork, he was trusted to assist with the office work by the school staff. She insists it’s a natural trait, but at least some of it is certainly learned, watching Kate work as a nurse while also making sure he had every opportunity to pursue his basketball dreams.
“My mom is my everything,” Okongwu said. “She’s the reason that I’m here right now. She’s put in so much time and effort into my basketball and into my life in general, and I owe her everything. That’s why we’re so close right now.”
Onyeka’s drive to be a basketball star is fueled by his family. To in some part pay his family back for all the work they put in to his career, and also to carry on the legacy of his older brother, Nnamdi, who died in 2014 after suffering a brain injury in a skateboarding accident while a senior, starring for Chino Hills. He says he is his brother’s walking legacy, wearing the same 21 Nnamdi wore, and it was after his brother’s death that he began channeling his full energy into his basketball dream. It was around that time Austin recalls him really starting to state that he wanted to play pro ball and putting in the extra work before and after practices to take his game to the next level, doing individual workouts and putting work in on the other end as other age groups in the program practiced.
Basketball was where he could channel that emotion and carry his brother’s memory, but it’s something that’s shaped his entire life. When children deal with tragedy at an early age, it can have the effect of accelerating their maturity as they’re forced to face a suddenly harsh reality, and Kate Okongwu saw that take place with Onyeka.
“Growing up and the tragedy that happened along the way, the death and the breakup of his family, kind of made him a little bit – he sees life from a different perspective after that, and it made him a little bit more wiser than normal, I’d say,” Kate said. “You get to see life from different aspects than you used to see. You appreciate every little minute and every little second, because nothing is really guaranteed in life anymore.”
His experience also shapes what Okongwu wants to do off the court with the resources that come with being an NBA player. He wants to host camps and be an inspiration for kids, but his mom says his goals also extend beyond basketball to help other children who have lost siblings.
“He said one of the things he’d like to do is see if he can get a committee of kids that lost a sibling,” Kate said. “Because he remembers that when he lost his sibling, you know, he used to say, ‘Mom, nobody ever asks me how I feel. They only ask how is your mom feeling. Nobody remembers that we lost a sibling.’ So he told me he would like to, at one point in his life get those kinds of kids together, because as much as the parents hurt, also the siblings do hurt, but few remember that.”
Basketball won’t be there forever, but it’s certainly where Onyeka thrives now and has a chance to make quite the name for himself in the coming years.
What makes him such an intriguing prospect isn’t just the skills he possesses now, but the potential for him to become so much more. The most frequent player comparison made by draft analysts towards Okongwu is Bam Adebayo, the Miami Heat’s All-Star center who played a huge role in their run to the Finals this year. Adebayo had a similar physical profile to Okongwu when he came out of Kentucky, and his development in Miami has taken him from a helpful role player to a superstar — a path Okongwu hopes to forge for himself.
Adebayo is about the only player Okongwu will happily accept a comp to, as he appreciates being mentioned alongside Bam because of his defensive gifts as well as Adebayo’s development of an all-around game offensively.
“For one thing, Bam is a good defender,” Okongwu said of why he appreciates the Bam comparisons. “He’s able to go out there and guard and he’s a great defender, and on offense he’s able to bring the ball up the court and he’s able to attack slower bigs off the drive. I feel like I can do that, you know, take big men out and beat them off the dribble. And he’s a good playmaker, and that’s something I hope to also become a great playmaker too alongside having a solid shooting stroke.”
Okongwu has immense self-confidence in his game, but has the ability to also understand and embrace critiques about what he needs to improve on. His perimeter shooting will likely determine whether he has a chance to reach NBA superstardom. He didn’t show much perimeter shooting while at USC, but he says that was part of his game in high school and AAU ball growing up. His free throw efficiency indicates he has the shooting touch to be able to expand in that area, but he also understands that is something that’s going to take time before it can become a threat at the NBA level.
The same goes for his playmaking abilities, another of the knocks against him as an offensive player, but is something he is determined to add to his arsenal in order to ingratiate himself to his new teammates: “Being a good playmaker helps your teammates love you, because they know you’ll get them involved and pass the ball more,” he said.
In a few years, he hopes to bring a far more diverse skillset to the offensive end of the floor, but for now he’s happy to embrace his strengths as a roll man and lob threat, running the floor in transition, and attacking opposing bigs on the block and in faceups. All the while, he’ll be coming in early and staying late to try and add to his game, just as he did as a 13-year-old.
Offensive growth might be the pivot point in his journey to potential stardom, but defense will be the foundation of his game, as it always has been. It’s not just that he’s talented on the defensive end, but it’s where he plants his flag. It’s his identity as a basketball player. The place where he’ll always have a good day.
“There’s a lot of big players out there who just like me who don’t do what I do,” Okongwu said. “I feel like me, since I was little, I’ve just always been a defender. I just think it’s in my blood being a defender. I love defending the ball.”