USC’s basketball program hasn’t produced a ton of NBA players over the years, but the ones who do make it to the highest level tend to be pretty good. In recent memory, there’s DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic –– two All-Stars who are still thriving in the league.
During the NBA draft on Nov. 18, Onyeka Okongwu will join those names and likely be the first lottery pick from USC since DeRozan in 2009. While the draft is merely the first step, there’s a legitimate chance he turns out to be the best player to ever come out of USC.
Okongwu’s rise to top-tier prospect status was as rapid as it was impressive. Coming into last season, the 6-foot-9 center was billed as a high four-star or low five-star recruit, mostly known as the guy who played with the Ball brothers at Chino Hills High School. Draft evaluators had him projected as a second-rounder. It only took a few uber-efficient, double-double, multi-block games for the nation to take notice, and Okongwu’s draft stock skyrocketed.
By the end of the COVID-shortened season, Okongwu quietly put together one of the best campaigns for a freshman in NCAA history, with numbers comparable to Zion Williamson at Duke and Anthony Davis at Kentucky. He finished top-ten in Box Plus-Minus and Player Efficiency Rating (PER) –– two catch-all box score metrics –– as a 19-year-old in a pool with juniors and seniors. He was the defensive anchor for USC, and the main reason the team finished top 20 in the country on defense, per KenPom.
Yet, Okongwu’s greatest strength is a tool that can’t be captured by box scores: his hounding nose for the ball. If the ball is in the air and Okongwu is in the vicinity, he’s coming down with it. His game is fueled by a relentless motor and made possible by having pogo sticks for legs, along with solid body control and spatial awareness on the court. At a bare minimum, these skills will make Okongwu a solid rebounder, lob threat and rim protector in the NBA.
It’s the more refined basketball skills that will determine whether Okongwu becomes a star. Offensively, his post moves are limited to rudimentary spins and drop steps, though he does have a soft touch around the rim and can finish with both hands. But as modern bigs become more adept from the perimeter, Okongwu’s lack of a reliable jump shot will hurt his upside. Earlier this year, he joined ESPN’s Mike Schmitz for a film breakdown and was compared to the Miami Heat’s star center Bam Adebayo. While the athletic similarities are there, Okongwu will need to improve his ball-handling and decision making to take his game to the next level.
This year’s draft class is among the most hazy in recent years, with no clear No. 1 and myriad prospects that could go anywhere in the first round. Based on draft evaluators and reporters' intel, it seems Okongwu could end up drafted anywhere in the first nine spots.
Let’s take a look at each potential landing spot, including a few trade-up candidates:
While the Wolves already have their center and franchise cornerstone in Karl-Anthony Towns, Okongwu wouldn’t be a bad addition. He would provide much-needed physicality and interior defense to a team that ranked No. 21 on defense. Spacing wouldn’t be an issue, since Towns is one of the most respected shooters in the league. However, this is an unlikely landing spot with Minnesota looking for upgrades at the guard and wing positions.
The Warriors are firmly in the James Wiseman sweepstakes, which means they’re looking for a center. Though if Wiseman is on the board, they will probably select him over Okongwu. It’s possible Okongwu is the better fit next to Stephen Curry and company, but Wiseman remains the more tantalizing talent. While the situation is optimal, it’s unlikely Okongwu ends up at Golden State unless they trade down in the draft.
Charlotte has signaled interest in Wiseman as well, and the team lacks young talent at the center position. But in the midst of a full rebuild, the Hornets will probably look toward a more high-ceiling prospect than Okongwu.
The Bulls have Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen –– two young, talented big men –– and are reportedly looking for wings in this draft. It’s more likely they shed one of their bigs than acquire another one.
Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr. are under contract for the Cavs next year, and Andre Drummond has a player option that will certainly be picked up. That makes three bigs on their roster, none of which seem like a long-term answer for them. Given that Cleveland selected guards in the lottery the last two years, maybe a change is the right move this year. If selected, Okongwu would have to fight and claw for playing time next season but could work his way into becoming the Cavs' franchise center.
A Trae Young and Okongwu pick-and-roll tandem would be delightful. Unfortunately, the Hawks already addressed the center position last season by trading for Clint Capela, which makes this an unlikely landing spot.
Outside of the aging and oft-injured Blake Griffin, Detroit’s roster is pretty bare bones, save for a few intriguing young players. Okongwu should definitely be on the front office’s radar, though they may aim for higher upside given their rebuild.
The Knicks already have RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson along with the ten (only slightly exaggerating) other power forwards they signed in free agency last year. Drafting Okongwu fills no positional need and would only make their spacing issues worse. Even by Knicks standards, this would be a shockingly bad pick.
This is reportedly Okongwu’s draft floor, and the Wizards would snag him in a heartbeat if he is still left on the board at this point. It makes sense: Washington is looking to be competitive next year with John Wall and Bradley Beal; Okongwu gives them much-needed defense and physicality on the floor.
Believe it or not, the Spurs probably won’t have playoff aspirations next season for the first time in forever, though a return to greatness is around the corner. Derrick White and Dejounte Murray have shown flashes of elite potential from the guard position. Okongwu gives them the high IQ and athletically gifted player the front office tends to covet, and he fills a positional need. With the 11th pick, San Antonio wouldn’t have to give up much to get within Okongwu’s draft range.
The Celtics own the 14th, 26th and 30th picks in this year’s draft, and they would be wise to use some of their draft capital to trade up for Okongwu. Boston was a center away from making the NBA Finals, and Okongwu brings much-needed size, athleticism and interior defense. He could be the final piece of their championship puzzle alongside Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker.
A decade ago, Okongwu would not have commanded nearly this much attention heading into the draft. He would’ve been labeled too undersized and too unskilled to survive at the center position. But as the NBA moves increasingly away from the lumbering bigs of old, Okongwu has the chance to show that he can not only run with the pros, but become a star. He has the tools in place; it’s now up to an NBA team that sees the potential to mold him into one.