Among the NBA teams that maintain their own D-League affiliate, the Houston Rockets is probably the one organization that uses it the most. Just over the last four years, the likes of Patrick Beverley, Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker have been able to utilize the Rio Grande Valley Vipers to evolve their games and eventually become solid members of the Rockets rotation.
A player that’s currently looking to follow in their footstep is their 6’11 rookie center Chinanu Onuaku. Onuaku arrived in Houston after a strong two-year stint in Louisville he averaged 9.9 points, 8.5 boards and 2 blocks on 62% from the field in 24.6 minutes per game during his sophomore stint.
Despite that very respectable sophomore season, Onuaku had to wait until the 37th pick before he was selected by the Rockets. That pick came as a pretty significant surprise due to multiple NBA Draft insiders predicting Onuaku to be picked from between the late lottery to early/mid 20’s in the weeks and months leading up to his selection.
Due to his standing as an early 2nd round pick and relative inexperience, the Rockets weren’t necessarily ready to give Onuaku a spot in the team’s rotation from the jump. That hesitancy resulted in the Rockets sending Onuaku down to the D-League and Rio Grande Valley Vipers, a place where he’s spent most of his rookie season. In the Vipers initial 36 games, Onuaku has been with the squad for 30 of them, where he’s currently averaging 14 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks on 65% from the field in only 28.6 minutes per game.
While Onauku has impressed throughout the D-League season, his play hit the apex in the Vipers Friday night matchup against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. In 33 minutes, Onaku posted a massive double-double with a career-high 27 point and 20 rebound performance on 10-18 from the field and 7-10 from the free throw line. That performance by Onuaku marks the 2nd straight day where an NBA assignee posted up a 20 point, 20 rebound performance in a D-League game.
During that outstanding game, Onuaku showed the same tools that allowed him to be one of the best bigs in last year’s NBA Draft. Throughout the game, Onuaku worked as a terrific pick-and-roll option alongside the Vipers’ crop of talented guards. In most of those pick-and-rolls, Onuaku worked as an on-ball cutter where he showed incredible mobility for a 6’10, 245 pound big. That quickness was way too much for the Mad Ants front-court players as he was able to finish with a slew of tenacious alley-oop dunks.
Alongside those great pick-and-roll cuts, Onuaku was also able to dominate the opposition on the offensive glass. Compiling seven offensive boards in that victory against Fort Wayne, Onuaku just out-hustled the opposition through aggressive box-outs. That aggression combined with his strong frame allows Onuaku to be an uncontainable force for most D-League players.
While it’s unlikely that we’ll see Chinanu Onuaku carry this momentum to the NBA, it’s still a good sign of what Daryl Morey and the Rockets organization should expect for years to come.