2020 NBA Draft prospect Onyeka Okongwu could be key part of Cavs’ closing lineups

USC big man Onyeka Okongwu (#21) celebrates a near-win. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
USC big man Onyeka Okongwu (#21) celebrates a near-win. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) /

With his switchability on the defensive end and low post polish, 2020 NBA Draft prospect Onyeka Okongwu could be a key part of Cleveland Cavaliers’ closing lineups.

At this point, it’s not certain where the Cleveland Cavaliers will ultimately pick yet in the 2020 NBA Draft. What we do know is that Cleveland finishing 2019-20 with the NBA’s second-worst record secured them tying for having the top odds at landing the first overall pick, which comes in at a 14.0 percent chance.

At the lowest possible scenario, Cleveland will pick sixth overall, which is a 20.0 percent chance, according to Tankathon.

Regardless, even with the upcoming draft seemingly devoid of potential superstars/lacking real top-end star power, I’d more than fine if the Cavs ended up selecting a quality defensive piece.

Auburn’s Isaac Okoro, Florida State’s Patrick Williams and USC’s Onyeka Okongwu first come to mind in that regard, and for a Cavaliers team needing high quality defensive pieces in coming years, any of those three, in particular, could prove to be impact players really early on. In a fairly weak draft, that sort of thing would be a win, in my book.

Moreover, in relation to Okongwu, he might prove to be a crucial piece for Cleveland in crunch time at the 4/5 spot.

Additionally, in terms of closing lineups even early on, with his switchability to go with his low post polish, Okongwu could be a key part of closing lineups for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The crucial part here with Okongwu is that even at 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds, he is very switchable, which could bode very well in closing lineups.

That’d be feasibly alongside Kevin Love or Larry Nance Jr., when thinking of bigs paired up with Okongwu, realistically. Nance could perhaps play the 3 in those instances, too, for context.

Okongwu has the lateral quickness to sit and slide to switch out admirably on to perimeter players when needed to in pick-and-roll situations, and in closing stretches of games, that’s invaluable for a big.

While he might not be as formidable in terms of low post coverage next season as say, Andre Drummond, who is reportedly likely to pick up his $28.8 million option for 2020-21, Okongwu can still hold his own pretty well still there.

In today’s NBA, Cleveland could work around that, to an extent, too, and given Okongwu’s switchability, that could lead to him appearing more as next season progresses in crunch time than Drummond. The other aspect that jumps out in regards to Okongwu’s defense and could come up big in closing stretches of games is his team defensive impact.

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Okongwu had 2.7 blocks and 1.2 steals per outing in his lone collegiate season at USC, per Sports Reference.

He has outstanding timing as a rotator, and for a 19-year-old, that’s not something you typically see, often in relation to Okongwu splitting two players, even at times hedging enough to take away pull-ups, but also then intercepting passes over the top.

While Drummond has very good team defensive instincts inside, and even was second in the NBA in steals in his games active in 2019-20, he is nowhere near as switchable as Okongwu in PnR coverage to pair with that.

In closing stretches of contests, that could lead to Okongwu eventually being Cleveland’s go-to 5 option in crunch time, with Love’s inside-out scoring presence pairing well at the other end.

So what about the offensive end of the floor, then?

Okongwu is not a floor spacer at this point, and only attempted four three-point shots at USC, of which he hit one.

He has great footwork in the low post, though, which played an integral role in him averaging 16.2 points per game on 61.6 percent shooting, and averaging 5.1 free throw attempts per outing.

Also, while his rough 1.1-to-2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio as a Trojan didn’t show it, he did flash encouraging passing/ball-movement ability. As his NBA career progresses, we’ll see that more and more, too.

Along with his aforementioned low post polish, Okongwu is a really effective roller/screener that is quick and efficient with his dives. That’d mesh seamlessly with pieces such as Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Cleveland’s best driver in Kevin Porter Jr., among others throughout games, and in crunch time, similarly to Nance, Okongwu would be a constant lob threat.

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Plus, Okongwu flashed some ability to hit mid-range looks at USC/some face-up potential, which is not something we’ve seen from Drummond to this point in an eight-year career, mostly with the Detroit Pistons.

Lastly, while I of course recognize Drummond is one of the NBA’s best rebounders, factoring in both ends of the floor, let’s not discount Okongwu having 3.3 offensive boards per game at USC.

He would bring maybe not quite the Drummond type of presence there, but in lineups with Love and/or Nance, too, Okongwu could get his share of putbacks after Sexton and KPJ draw rotators over and open up offensive rebounding opportunities.

Anyway, with the uncertainty involving 2020 NBA Draft prospects such as Georgia’s Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball, previously of the NBL’s Illawarra Hawks, Okongwu could prove to be a contributor that’d have a carved-out role right away.

With his switchability, team defensive impact and low post polish/athleticism, he could also prove to be a key part of closing lineups regularly for the Cleveland Cavaliers as a 4/5 with Love.

He could immensely aid pieces such as Sexton and Porter as a rim protector/rotator and/or screener/passer as he gets more experience alongside them, too.

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To me, while he wouldn’t bring the leadership impact of Tristan Thompson with him being a rookie, Okongwu could on the floor prove to be just as valuable over time defensively, if not more in coming years.

An Okongwu draft selection would seem to further lead to the expiring Thompson playing elsewhere next season/beyond, but Okongwu could prove just as viable in crunch time as the season progresses with more athleticism/offensive game/passing feel.

Perhaps that could lead to Drummond, assuming he’s back, eventually being an expiring trade piece near the 2021 deadline, too, with Okongwu very well providing more of an impact with his switchability in today’s NBA.

That’d be maybe even more so in closing stretches of game, considering that Okongwu hit a very respectable 72.0 percent of his free throw attempts at USC as well.

Drummond, on the other hand, is a complete non-shooter in settled offense outside of the deep paint, and is a career 46.1 percent foul shooter in his NBA career. Even so, could Okongwu and the physical Drummond prove to be a dynamic 1-2 punch as a center duo in coming years for Cleveland?

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Possibly, but we’ll have to see. If the Cavs select Okongwu in the 2020 NBA Draft, though, rest assured, they won’t be unsatisfied.