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New Orleans Pelicans should strive to find a way to select Onyeka Okongwu in 2020 NBA Draft

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I’d be extremely happy with one of Patrick Williams, Tyrese Haliburton or Killian Hayes, too, but “Big O” is the dream

Arizona v USC Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans roster has a major flaw — it lacks an individual sufficiently reliable to carry out most of Stan Van Gundy’s expected marching orders on defense.

  • Protect the rim
  • Stay in front of your man
  • Don’t get abused in pick-and-roll coverage
  • Limit opponents to one shot
  • Do not foul

To field a good defense, a team must be able to do all of these things consistently well together; however, one can circumvent the process somewhat by having a stellar interior presence who is also versatile enough to guard opponents out on the perimeter.

Think prime Dwight Howard, Draymond Green during Golden State’s magnificent run to three titles in four years, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the current favorite of many, Bam Adebayo.

Team defenses can’t help but be golden with a player of that caliber around.

The best defender on the Pelicans — and he’s one of the best in the entire league — was obviously Jrue Holiday, but as avid onlookers learned while he was in New Orleans, possessing a stopper at the guard position doesn’t ensure the rest of a team’s defense will fall neatly into place.

Before the start of last season, the Pelicans felt they had covered their bases sufficiently. Derrick Favors and his proven defensive track record were brought in to man the middle, and the prevailing thought was that the whole team would be much better defensively, forcing a good number of blocks and steals. I always think back to when David Griffin quoted the team’s analytics director about the first one to 95 points winning the game during the introductory conference for Ingram, Lonzo, Hart and Favors.

“Just because you make a good plan, doesn’t mean that’s what’s gonna happen.”

Thank you, Taylor Swift!

The 2019-20 Pelicans gave up an average of 117.1 points per game, the fourth highest opponent scoring average in the league. They managed to hold the opposition under 95 points once in 72 games, and just four times under 100 points.

Ouch.

Favors went on to miss a large chunk of time, but when he was on the floor, he often lacked the athleticism and mobility witnessed regularly in Utah. In addition, the Pelicans finished 19th in steals and 13th in blocks. Nothing dragged those numbers down more unexpectedly than Zion Williamson’s meager 0.7 steals and 0.4 blocks per game — a far cry from his averages of 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks in his lone year at Duke.

In hindsight, not having suitable replacements for Favors and Zion while they were out hurt badly, but hopefully the organization took good notes and will avoid repeating the same mistake again.

While some internal improvement should be expected — Zion reliving his Blue Devil days thanks to improved conditioning and Van Gundy’s teachings having an effect, the front office needs to take the biggest step. The Pelicans must add several talented defensive-orientated players.

This chore can be accomplished through trade or free agency, but for today’s purposes, we’re going to focus exclusively on the draft and perhaps shed some light as to why the New Orleans Pelicans have been rumored to move up in the 2020 NBA Draft.

The apple of my eye is Onyeka Okongwu, the freshman center out of USC, but Patrick Williams out of Florida St. is a close second. (Killian Hayes and Tyrese Haliburton round out my preferred foursome.) I have my fingers crossed that one of these players are sitting square in David Griffin’s crosshairs, too, but especially Okongwu. Let’s hope the Pelicans figure out a way to move up in tonight’s draft!

Draft experts consider Okongwu a tad undersized for the NBA center position (6’9 height, 7’1 wingspan and 245 pounds), but I believe he has the right build for today’s game, especially once his 19-year-old frame finishes filling out completely. However, he should be able to make an immediate impact on the defensive end.

Okongwu protects the rim incredibly well, utilizing great anticipation, athleticism and technique (verticality!), but possesses the mobility to guard players more than adequately outside of his position. Honestly, one wouldn’t guess that he weighs 245 pounds considering the fluidity of movement.

Impressive stuff, no? But if you need more, look what lies under the hood, per one blurb of Sam Vecenie’s incredibly detailed write-up on Okongwu’s strengths in The Athletic’s Top 100 NBA Draft prospects for 2020: Final rankings, tiers and Big Board

All starts with his mentality. This dude plays hard all the time. His motor runs non-stop. He crashes the glass with force and contests everything he can. There is an intense professionalism with the way he goes about his game. Has terrific intersection of power and athleticism that allows him to make an impact on both ends, especially when combined with his propensity to work. Plus, has absolutely elite bounce, especially off of two feet. He plays like he has a trampoline under his feet at all times.

Okongwu’s offense isn’t much to brag about yet, but there’s a decent chance he develops into more than just a rim runner. However, his ball handling and passing could stand to improve. While he rarely shot the ball outside the paint, a 72% free throw percentage gives rise to hope that maybe a little pick-and-pop could be in store. To be honest, his jumper doesn’t look bad — one can detect a little feel and soft touch in the following video.

According to Mike Schmitz on a recent ESPN Draft show, Okongwu is the only player under 20 years of age in the NCAAs to post 40-minute averages of 20+ points, 10+ rebounds, 3.5+ blocks, 1.5+ steals and 65% true shooting percentage. (His per game averages of 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 1.2 steals look good on paper, but that factoid deserved the lights.)

While some might point to the lower than desirable rebounding numbers, understand that most of Okongwu’s minutes came at power forward. Nick Rakocevic was USC’s starting center and he gobbled down 8.3 rebounds per game.

However, Okongwu’s game goes beyond just numbers.

Behind Okongwu’s great basketball prowess also lies a wonderfully grounded soul. He’s been shaped by both the highs and lows of life more than most close to his tender age.

In addition to sharing a unique familiarity with Lonzo Ball — the Ball brothers and Okongwu played together at Chino Hills and formed a solid friendship — and experiencing lots of team and individual success in high school — named California’s Mr. Basketball twice and once went toe-to-toe with Zion Williamson, there also sits a really heartbreaking story of personal tragedy.

A little over six years ago, Okongwu lost his older brother, Nnamdi, to a horrific accident when he fell off a skateboard and sustained a bad head injury. Soon thereafter, Onyeka thought about quitting basketball, but he persevered.

But without his brother? “I didn’t play basketball for a while,” Onyeka says. “I was like, ‘Do I really want to do this?’”

The more Onyeka wrestled with that question, the more he realized his brother would have wanted him to keep playing. He vowed to play for him. Every time he felt down, he’d tell himself: You’ll be all right. Be strong. Life goes on. Have faith. ”God is not going to give you something you can’t handle,” he says.

Chino Hills embraced him as he joined the team. They had all known Nnamdi, who played for the school. “We all went up to him and told him, ‘We’re your brothers,’” says Andre Ball, a Pepperdine guard and cousin of Lonzo and LaMelo. “We were there for him. It was rough, the first couple of months after it happened, but when he was on the court, he didn’t look depressed. He switched into this gear, like: It’s time to hoop.”

The court became a place where he felt connected to his brother, protected by his brother. “Basketball became his heaven,” Kate says. “It’s where he found his peace, where he found his soul.”

Okongwu wears a #21 uniform in memory of his brother, who wore the same number, as well as a NNAMDI OKONGWU #21, WE WILL NEVER FORGET YOU wristband. (Seriously, please give Mirin Fader’s excellent article a read in full.)

In short, Okongwu seems like the whole package. He’s the center that Stan Van Gundy could use to anchor the defense for the long-term, a teammate that’s an ideal fit for a core of Zion, Ingram and Lonzo, and a figure in the locker room — as well as outside of it — that would seamlessly connect with teammates as well as an entire city on a good spiritual level. Don’t overlook the last part because David Griffin has mentioned the importance of having good human beings around this franchise previously.

After a season of watching Favors give perimeter players a lot of space which resulted in wide-open jumpers, Jahlil Okafor get routinely destroyed whenever he stepped outside of the paint, and Jaxson Hayes rawness get exposed all too easily, Okongwu sounds like a beautiful breath of fresh air.

Yep, you can bet on the fact that I’ll be praying to the basketball gods throughout the rest of this draft day to somehow make Okongwu a reality soon in New Orleans.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.