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Houston Rockets Draft Prospect: Chinanu Onuaku

Mar 1, 2016; Louisville, KY, USA; Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets guard Adam Smith (2) shoots against Louisville Cardinals center Chinanu Onuaku (32) during the first half at KFC Yum! Center. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 1, 2016; Louisville, KY, USA; Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets guard Adam Smith (2) shoots against Louisville Cardinals center Chinanu Onuaku (32) during the first half at KFC Yum! Center. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports
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The Houston Rockets are not good on defense. It doesn’t take an NBA analyst to know that. But what if the Rockets became the proud owners of one of the most dynamic defensive duos in the game? If Houston takes Chinanu Onuaku in the second round, the defensive lapses could be a thing of the past.

From Louisville, center Chinanu Onuaku is one of the top defensive big men in the draft. At just 19 years old, Onuaku was second in the nation in Defensive Rating (84.9) and third in the Atlantic Coast Conference with 2.0 blocks per game. And if you pair him with future Rocket’s starting center Clint Capela, you’ve got the makings of a great defensive pair of rim protectors.

Onuaku also had a strong outing at the Draft combine. He tallied 11 points, seven rebounds, two blocks, two assists on 4-6 shooting in 21 minutes of the first day. His second outing, he scored 10 points while going 5-7 from the field to go along with three rebounds, three blocks and three steals while maintaining a strong defensive presence according to several scouts watching.

There’s a lot to like about Onuaku. His size and defensive nature has been compared to Kendrick Perkins and his explosiveness inside also reminds scouts of a bigger J.J. Hickson and Tarik Black. At his best, Onuaku recorded six straight double-doubles while averaging 13.2 points and 12.3 rebounds per game.

It’s still not 100 percent certain if Onuaku will stay in the Draft or return to the Cardinals for his junior season. But as a long-reach, big man who can protect the rim and do the dirty work, he may be a defensive force in the making that could begin to change the soft-minded defense of the Rockets.

And, after taking Montrezl Harrell last year with the 32nd overall pick last year, it’d be interesting to see if the Rockets take another big man from Louisville in the second round this year.

The Skills

His defense is what has earned him several looks by NBA scouts. For a strong, traditional center, possible power forward, he’s well coordinated and moves well on the court. Onuaku also is more diverse than just a stand at the rim shot blocker. His ability to defend the pick-and-roll and move in transition for chase down blocks is rivaled by few. Onuaku can defend either deep in the post, get a hand in the face of a jump shooter or keep up with a mobile power forward or quick-footed center.

He’s also a solid rebounder for his size and position. Onuaku averaged 8.5 rebounds per game which was almost doubled from the 4.6 boards he averaged in his freshman campaign. Several scouts have also noted that his vertical leap is impressive for a 6’10”-245 lb power forward/center. His defensive prowess  and rebounding tenacity make him an all but extinct big man that the NBA could stand to gain from.

Offensively, Onuaku’s game is limited. But, you don’t find a ton of great, even solid, 19-year old prospects, so it shouldn’t be a huge area of concern for NBA general managers. Onuaku shot 62 percent from the field last season and averaged 9.9 points per game. He also has one of the best court visions at his position, as he’s shown good passing for a center and ability to hit the right man at the right time with the ball. Whether it be a teammate cutting to the basket or a wing on the three-point line, Onuaku has improved tremendously as a passer from when he first came to Louisville.

Onuaku does all of his damage in the direct vicinity of the basket, while being very limited in his production outside of five feet from the bucket.  He works very well with the pick-and-roll, as he possesses reliable hands for close to the rim finishes, making him an ideal fit in D’Antoni’s system. With someone like Onuaku setting screens, grabbing loose balls and protecting the rim, he would give the Rockets a clear advantage moving forward.

What really makes Onuaku a strong pick is that he knows what he’s all about. While his offensive game is a work in progress, his defensive skills are greatness in the making that he takes pride in. Few players are willing to play tough-nosed, grind it out defense. And fewer take pride in being known as a defensive stopper. Onuaku works at his defense and wants to be known as the best protector in the league.

Specifics

  • Height: 6’10″
  • Weight: 245 lbs
  • Country: USA
  • Position: Power Forward/Center
  • Age: 19
  • Standing Reach: 9’1.5″
  • Wingspan: 7’2.5″
  • College or Pro League: Louisville
  • Stat line: 31 Games, 9.9 Points Per Game, 8.5 Rebounds Per Game, 2.0 Blocks Per Game, 0.8 Steals Per Game, 62.0 FG%, 59 FT%

Current Rank

Draft Express: 37

NBA Draft.net: 86 overall in Top 100 Prospects

NBA.com: David Aldridge ranks Onuaku ninth among centers and says he’ll go in the second round

Sports Illustrated: 43 overall in Top 60 Prospects

CBS Sports: 33 overall in Top 150 Prospects

The Questions

Onuaku’s limited offensive effectiveness greatly shadows his NBA potential. While several scouts relish his defensive talents, his offense raises several questions. He has no outside shooting ability and is only able to truly score consistently from right at the basket. Even in the paint, he lacks a reliable offensive post game and has yet to develop a soft touch around the rim. His free throw shooting also needs improvement, averaging under 60 percent in two years.

While his long strides allow him to move up and down the court well for a center, that rarely transfers into speed with the ball. Onuaku is unable at this point to generate any offense for himself, as he relies primarily on offensive rebounds and put backs or dishes from teammates into the low block. His footwork needs a lot of work and his counter moves in the post make him a liability on that end of the court.

As stated earlier, Onuaku knows what he’s about on defense. On offense though, that’s not always the case. Onuaku often likes to stretch his limitations, as was proven by his high 27 percent turnover rate. His shot-selection isn’t always stellar, as it seemed towards the end of the year that he was trying to show off parts of his game that simply aren’t currently in his repertoire. Long story short, the defense is there, but the offense is a toss up, even if Onuaku doesn’t always think so.

He also exhibited inconsistency for much of his two years at Louisville. Often, Onuaku lacked motivation and even seemed to move at half-speed in some of the biggest moments of the season. It’s not uncommon for someone his age, but it’s something that he needs to figure out before teams are willing to take a chance on him.

The Fit

Ideally, Onuaku could be another great defender  in the making like Capela.

Mar 1, 2016; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals center Chinanu Onuaku (32) dunks against Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets guard Marcus Georges-Hunt (3) during the second half at KFC Yum! Center. Louisville defeated Georgia Tech 56-53. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

And if Houston fans have it there way, they’d love nothing else than to take bets on which of the two send more shots into the stands. Capela (6’10”-240 lbs) is 22 years old. Onuaku (6’10”-245 lbs) has yet to celebrate his 20th birthday. The two together offer a lot of potential.

The downside is that neither offer a reliable offensive game. Capela’s game is farther along and he could be given more opportunities down low entering his third season. Onuaku’s offensive progression (if honestly there ever is any) would take years to develop. But in the meantime, you’d get a defensive weapon that would consistently be among the tops in the league in blocks.

The other downside is that long term, it may be a liability to have both Capela and Onuaku on the court together at the same time. When you consider the Rockets up-tempo offense, that will only speed up with D’Antoni at the helm, having one man who can barely keep up is livable if you’re Houston. But two big men, although they’re not slow, they’re certainly not fast, could hurt the Rockets in the transition. A solution could have Onuaku steadily come off the bench as a defensive stopper, coming in for Capela when needed. And if one of them gets into foul trouble, you can keep your defense in tact with the other.

Ultimately however, the defensive upside would be greater than the offensive hindrance, especially when you have Harden and his band of merry shooters leading the charge. Onuaku also was recently diagnosed with a heart issue that has caused concern among NBA executives. The diagnosis is minor, but can be worrisome.

Chinanu Onuaku's heart condition has caused his draft stock to slip a little. (Via ESPN)

— NBA Flash News (@NBAFLASHNEWS) June 11, 2016

#NBA teams reportedly worried about Chinanu Onuaku’s heart issue https://t.co/Ilz6glonP8

— Today's Fastbreak (@TodaysFastbreak) June 11, 2016

Chinanu Onuaku says he needs a "minor" heart procedure before continuing the pursuit of his NBA dream. https://t.co/7zPcglbnS4

— ESPN College BBall (@ESPNCBB) May 17, 2016

Onuaku is a defensive beast. Few can block shots like he can and he plays great man-to-man defense on the inside and outside. With time, the offense may develop into a somewhat reliable low post scorer to go along with his already impressive offensive rebounding skills. Upside, he could become one of the best rim protectors as a starter on most teams. Downside, his offense never turns into anything more than dunks and put-backs and his lack of motivation gets in the way of his already impressive defensive game.

He’s worth a shot, but at 19 years old, there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

Awards and Honors

  • Second in the Nation in Defensive Rating (84.9)
  • Third in the ACC in Blocks Per Game (2.0)
  • Gold Medal in U19 World Championships
  • Private School State Championship in Senior Year of High School
  • 2015 All-ACC Academic

Next: Houston Rockets Draft Prospect Series: Demetrius Jackson

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