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Thursday January 21st, 2021 6:17AM

Hawks land USC C Okongwu with sixth pick n the NBA draft

By Paul Newberry
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks added to their young nucleus by selecting center Onyeka Okongwu from Southern California with the No. 6 pick n the NBA draft on Wednesday night.

The 6-foot-9, 245-pound Okongwu joins Trae Young and John Collins on a team that is looking to take a major leap forward after three straight losing seasons.

Okongwu shot nearly 62% from the field in his lone season with the Trojans. While a bit undersized for a center, he has good offensive skills around the basket and stood out for his shot-blocking ability.

Though several mock drafts projected the Hawks would go for Iowa State point guard Tyrese Haliburton to take some of the backcourt load off Young, Atlanta went with a bigger player when Okongwu fell to their spot.

Okongwu's defensive skills stood out to the Hawks, who ranked last in the league in points allowed (119.7 per game).

“He's a very, very good defensive basketball player,” Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk said. “He protects the rim. He can rebound."

Offensively, the Hawks are looking for players who can stretch the court with their outside shooting. Okongwu hasn't demonstrated that sort of ability, but Schlenk believes he has the potential to improve his range.

“He's a good free-throw shooter,” the GM said. “We think with time, he'll be able to extend his range offensively.”

Okongwu has been inspired to succeed since his older brother Nnamdi died from a skateboard accident in 2014.

“I just promised myself that no matter what I do for the rest of my life, I'm going to keep my brother's legacy alive,” Okongwu said. “His life was cut short, but his little brother is here to keep his memory alive forever and always.”

The Hawks added to their haul of young talent since launching a massive rebuild just two years after making a surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2015.

They selected Collins in the first round in 2017, landed Young in a blockbuster draft-night trade in 2018, and grabbed De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish with first-round picks a year ago.

Now, they'll be looking to add some veteran players to the roster. Schlenk has more than $43 million in cap space to use in free agency, which begins this weekend.

“We've got a lot of cap space,” he said. “We're looking to be active, try to go get some guys who will go well with the young core we’ve been able to get through the draft.”

Okongwu gives the Hawks a couple of new centers heading into the pandemic-delayed season. The team acquired Clint Capela from Houston in a trade-deadline deal last season, though he was injured at the time and didn't get a chance to play for Atlanta before the season was halted by the coronavirus.

The Hawks also had another pick in Wednesday night's draft, a second-round selection at No. 50 overall.

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