Atlanta Hawks center expresses interest to be Gilas’ naturalized player

MANILA, Philippines – As the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) released a copy of its 60-man initial lineup for the Asian Games, an unheralded name has suddenly become the talk of the Philippine basketball scene.

Onyeka Okongwu. Does the name ring a bell?

Onyeka Okongwu averaged 9.9 ppg and 7.2 rpg during NBA 2022-2023 season
Onyeka Okongwu averaged 9.9 ppg and 7.2 rpg during NBA 2022-2023 season. Photo Credit: NBA

Majority of Filipino basketball fans are still baffled upon seeing this name in SBP’s list of players submitted to the Asian Games Committee. But for most of them, they’ve never heard of it.

The document also states that he is for naturalization which bewildered the Pinoy hoop junkies even further.

Onyeka Okongwu, is a 22-year old, 6’9” forward-center playing for Atlanta Hawks. Not only is he an NBA player but a first round draft pick wayback in 2020, sixth pick overall to be specific.

To dig deeper, Okongwu averaged 9.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game during the 2022-2023 season. Not shabby at all for a backup center.

What is the connection between Okongwu and Gilas Pilipinas, and what sparked his interest in pursuing Filipino naturalization?

Okongwu is no stranger to Filipino culture. As a student, he lived and played in Chino Hills, California where the Filipino community is vast and bold before heading to University of Southern California to play for the Trojans in the NCAA.

Aside from being surrounded by Filipinos, he was also mentored by a Filipino coach, Christian Gopez who’s also the founder of Edge Basketball International and cousin of TerraFirma Dyip guard, Alex Cabagnot.

Okongwu’s pleasant experience living with Filipinos in the U.S. could’ve piqued his interest to be a naturalized Filipino and play for the national squad.

Can he be a great addition to Gilas?

Let's look at the numbers: 9.9 points per game in the NBA is quite impressive. To give you a point of reference, Andray Blatche, during his time in the league, averaged just slightly more at 10.1 points per game. It's remarkably close, isn't it?

Does that mean Okongwu will be replacing Justin Brownlee as Gilas’ naturalized player?

Not at all. Brownlee is such a great fit for the team, his game demeanor indeed, compliments the coaching style of Coach Cone; the two of them in fact have six titles with Ginebra and that says a lot about Brownlee’s ability to aid Gilas.

However, Brownlee is aging, he’s 35, and has few years left in his playing career. He’ll slow down and that’s inevitable. When that time comes, Gilas would definitely need some younger legs just like Okongwu.

Okongwu’s inclusion to the 60-man pool is strategic, meaning, SBP isn’t complacent and thinks ahead. Everyone is aware that it takes quite some time to naturalize a foreigner here in the country. So, SBP prepares for Gilas’ future which is a good sign.

It’ll be good if Okongwu solidifies his intention to get naturalized and SBP, along with the government must make that happen.

It’s like having life insurance, to be honest. It’s always best to have multiple contingency plans or multiple reinforcements as basketball is a very physical game and injury is almost unavoidable.

Should Okongwu’s naturalization push through, the Philippines will once again be a force to be reckoned with not only in Asia but globally.

Imagine having Okongwu, Jordan Clarkson, Andray Blatche, Angelo Kouame, plus Marcus Douthit as your options. As a Filipino basketball aficionado, what more could you ask for?

— Joey Boy Capos, The Summit Express

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