Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk never got to see Onyeka Okongwu play in person, but he was convinced the USC center was the right choice with the No. 6 pick, according to Chris Kirschner and Sam Vecenie of The Athletic. Atlanta’s scouts were promoting Okongwu during the season and urged Schlenk to watch him, but that fell through when the Pac-12 Tournament was canceled.
Okongwu also didn’t work out for the Hawks because of a stress fracture in his sesamoid bone, which is located underneath his big toe. However, Schlenk knows what his new center can provide without seeing him in action.
“He’s going to be a plus rebounder defensively,” the Atlanta GM said. “He’s going to be a rim protector, and the other thing he does is he moves his feet very, very well in pick-and-roll coverages, and as you guys know, that’s extremely important for big guys to be able to guard in pick-and-rolls. Those are his strengths coming in. He’s got great instincts. Improving defensively is important for our group. The foundation of your defense is your big guy. They’re kind of the quarterback of the defense. They’re on the back line. They see everything. … That’s his strength, and that’s a very valuable strength in the NBA.”
There’s more from Atlanta:
- The Hawks took a long look at Israeli forward Deni Avdija and Iowa State guard Tyrese Haliburton, according to Kirschner and Vecenie, but decided Okongwu’s potential was too good to pass up. They also listened to trade-down offers from the Knicks, Wizards and a few teams in the teens, but there were no prospects they especially liked in that range.
- Atlanta now has four centers on its roster, but the front office won’t be in a hurry to unload any of them, Kirschner and Vecenie add. The Hawks traded for Clint Capela and Dewayne Dedmon last season. They also have Bruno Fernando, and John Collins plays in the middle sometimes. The addition of Okongwu means there’s no longer room on the roster for Skal Labissiere, who will not receive a qualifying offer. QOs also won’t be coming for DeAndre’ Bembry, Damian Jones and Charlie Brown Jr.
- The Hawks aren’t worried that Okongwu’s injury will be a long-term issue, writes Sarah K. Spencer of The Journal-Constitution. Their medical team was able to evaluate his condition during the pre-draft process in October and will check him again soon to see how much he has healed. “The doctors, they weren’t concerned about a long-term injury at all,” Schlenk said. “So hopefully it’s healed from when the MRI was taken probably about four weeks ago, but it’s really hard to say until we get him here and get our doctors to see him. But there was no concern of a long-term injury with it.”