Defensive prowess makes big man Onyeka Okongwu viable Pistons’ draft option

Detroit News

Rod Beard
| The Detroit News

In an NBA draft that’s regarded for its dearth of point guards, one position that’s often glanced over and downplayed is center. The face of the big men in this draft class has been James Wiseman, who has been ranked as one of the top players in this group for years.

Onyeka Okongwu has flown under the radar, to some degree.

The 6-foot-10 forward starred in his one season at Southern California and is an attractive prospect as one of the top defenders and big-man targets, just behind Wiseman. Some mock drafts put Okongwu as high as No. 2, possibly to the Golden State Warriors and ninth, to the Washington Wizards.

The Pistons, who pick seventh, likely have Okongwu high on their draft board as well. Although they are in dire need of a point guard, they could pivot to Okongwu if he’s available, because of the defensive presence he brings and the need to fill their void at center.

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“I feel like I can fit in well. I can definitely play alongside Blake Griffin and they have a lot of young players on that team,” Okongwu said Friday on a teleconference. “I would definitely be able to be in that mix and help them defensively and offensively, but definitely be a defensive anchor on a team that needs help defensively, I definitely know I that can be impactful for the Detroit Pistons.”

The only center on the roster is Justin Patton, who is on a non-guaranteed contract; Thon Maker, who could become a restricted free agent, could return on a reduced contract, but they won’t know that before the draft.

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Some experts compare Okongwu to the Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo, whose varied skill set and ability to initiate offense is making another drastic change to the center position. Okongwu seems some similarity in their skill sets and is using Adebayo as a model.

“As of right now, I just want to be a player like Bam,” Okongwu said. “It took him a while to be that All-Star player he is in year three, so I want to definitely do that full development process and be the type of player that Bam is.”

Last season at USC, Okongwu posted 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks and he shot 62 percent from the field. He projects as a do-it-all big man who could help a team immediately as a traditional center or power forward, but as he continues to hone his game, he could become more valuable.

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Since the college season was shut down, Okongwu said he’s been working on his ball-handling and passing skills, areas where Adebayo has excelled in his ascendance. At only 19 years old, there’s plenty of room for maturing both on and off the court, but if he’s on a roster with some of the Pistons’ veterans, such as Blake Griffin, some of that could come more quickly.

“Definitely ball-handling was my main point of emphasis. I never really worked on ball-handling before and now these past six or seven months, I’ve been working on that every day,” Okongwu said. “I feel more confident about everything in my game. I feel better shooting the ball and better handling the ball.

“I’m learning different things on and off the floor just to get better as a man. I’m going to be a 19-year-old player coming into the NBA, so definitely I’m learning things off the court to better myself going into the NBA.”

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The top of the draft has plenty of uncertainty, including who’s going at No. 1. That could be LaMelo Ball, Wiseman or Anthony Edwards. The next few picks could be any number of players, including Okongwu, and by the time the Pistons pick, he could be off the board already.

That’s fine for Okongwu, who has had to wait well beyond the usual June draft period and in the five months, he hasn’t gotten anxious.

“I don’t really think about that. Obviously, mocks are going to happen and people are going to put stuff on social media, but I don’t really get into that,” he said. “Wherever I’m projected, I’m projected. As long as I’m selected, I’m happy wherever. I’m not nervous at all happy for where I go. We’re excited for everything that’s about to happen.”

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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