Onyeka Okongwu's journey to potential top-5 NBA draft pick

Krysten Peek
·7-min read

A little over a year ago, Onyeka Okongwu was an 18-year-old freshman at USC gearing up for his first college season. He spent the entire summer in the gym working on his game after being snubbed as a McDonald’s All-American as a senior in high school.

“Not getting a McDonald’s nod probably benefited me in the long run,” Okongwu told Yahoo Sports. “It definitely hurt at the time but when I got to USC, there were no expectations for me and I just played my style of basketball and got to do it without any pressure.”

Prior to the college season even starting, USC took an overseas trip to Spain and France where the team played three games against professional teams and finished the tour undefeated. The coaching staff saw glimpses of how good Okongwu could be playing against grown men who were bigger and stronger than him.

“We knew in Europe he was going to have a special year for us,” head coach Andy Enfield told Yahoo Sports. “He was just so dominant over there and we knew he was going to help us win a lot of games going into the season.”

Okongwu finished the trip averaging 21 points and 9.3 rebounds on 76% shooting.

The Trojans’ first game was against Florida A&M and they won easily, 77-38. Okongwu finished with a double-double, 20 points and 13 rebounds but that wasn’t the stat line that caught NBA scout’s attention. The 6-foot-9 forward also recorded an impressive eight blocks. “He definitely caught a lot of people’s attention after the first few games with his timing in the lane defensively and his high basketball IQ,” an NBA scout told Yahoo Sports.

USC Trojans forward Onyeka Okongwu (21) during the 2019 Orlando Invitational mens college basketball game between the USC Trojans and Marquette Golden Eagles on November 29, 2019 at the HP Field House.
Onyeka Okongwu feels like he's the best defensive player in the 2020 NBA draft. (Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Okongwu stayed consistent throughout the season finishing with 76 blocks — second in the Pac-12 — and averaged 2.7 blocks per game. He also excelled in defending the pick-and-roll and made that a strength by the end of the season. “Where we saw the most improvement was on his ball-screening defense,” Enfield told Yahoo Sports. “He learned how to switch and keep guards in front of him. Or, if they got a half step, he was great at contesting a shot late. He worked hard on his hedging the ball screen, whether it was a hard hedge or soft hedge, and he had to learn not only how to hedge but also recover to his own man and not give up deep post position.”

‘I think I’m the best defender in this draft class’

With his 7-foot-2 wingspan and athleticism, Okongwu is able to step out and guard the perimeter and use his size and quickness to defend post players down low.

“I think I’m the best defender in this draft class,” Okongwu said. “I take a lot of pride in my defense. It has been built in me ever since I was a little kid.”

A lot of teams agree. Okongwu has reportedly met with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs and Washington Wizards recently — all teams that need help defensively. The Wizards, who would likely have to trade up for power forward, need Okongwu the most after finishing second to last in defensive rating last season. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Okongwu is “moving into the top three-to-five” draft spots after solid in-person workouts with NBA personnel the last couple of weeks. There are also reports swirling that the Warriors could take him at No. 2 over favored big man James Wiseman.

Okongwu’s early NBA comp is Miami Heat forward Bam Adebayo. Both players were similar in size coming out of college at 6-foot-9 and put up comparable numbers with Adebayo averaging 13 points and eight rebounds per game at Kentucky and Okongwu averaging 16.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game at USC.

“I hear it all of the time, man, but Bam Adebayo is terrific. He is the kind of player that I hope I can become. He is a player I watch closely. He grew his game after college and honestly I hope to do the same thing as Bam,” Okongwu told Bryan Kalbrosky of Hoops Hype.

No one can predict the future but Enfield has high expectations for his former player.

“I think he’s going to develop into an NBA All-Star down the road,” Enfield said. “How long that takes will be up to him and also the team that drafts him and develops him. But I think he’s a real special player.”

Okongwu has been working on improving his offensive game during the offseason and getting his body ready for the NBA season starting in just five short weeks.

“I’m feeling more comfortable with my handle and my shooting and extending my shot past the 3-point line,” Okongwu said. “I’m getting stronger, faster and jumping higher and I just feel like a better overall athlete than I was last season at USC.”

Playing alongside fellow lottery pick LaMelo Ball

The Southern California native played high school basketball with fellow future lottery pick LaMelo Ball. They were both freshmen when Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball was a senior at Chino Hills High School, and would talk about playing in the NBA and getting drafted together all the time.

“Both our dreams were to get to the NBA and he knew I was talented and I knew he was talented,” Okongwu said of his former teammate. “Me and LaMelo, we’ve worked hard for this ever since we were young kids. I’ve known him since I was 8 years old and we’ve always been talking about one day being NBA players.”

Okongwu remembers the first time he walked into a local Chino Hills community center with his older brother and saw LaMelo, LiAngelo and Lonzo all shooting hoops and working out with their dad LaVar.

“We would just play pickup basketball all day. It was a lot of fun. He’s really a brother to me,” Okongwu said.

The two players went on to play together in high school winning a California state championship their freshman year at Chino Hills. Ball was even spotted sitting courtside at the UCLA-USC game this past season after returning from Australia where he played for the Illawarra Hawks and Okongwu dapped him real quick after a big dunk.

Professional basketball player LaMelo Ball, right, attends the game between the USC Trojans and the UCLA Bruins at Galen Center on March 7, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
LaMelo Ball and Onyeka Okongwu played together at Chino Hills High School. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

Okongwu and Ball have stayed in touch during this extended time, checking in and FaceTiming one another throughout the process. Draft night is nearly here. It will be anything but normal with a virtual draft planned instead of a night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. In non-COVID-19 years, all players invited to the green room would have gone through the hustle and bustle of the NBA draft week together filled with media interviews, endorsement obligations and fan interactions. Now they will all be in the comfort of their own homes surrounded by family and friends waiting for Adam Silver or Mark Tatum to call their name.

Despite all the changes, Okongwu can’t wait.

“It’s going to be a special night,” Okongwu said with a smile. “I just can’t wait to hear my name called and keep working. It’s not over on draft night, it’s just the beginning.”

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