The Hawks have one of the best young cores in the NBA. Their superstar point guard, Trae Young, is only 23 years old and still ascending. The recently acquired All-Star, Dejounte Murray, is 25 years old. The ever-reliable and ultra-efficient John Collins is 24 years old. And De’Andre Hunter, who has high expectations entering his fourth season, is also 24 years old. Atlanta’s basketball club has a bright future, but that’s not even considering the even younger prospects on the roster.
Greg Schwartz of Bleacher Report recently ranked each NBA team’s three best prospects with the criteria being 23 years old or younger, three seasons or less in the NBA, and on a standard, guaranteed contract for the upcoming season. Schwartz’s list was comprised of Onyeka Okongwu, AJ Griffin, and Jalen Johnson.
It’s only a matter of time before Okongwu passes Clint Capela as the best center on this roster. He’s got incredible switchability on defense and is already a good rim protector and shot finisher around the basket. He needs to develop somewhat of an outside shot to claim the starting job, however.
Griffin slipped to 16th overall in this year’s draft, giving the Hawks incredible value with a player who could end up being the best three-point shooter in his class (44.7 percent at Duke) if his durability isn’t an issue.
Johnson is a big, athletic forward who didn’t see the floor much as a rookie but could receive more minutes this season with Danilo Gallinari traded in the Dejounte Murray deal. He’s an excellent lob threat who needs to improve his three-point shooting.
OO was phenomenal when he was on the court last season. He’s a menace defensively and even draws comparisons to Bam Adebayo quite a bit. The former Chino Hills star improved in nearly every facet of the game in his second season, increasing his field goal percentage from 64.4% to 69%, his field goal attempts from 3.0 to 4.7, his free throw percentage from 63.2% to 72.7%, his rebounds from 3.3 to 5.9 per game, his blocks from 0.7 to 1.3 per game, and his points from 4.6 to 8.2 per game.
And now, the Hawks are determined to get him more playing time as he approaches his third NBA season. Okongwu’s versatility is undeniable. He’s able to step out on the perimeter and defend smaller, quicker guards and also defend the best centers in the Association in the paint. There were moments against Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Giannis Antetokounmpo where the USC product looked like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
On offense, Okongwu has paired very nicely with Young in the pick-and-roll. He has the ability to score or facilitate out of it too. His touch around the rim is already head and shoulders better than Clint Capela. Moreover, OO told media members in his exit interview that he vows to return in 2022-23 with a jump shot. If he can even be a serviceable shooter from the midrange, his impact will grow exponentially, which will result in him eating into Capela’s minutes.
Griffin is set to have a somewhat significant role as a rookie. After trading away Kevin Huerter, the team needs shooters. If there’s anything the former Duke Blue Devil can do, it’s shoot. Check out some of these metrics from college:
- Spot up: 91st percentile (65/151)
- Off screen: 98th percentile (15/24)
- All HC jumpers: 97th percentile (77/169)
- Catch & shoot: 95th percentile (48/105)
- All jumpers off dribble: 95th percentile (29/64)
Jalen Johnson had a less-than-ideal rookie season. The frontcourt was loaded with no obvious path for JJ to get minutes. When he did get playing time with the Hawks, he had a minimal impact — only averaging 2.4 points and 1.2 rebounds in 5.5 minutes per game. Johnson did have a couple of games where he totaled more than 10 points, adding seven rebounds in one of those contests, but most of his production and any glimpse into what kind of player he could become came with the College Park Skyhawks — averaging 20.1 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.7 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game while canning 37.5% of his 3’s and shooting 44.8% from the field.
The team hopes Johnson will bud into an impactful two-way player, but the sample size is far too small to draw any rational analysis. It will be fascinating to see what he can do in his second year.
Photographer: Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire