Editor's note: As the Warriors prepare for the 2020 NBA draft, during which they will have a lottery pick for the first time since 2012, NBC Sports Bay Area will present a twice-weekly series spotlighting two players expected to be evaluated. This is the fifth of a 12-part series over a six-week span.
One sure thing about the NBA is that its closest observers fall in love every season. Usually, it’s a third-year player of relatively low profile who makes such an impact he sends scouts scurrying back to their dungeons to re-review old video to see what they missed.
Kind of like Draymond Green in 2014-15, his third season in the league.
In the 2018-19 season, that player was Toronto Raptors forward Paskal Siakam, in his third year. This year, it’s Miami Heat forward Bam Adebayo, also in his third year.
Three years from now, it might be Onyeka Okongwu, the 6-foot-9, 235-pound freshman forward/center from USC who announced March 25 that he was declaring for the 2020 draft.
As the Warriors evaluate the top prospects available, Okongwu is on their radar. Studying video, he leaps off the screen. A teammate of all three Ball brothers -- Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo -- at powerful Chino Hills High, Okongwu has nice offensive skills and very good defensive skills. His greatest attribute, however, is energy. This guy seems to have two or three reservoirs of stamina.
Okongwu understands that coaches love high-effort players, particularly when that hard work is effective. Consider his response in a Q&A session with the Southern California News Group when asked what area of his game could make an immediate impact in the NBA:
“Straight energy and hustle,” he said. “I’m one of those players that will give unrelenting energy and effort every game. That’s what I’m always going to be able to give out.”
Okongwu, 19, certainly fills a need for the Warriors and fits the profile of what they like from their big men. He’s a lob threat, with terrific hands, nimble footwork and the ability to spin off either shoulder from either block.
USC freshman Onyeka Okongwu showing why he’s a projected Top 10 pick. Sheesh pic.twitter.com/bUTfl9Kv97— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) March 7, 2020
He made believers out of more than a few opposing coaches, including former NBA player Terry Porter, now at the University of Portland.
“He’s what we call TC -- a tough cover,” Porter told reporters after Okongwu went for 20 points and 10 rebounds in USC’s 76-65 victory over the Pilots. “His size, his motor, his athleticism. He’s so quick to the ball. He just never quits.”
Okongwu inhales rebounds, treats the rim as his personal property and -- this is something coach Steve Kerr adores -- also can guard multiple positions.
Observing Okongwu, one sees an elite athlete offering at various times similarities to Adebayo (high motor), Montrezl Harrell (sheer relentlessness), Tristan Thompson (beastly rebounding), Ben Wallace (rim protection) and John Collins (inside scoring).
The most notable weakness in Okongwu’s game is his offense outside the paint. He has no three-ball and doesn’t space the floor. One look at the Warriors’ roster, however, leads to the belief they’ve already got that element covered with shooters like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins.
Okongwu is bound to run into the shopworn canard that he is “too small” to play center. The Warriors can look past that and see a wingspan that is 7-foot-1, a vertical leap approaches 40 inches and a physique from the muscle factory.
Besides, their best lineup in recent years featured a 6-foot-6 center who many scouts considered too small to be effective at power forward. Right, Draymond?
Okongwu is a consensus lottery pick, the only question being how high.
The Warriors, with the worst record in the NBA, could have the No. 1 overall pick and can’t drop lower than the fifth pick. They must discern whether Okongwu is worthy of being a top-five pick, even as most scouts are skeptical of that.
Should the Warriors land the No. 1 pick and are interested in Okongwu, another question they’d have to ponder is how far down can they trade and still secure him?
Here’s what they want no part of -- failing to select Okongwu in the draft, whenever it occurs, and three years later wishing they had.
Onyeka Okongwu profile
Position: Power forward/center
Birthdate: Dec. 11, 2000 (19)
Hometown: Los Angeles
2019-20 stats: 16.2 points (61.6 percent FG, 25.0 percent 3p, 72.0 percent FT), 8.6 rebounds, 2.7 blocks.
What they’re saying: “He’s a quality individual, he works hard and has a world of potential. That’s the scary thing. He’s only 19. He’s special now, but his work ethic tells me he’s determined to keep getting better. And probably will.” – Eastern Conference scout.