We interrupt your ongoing attempts to make sense of the NBA’s impending 2022 playoff picture to pop champagne for every squad’s top prospect.
Atlanta Hawks: Onyeka Okongwu
Some may want to grant a lack-of-availability exemption to De’Andre Hunter given how much time he’s missed through his first two-plus seasons. Onyeka Okongwu still feels like the most correct answer.
Injuries and limited playing time have capped his exposure since getting drafted at No. 6 overall in 2020. There may always be a mystery element to his role and impact so long as he’s on an Atlanta Hawks team that features both Clint Capela and John Collins.
When Okongu does play, though, he routinely offers glimpses into a more advanced skill set. Near-positionless defense remains his calling card, and he brings a presence around the basket that belies his 6’8″ stature. Opponents are shooting nearly six percentage points worse inside six feet when challenged by him.
Anything extra Okongwu provides on offense will be huge. Most will bill him as a rim-runner and lob-catcher, but he has the potential to be more. He is getting better at establishing position when paths to the basket aren’t unobstructed and seems more comfortable putting the ball on the floor if he needs to gather himself around the hoop, and there’s an on-a-dime floater in his arsenal worth plumbing further.
Boston Celtics: Grant Williams
It feels like Grant Williams has been around forever, perhaps because he’s survived many different iterations of the Boston Celtics both on and off the court through his first few seasons. In actuality, he has yet to wrap up Year 3, and this is the first time he’s on track to clear 20 minutes per game.
Initial projections had him developing into Baby Al Horford. That clearly isn’t happening. But he has turned himself into an endlessly scalable player, someone who opens all sorts of lineup combinations thanks to his low usage, floor spacing and capacity to soak up reps alongside other bigs.
Since we’re all friends here, I’ll be honest: It is hard for me to pinpoint what, exactly, Williams should become on defense. But he has some real portability. Bigs who don’t wield obscene amounts of explosion cannot typically recover as well when caught off-balance, in space, versus slippery ball-handlers. Williams every so often makes a stop that hearkens to his extreme shiftiness—like when he blocked Ja Morant while backpedaling in Boston’s March 3 win over Memphis.
Williams has entrenched himself as almost a pure accessory at the other end, in the best imaginable way. He can decision-make around the basket and has traces of a floor game, but he now cuts his teeth as an outside marksman. Nearly two-thirds of his attempts come from beyond the arc, where he’s burying 44 percent of his shots, including a whopping 51 percent from the corners.
Brooklyn Nets: Cam Thomas
Here’s a list of every rookie this season with more 20-point games than Cam Thomas (10):
Cade Cunningham (17)
Jalen Green (15)
Franz Wagner (15)
Scottie Barnes (13)
This is ridiculously flattering company to hover around for someone selected at No. 27, and who entered the season as a break-in-case-of-emergency option for a Brooklyn Nets team peddled as a championship formality. Caveats galore have since turned Thomas into a necessity, and he’s delivered with some truly mesmerizing shot-making in ultra-difficult situations.
Brooklyn needs his three-point clip to climb, and it will. He has the look and feel of someone who will inevitably down triples at an above-average rate, even as he diets on a steady stream of off-the-dribble opportunities. His shot profile wants for rim pressure, and he does indeed bail out too early on drives. But it’s hard to quibble with his selection when he’s connecting on 57-plus percent of his attempts between 10 and 16 feet and north of 40 percent on his long twos.
More complicated passing and better wing defense will be swing skills for Thomas over the longer term. His bucket-getting alone, though, is enough to render him one of the biggest steals (so far) from the 2021 draft.
Charlotte Hornets: James Bouknight
Deciding between James Bouknight and Kai Jones is waaay harder than it should be.
Both are rookies. Neither is playing real minutes with the Charlotte Hornets. One was drafted at the end of the lottery (Bouknight.) The other came off the board at No. 19. Default to the lottery pick. End of story.
And yet, Jones has put up video-game numbers in the G League while gauging the full extent of his range from the perimeter. He also fills a more glaring need in the Hornets rotation, both immediately and over the longer haul. This might be their center of the future in training.
I’m tilting toward Bouknight anyway. Count it as the lazy lottery-pick default if you like. Personally, I just assign more value to wings who can create on-ball or slide into a complementary shooter’s role depending on the lineup composition.
To be clear: Bouknight has a long way to go. Unimpeded license in the G League hasn’t helped his efficiency, and he may be overtaxed if tasked with table-setting and creating enough separation to generate his own offense from the point-of-attack. But the range of outcomes on his skill set includes a higher peak than that from Jones—for now, at least.
Chicago Bulls: Patrick Williams
Ayo Dosunmu comes pretty damn close to usurping Patrick Williams in this prospect ladder. His rookie season has obliterated even the most optimistic expectations; he’s flashed everything from on-ball creation to dependable outside shooting to indescribably effective defense across roughly 11 of the five positions on the floor.
Depending on what happens with Williams’ recovery from a left wrist injury, there’s also a not-insignificant chance Dosunmu racks up more total minutes this season than the former logs through his first two. That is bonkers.
So, no, I won’t put up a fight against anyone claiming I’m an unstoppable moron who doesn’t watch the games. Dosunmu’s case grows ever stronger looking at the breadth of defensive assignments he covers from the point of attack. But I’m trying not to be swayed by recency bias.
A healthy Williams has the size and length to be indiscriminately pitted against superstar wings, which should render him the higher-end difference-maker if he pans out. And while Dosunmu’s on-ball offense currently has him beat by a mile, Williams seems more a plug-and-play as a shooter and someone who will have an easier time getting off in-between looks in traffic and over trees.