The Rise of Onyeka Okongwu Could Make John Collins More Tradeable for the Hawks

One season after reaching the Eastern Conference Finals, the Atlanta Hawks (18-25) find themselves in desperate need of a splash. The team could reportedly make almost everyone on the roster available ahead of the Feb. 10 NBA trade deadline. It’s possible the Hawks could shake things up by moving star forward John Collins, particularly given the recent rise of Onyeka Okongwu.

Onyeka Okongwu looks like a star in the making for the Hawks

Late in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day matchup between the Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks, Onyeka Okongwu found himself guarding two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Greek Freak had the ball on the low block, an area where he so often excels. Indeed, Antetokounmpo (after taking a dribble) appeared to gain separation by spinning off his right shoulder. However, Okongwu mirrored Giannis’ route to the rim and recovered to make a stellar block, tying up the Bucks star in the process.

That one play defined Okongwu’s defensive abilities. But it’s just one of many he made throughout the contest.

Earlier in the game, the No. 6 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft ripped Antetokounmpo when he tried getting to the rim off the bounce. He harassed Giannis all night. According to NBA.com, the second-year big man held the Greek Freak to 2-of-12 shooting and three turnovers while keying the Hawks’ 121-114 win.

Pretty spectacular stuff, no?

Okongwu hasn’t had much of an opportunity to prove his worth. He played 50 games during his rookie season but averaged just 12 minutes. A torn labrum and subsequent surgery forced him out of the first 28 games of the 2021-22 campaign. Still, the USC product is already showing flashes of his tremendous upside.

Through 11 games, Okongwu is averaging 13.9 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes. While his defensive acumen stands out, the 21-year-old knows his role offensively. He improvised during the Hawks’ first offensive set against the Bucks, setting another ball screen after Milwaukee blew up the first play and firing a quick touch-pass to an open John Collins in the corner.

Okongwu moves well off the ball. He flashes to the middle of the lane for catches and owns the dunker spot along the baseline. He doesn’t make hurried decisions, either, often finding the right pass on rolls when he’s not catching lobs or passes around the basket.

The second-year center already appears fairly advanced on both ends. Indeed, Okongwu’s impressive play could result in the Hawks taking a big swing in the trade market.

The Hawks could trade John Collins and run a two-big rotation

The Hawks already showed a willingness to alter the franchise’s trajectory by trading Cam Reddish to the New York Knicks. Could they do the same by trading star forward John Collins?

Atlanta signed Collins to a five-year, $125 million extension in the offseason. However, his usage rate has gone down in each of the last three seasons, and a disconnect seems to exist between himself and Trae Young in terms of how the offense should operate.

Collins is far and away the Hawks’ most valuable asset at this year’s trade deadline. He shoots the 3-ball at a tremendous clip (43.5% this season) and is one of the most athletic forwards in the game. The 24-year-old has shown more comfort attacking off the dribble and is gradually improving as a switchable defender.

If Atlanta elects to trade Collins, it would make for a decided change in roster outlook, with Okongwu and Clint Capela as the frontcourt nucleus. Okongwu has started in place of Capela, who is nursing an ankle injury. But the two could form an imposing pairing should the Hawks deal Collins.

Starting Okongwu and Capela together could diminish offensive spacing. At the same time, the Hawks’ apparent commitment to high pick-and-roll action between Young and Capela suits Okongwu’s tendency to find the dunker spot or flash to the free-throw line for catches. Moreover, an Okongwu-Capela frontcourt could fortify Atlanta’s team defense. That’s important, considering the Hawks rank an abysmal 29th in defensive rating.

Ultimately, the decision to trade Collins could depend on how highly the Hawks think of Okongwu’s upside and whether they believe he can become one of the best two-way bigs in the NBA.

What is Okongwu’s ceiling?

Atlanta Hawks big man Onyeka Okongwu ties up Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo during an NBA game in January 2022
Onyeka Okongwu #17 of the Atlanta Hawks earns a jump ball as he defends against Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks during an NBA game on January 17, 2022 | Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As evidenced by Onyeka Okongwu’s sensational individual performance against Giannis Antetokounmpo, he’s already one of the more advanced defensive bigs in basketball. He’s also made gains as a passer, which means quite a bit in the modern NBA for frontcourt players yet to establish a perimeter game.

In that regard, Okongwu’s potential development as a guy who can make mid-range jumpers and occasionally step out to 3-point range makes for untapped potential. He has yet to discover a certain comfort level as a ball-handler and doesn’t take many jumpers, but he can take those steps in time.

The Hawks have a budding star in Okongwu. His projectability might determine Collins’ future in A-town as the team tries to chart a new course.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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