By Rich Ruben
The NBA draft has been pushed back to mid-November and Onyeka Okongwu is still waiting to learn where he is selected and by which team. Analysts and draft experts have put out hundreds of mock drafts over the last several months, many before the draft order was established. Okongwu has been projected to be picked anywhere between No. 2-14, though most recent mock drafts have him going 7th or 8th to the Pistons or the Knicks.
Many “experts” have also tried to compare each player expected to be drafted in the first round to a current or former NBA player. Onyeka is usually compared favorably to current Miami Heat and former Kentucky Wildcat star Bam Adebayo, who is finishing his third year in the League by playing in the NBA finals. Bam is unquestionably a better player than Okongwu today, but how will they compare after Okongwu’s third NBA season?
Bam was ranked by the recruiting services between the 5th and 12th best recruit in the country when he signed and played one year at Kentucky. Miami made him the 14th pick in the draft. He is 6’9” and now weighs 260 pounds. In his one college season he averaged 13 points, 8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. He made 60% of his shots at UK and set a new Kentucky record of 101 dunks, nine more than prior record holder Anthony Davis.
Onyeka was ranked between 20th and 25th by the recruiting experts. He is also 6’9 and weighs 245 pounds. It quickly became apparent last season that he should have been ranked higher. Onyeka averaged 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. He made 61% of his shots and 72% of his free throws.
Onyeka and Bam Have Many Skills In Common
Beyond college stats and size, the skill sets of the two players have a lot of similarities. They both play with a lot of physicality and passion and use their bodies inside. They are very athletic and are good rebounders especially at the offensive end. Both players are quick leapers, have great hands and play with a lot of energy; they don’t take plays off. They are both very good post defenders and block and alter a lot of shots.
Bam has had trouble at times defending big bodied centers who can also make threes, such as Marc Gasol and Nikola Jokic. It would be surprising if Onyeka doesn’t have the same issues.
After Three Years In The NBA, Bam Has a Greater Skill Set Today
Today’s Bam has a greater variety of shots and can score more consistently than Onyeka from 10-15 feet. The biggest difference between the two today is that Bam has become very good handling and making good decisions with the ball. He often brings the ball up-court to set up the Heat’s half court offense. The NBA playoff announcers have repeatedly labeled Bam a “ point center” and for stretches Miami runs its offense thru him, letting him make the right decision whether to attack the rim or get the ball to one of Miami’s perimeter shooters. Some of the things he does for the Heat are similar to what Draymond Green does for the Warriors, though Bam is physically bigger.
Bam is also a better perimeter defender when the offense runs a pick and role and he is left outside on a guard. The Trojans tried to keep Onyeka out of those switches last year, preferring to have Nick Rakocevic or Isaiah Mobley defend the perimeter.
In Bam’s first season with the Heat he averaged 6.9 points and 5.5 boards. His numbers improved a little in his second year, scoring 8.9 per game and grabbing 7.3 rebounds. This season Bam exploded. He averaged almost 16 points, over 10 boards, over 5 assists and 1.5 blocks. His playoff numbers are even higher, scoring 32 in one game. In the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston he had four double doubles in six games. He averaged 11 rebounds in the series, had 9 assists in one game and 8 in another and at least 4 assists in 5 of the 6 games.
Bam was an All Star this season and second team All NBA Defense. He also finished second in the voting for Most Improved Player in the League. He has made over 50% of his shots all three years and made just over 70% from the line this year.
Onyeka Also Has The Ability To Also Excel At The Next Level
It is hard to imagine Big O not matching Bam’s first two seasons’ stats. The question is how much can he improve his skill set over the next few years. From watching him last season in games and practices it is apparent that he can expand his shooting range and force defenders to guard him at the foul line and further out. He also has the ability to develop into an elite rim protector and interior defender, and he should be very good on the boards. He is so quick off his feet that he will be an elite offensive rebounder and get plenty of second chance points. He also runs the court very well and is tremendous filling a lane on the fast break. In all these areas I think Onyeka can meet or exceed Bam’s current abilities.
It is much harder to envision Onyeka developing into an elite offensive facilitator to the level of Bam and Green. Onyeka was fairly good feeding low post Trojan teammates from the free throw line or higher, but that is only a small part of being a “ point center”. He had turnover problems in some games this past season and he needs to develop more moves to beat double teams in the post. His ability to make shots near the rim with either hand is a big plus.
Overall I expect Big O to have a very good and long NBA career, whether or not he develops into the player Bam Adebayo has become in his third NBA season.