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Getting to know NBA Draft prospect Onyeka Okongwu

The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie joined the Bleav in Wizards podcast to discuss Okongwu and the rest of his latest mock draft

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NCAA Basketball: Stanford at Southern California
Onyeka Okongwu with a thunderous dunk against Stanford
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Vecenie, The Athletic’s draft guru, had USC freshman center Onyeka Okongwu falling to the Wizards in his latest mock draft. Most of Vecenie’s draft analyst colleagues tend to have Okongwu coming off the board before the ninth pick so this could represent a potentially unlikely scenario. But it’s one the Wizards would love to see come to fruition.

Vecenie joined us on the Bleav in Wizards podcast earlier this month to discuss Okongwu and why he would be the ideal fit in Washington. He also gave us a breakdown of other prospects that might make for similarly strong additions in the case that Okongwu is drafted before the ninth pick.

“Okongwu could also be the perfect center pairing to mix with Thomas Bryant and Moe Wagner inside. Both of those guys are offense-first floor-spacers, whereas Okongwu is a power defense-first guy. Defensively, he can slide his feet on the perimeter, and his presence would really be helpful to John Wall as a rim-running threat that neither Bryant nor Wagner provide,” said Vecenie in his mock draft.

He also wrote, “He’s also the kind of high-character player that Tommy Sheppard has tried to look for since taking over, while also giving them a bit of an edge due to his motor and aggressiveness. This would be a major win for the Wizards.”

Vecenie elaborated on his character during our conversation with him. Apparently, Okongwu is no-nonsense once he’s in the gym and singularly focused on competing. I think that type of professionalism would be appreciated by the Wizards’ two star guards.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer followed shortly after with his own mock draft that also had the Wizards landing Okongwu. He described Okongwu as a “do-it-all big with rare versatility as a defender. Always competes and has a knack for making big plays.”

I also spent some time breaking down Okongwu’s game in a previous article about the top 10 center prospects in the draft. I had Okongwu slated second right behind James Wiseman, who went second in Vecenie and O’Connor’s mock drafts.

Given the lack of strong center options in this draft and how well he will do in interviews, I would be very surprised if Okongwu was available for the Wizards on draft night. Although, Tommy Sheppard said after the Draft Lottery that he would consider making some moves if the right opportunity presented itself. “If we can take two picks and move up and somebody wants to do that, we’ll entertain that,” said Sheppard.

NCAA Basketball: Florida A&M at Southern California
Okongwu showing off his rim-protection skills with a big-time block
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Okongwu would almost be the ideal candidate for the Wizards because he would be best player available at this point in the draft and fill a pressing need. But this is the Washington Wizards we are talking about so there’s no way we would ever be that lucky, it’s just not our style. Here’s my updated evaluation of Okongwu:

Onyeka Okongwu, 6’9ish, center

Okongwu could end up being the better overall basketball player long-term compared to James Wiseman but he doesn’t have the same insane physical gifts. That's why I think most people expect Wiseman to get drafted earlier. That doesn't mean Okongwu isn't also a good athlete. He seems to have better lateral quickness and that's a pretty handy trait for your center to have given how much switching NBA teams do now.

I don’t really buy the Bam Adebayo comparison (beyond their height) because he isn’t nearly as dynamic and can’t create for others the way Adebayo does. Simply put, Adebayo creates opportunities and Okongwu capitalizes on them. And that's probably just fine for the Wizards since they (hopefully) will have this John Wall guy back and I hear he's pretty good at creating open looks for his bigs.

Okongwu actually made some pretty good passes out of the post from what I saw. Not as often as you would like but enough to show some promise. If he can do that consistently once he's surrounded by elite shooters like Beal and Bertans, then we might really have something.

Offensively, I’ve heard more athletic Al Jefferson as a comp and I like that because he certainly has a bag of tricks as a post scorer. He’s definitely much more skilled with the ball than Wiseman but I’m just not sure that skill-set is in super high demand anymore. Or if he can get off some of those moves against bigger and better NBA defenders.

Being able to shoot a little would help but that's certainly not his strongest attribute. He made only one of his four three-point attempts this season. His 72-percent from the free throw line is solid enough to give me some hope the jumper will come around though.

But once again, his real needle-moving skills are on the defensive end of the floor. He may never lead the league in blocked shots (although he'll swat his fair share) but you don't have to in order to be a top-notch rim-protector. His mobility, timing, and understanding of positioning will allow him to anchor a good NBA defense.

Okongwu’s moves well laterally to defend the pick-and-roll and seems to have a high defensive IQ for a player his age. Some analysts are worried that he could get bullied by elite centers like Joel Embiid. I’m less concerned about that because most centers get bullied by Embiid, that’s what makes him elite. (Sorry, Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside).

At the end of the day, Okongwu can protect the rim, move his feet enough to defend on the perimeter, has good hands, encouraging offensive tools, would give John Wall a lob threat, and is by all accounts a good human being. Maybe there's a certain player you like better, but I'd be surprised if anyone on here would be opposed to adding a player like that. He'd be a no-brainer with the ninth pick, in my humble opinion.