Onyeka Okongwu – The Best Defensive Player in the 2020 NBA Draft

Onyeka Okongwu – The Best Defensive Player in the 2020 NBA Draft

Onyeka Okongwu is the most gifted defensive big man in the 2020 NBA Draft. He possesses the size, length and defensive IQ to defend both forward positions and the centre position. While his defense is already great, and has the chance to be elite, he also appears to be promising on the offensive end.  


Okongwu’s defensive versatility is incredibly valuable in the modern NBA. While Okongwu is best suited to play center or power forward in the NBA, the ability to switch on to smaller players on defense will make him a defensive menace in the NBA. Players such as Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo have exemplified how important this ability is in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. Adebayo’s iconic game-saving block on Jayson Tatum in the playoffs is the perfect example of how valuable big men who can switch on the pick and roll are. Okongwu is special in his ability to protect the rim, defend the post and defend the perimeter.

Onyeka Okongwu was the defensive anchor of the South California Trojans. USC had the 9th best defense in the whole NCAA. While a team’s defense involves great coaching and the whole team buying into the defensive system, it would be a lie to say that Okongwu was not the greatest factor of this team’s defensive success. Okongwu is almost always in the right place at the right time. Utilising his wingspan to defend his spaces made it very hard for players to pass into the paint and to score over him. The defense of USC led to their impressive 22-9 record. Okongwu would have definitely benefited from being able to show his defense in March Madness.   


On offense Okongwu uses his intelligence and floor awareness to make smart moves off of the ball. His speed and athleticism allow for him to cut to the basket and catch lobs. This led to his very high shooting percentage. His explosiveness allowed for some powerful dunks, especially on alley-oops. His speed allows for him to get past slower big men leading to easy points at the basket. 

We have seen some flashes of good post moves from Okongwu. In the modern NBA post moves need to be quick and decisive. If a good shot is not available, the big man needs to pass out to an open shooter or to a ball handler to reset the offense. If a player tries to force a post shot that they do not have it can often lead to a turnover or an overly difficult shot. This is largely why Jahlil Okafor’s post moves have not translated to NBA stardom. Fortunately Okongwu makes very quick decisions in the post. He often makes a quick spin, similar to the moves that have been made popular by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Pascal Siakam. Okongwu also possesses a soft touch around the basket that can result in a high percentage hook shot. The hook shot is often underutilised in the NBA, but players such as Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic. 

Onyeka Okongwu’s jumpshot could be the difference between him being an important role player, or being an NBA star. While Okongwu rarely shot jumpshots at USC, what we did see looked promising. His shot form looks good for a big man. The flick of his wrist looks very smooth and replicable. We also saw him make a solid free throw percentage for a big, which again indicates good shooting potential. 

Physical Profile

Most websites list Onyeka Okongwu at 6 foot 9. While it is possible Okongwu could measure at 6 foot 10, I think that 6’9 looks to be accurate. For a centre this is slightly undersized, but in the modern era of basketball this will likely be overlooked due to his defensive versatility and length. 

NBADraft.net lists Okongwu’s wingspan as 7’ foot 2. This is a solid wingspan for a centre. Watching him play, you can see that he utilises his length to its full extent. I would not be surprised if Okongwu’s wingspan ends up measuring slightly longer than it is currently listed. Bam Adebayo possesses a 7’1 wingspan and is a capable rim protector. While Okongwu is not quite as strong as Bam, he does appear to possess a little more length. Okongwu almost averages twice as many blocks as Bam in the NCAA in very similar minutes played. 

ESPN lists Okongwu as 245 pounds. If this is accurate, that is a very ideal weight for a player of his position. To be as quick as Okongwu is, with that kind of weight behind you, he could be very dangerous in the NBA on both ends on the court. 

Statistics Interpretations

Stats from Sports-Reference.com

Onyeka Okongwu put up a very impressive 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.7 blocks per game. He did this on a great 61.6% field goal and 72% free throw percentage. 

16.2 points per game is pretty great for a player who mostly scores in the paint. It is also a very efficient 16.2 points as he did this on a 61.6% field goal. Okongwu also has a 64.5% true shooting percentage. These percentages both led his division. Efficient big men are very valuable in any era of the NBA. 

8.6 rebounds per game is solid. While I would like it to be higher, 8.6 still instills confidence that he can be a good rebounder in the NBA. Towards the end of the season his rebounding did drop which is a concern. A player like Jaren Jackson Jr has struggled to rebound in the NBA despite being 6’11 with a 7’5 wingspan. This is largely due to Jackson Jr lacking strength. While I think Okongwu is stronger, I would like to see him improve his strength in order to become a better defender. 

Okongwu’s defense is both visible from the eye test, and also from a look at his statistics. To average 1.2 steals and 2.7 blocks per game is very impressive. In comparison Bam Adebayo only averaged 1.5 blocks per game in 0.5 less minutes per game. 


The main player that Okongwu is compared to is Bam Adebayo. I think that this is a solid comparison. They possess very similar measurements and playing styles. Bam is definitely stronger, which has allowed him to set such great screens. Onyeka instead is faster and slightly longer. While I don’t see Okongwu being as good a screen setter or passer, I believe that he has greater scoring potential. 

Photo of Bam Adebayo by Joe Glorioso

Team Fits

Minnesota Timberwolves

Okongwu could be the best fit for the Timberwolves. While players such as LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards have more marketability, Okongwu could be the defensive big they need. Okongwu could supply the rim protection needed next to Karl-Anthony Towns. This would take pressure off of Towns on D and prevent him from picking up fouls. 

The Timberwolves need defense and 3 point shooting. Okongwu can not shoot well yet. I believe that he has the potential to become a good shooter, but he won’t be a good shooter for a while into his NBA career. In the long term he could be a great fit in Minnesota, but he is not an immediate fix to their problems. 

Whether the Timberwolves trade down for Okongwu or take a big reach with the first overall pick, he could be a great pick up for the Wolves. 

Golden State Warriors

Onyeka Okongwu is a great fit for Golden State. If they can’t find a suitable trade for their pick, they could reach for Okongwu. He would bring the switch defense they love, and take smart shots at the rim. Okongwu would benefit from Draymond Green’s post to post passing and lob ability. His speed and rim protection would fit very well into the fast paced Golden State system. If Okongwu can develop a 3pt shot, or even a good mid range he would be the perfect big for Golden State. 

Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte is expected to draft James Wiseman. While Wiseman would be a good rim protector for them, he would be a defensive liability when switch defense is required on the pick and roll/pop. While Okongwu would make Charlotte a very short team, he could be the face of their defense for years to come. Charlotte has the potential to be a very fast team and Okongwu would help continue this trend. Okongwu would also have great pick and roll partners with Devonte Graham and Terry Rozier. If Charlotte is not concerned over their lack of size, Okongwu could be a great pick up for them. 

Chicago Bulls

If the Bulls don’t view Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter as their frontcourt of the future, Okongwu would be a good pick. While I personally think that Chicago should draft a point guard or wing. However if the Bulls view Okongwu as the best player available, they shouldn’t be too afraid of taking him as he could fit well next to either of their young bigs. 

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland’s roster is very strange. Ideally they should draft the best player available. If the Cavs view Andre Drummond as part of their future, I would not take Okongwu. Drummond needs to be surrounded by floor spacing. Unfortunately Okongwu will not be able to provide that floor spacing until around his fourth or fifth season, if ever. If the Cavs are going into the draft planning to build around Darius Garland and Colin Sexton, Okongwu should be one of their first choices. He will provide defense, rebounding and offensive potential. 

Atlanta Hawks

Atlanta appears to view Clint Capela as a key piece of their future as their rim protector. Capela does not offer floor spacing, therefore he would not be complimented by Okongwu offensively. However if they are looking for a back up centre who can play large minutes off the bench, Okongwu could be a good fit as an athletic rim protector. 

Detroit Pistons

Detroit would be a good fit for Okongwu. They do not have any definitive long term players. Christian Wood has looked pretty impressive over the last 2 years, but he is not good enough to not draft another big. Okongwu would do well as the new defensive face of the Pistons. As a lottery team for the foreseeable future, Okongwu will have time to develop his game. This could be perfect to give Okongwu time to develop his shooting. Assuming a player like Killian Hayes is not available, Detroit should take Okongwu. 

New York Knicks

A front court of Okongwu and Mitchell Robinson would be deadly defensively, but it would decrease the floor spacing of a team that needs more shooting desperately. I don’t see Okongwu being a fit in New York, however he may be the best player available.

Washington Wizards

Okongwu could be a good centre for the Washington Wizards. A line up of John Wall, Brad Beal, Rui Hachimura, Davis Bertans and Onyeka Okongwu could be really good in the East. For this lineup to work you would need Hachimura, Wall and Okongwu to increase their shooting abilities. However the speed of this lineup could be deadly. While I don’t see Okongwu falling this far, a lack of ideal fit on other teams could lead to him falling. Falling to Washington could be a blessing in disguise that would make other teams in the lottery regret not taking Okongwu. 

Phoenix Suns

This is as far as I can see Okongwu falling. While I would love to see him being developed in San Antonio, I think that the Suns snatch him up at 10. If Phoenix get lucky enough to draft Okongwu they should not look the gift horse in the mouth. He could provide some much needed defense immediately to the Suns bench. Over time he could develop into the power forward next to DeAndre Ayton if either player is able to improve their shooting. 


Photo of Onyeka Okongwu by Susan Wong

Onyeka Okongwu could be one of the best players in the draft. With so many risky prospects who could easily be booms or busts, Okongwu appears to have guaranteed defensive abilities and defensive IQ. With switch defenses becoming more important in the NBA with increased perimeter shooting and more pick and rolls/pops, Okongwu’s skills will be very valuable for almost any NBA team. Okongwu has shown flashes of NBA level offense and makes smart decisions off the ball. Onyeka is in my opinion a top 5 talent in this year’s draft, the only thing that will keep him from going in the top 5 of the draft is an ideal team fit. The two best fits for Onyeka Okongwu appear to be Minnesota and Golden State, however it will be hard to draft Okongwu over two projected stars in LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards. Perhaps a trade down from either the Warriors or the Wolves could lead to Okongwu finding his best fit.