For most, the NBA is an incredible escape from the trials and tribulations of the struggles that one might go through. It’s an opportunity to sit back and relax on a nightly basis to watch the best basketball players in the world. From witnessing the continued brilliance of LeBron James, Kevin Durant impressing with his versatility or just simply watching Giannis just dunk on Aron Baynes, there really much better entertainment in the world than this league.
While watching the NBA can be incredible entertainment for millions of people throughout the world, that same joy doesn’t remain there for some of the players that make up the rosters for the 30 teams. At the same time that some of the aforementioned stars shine bright, there’s a cornucopia of players that grind to get consistent playing time or even stay on a team’s roster. Although there’s some players that eventually fight through those struggles and get a consistent role, a lot of ballers don’t have that same kind of luck.
An example of a player that fits into that second category is 6’9 big Chinanu Onuaku. Despite having the joy of getting selected 37th overall by the Houston Rockets in the 2016 NBA Draft, the former Louisville big never had an opportunity much at the NBA level. In his first two seasons with the team, he only played 71 combined minutes with the Houston Rockets.
While he never got his feet wet in the NBA, Onuaku was a mainstay in the D/G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers where he shined as a consistent double-double threat. That’s evident as he averaged 12.2 points and 10 rebounds on 61% from the field in 26.8 minutes during his 83 total games with RGV.
Despite his solid play with the Vipers, the Rockets unfortunately didn’t see him being part of their future as they traded him to the Mavericks alongside a 2020 2nd round pick in exchange for the draft rights of 33-year-old forward Maarty Leunen on August 6th. Unfortunately, Onuaku barely had even had a chance to change his location on Twitter as the Mavericks waived him just four days later. The activity surrounding him wouldn’t end there as Portland would sign the young big on September 4th.
Unlike his miniscule stint with Dallas, Onuaku actually got a chance to relax a bit with his new team as he was with Portland from media day through most of training camp. However, the good luck would end there as the team waived him on October 13th, just five days before the team’s first regular season game of the 2018-19 season.
With his stint in Portland done after one month and getting no interest from other NBA teams, Onuaku decided to return to the one place where he had the most success since turning pro: the G League. Due to the Trail Blazers not having their own G League affiliate, Onuaku had to go through the league’s Draft to find his home. Fortunately, the 6’9 player didn’t have to wait long as he was selected with the 2nd overall pick by the Greensboro Swarm.
From the jump, Onuaku seemed focused on proving himself that he belongs back on an NBA roster. That claim was evident by how he immediately jumped out the gate and shined as a double-double threat and one of the better two-way (ability to play offense and defense) bigs in the league.
His status as such has been evident during the first month-and-a-half of the season as he’s currently averaging 16.1 points, 12.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.7 blocks per game on 59% from the field. In terms of players on a standard G League deal (no two-way players or assignees), Onuaku currently sits as the rebounding king as he’s .7 boards ahead of former G League MVP Jarnell Stokes, who’s currently averaging 12 rebounds per game with Sioux Falls.
That great average is partially due to his ability to attack the offensive glass, as he’s averaging 3.1 offensive rebounds per game. Onuaku is able to maintain that solid average due to the combination of effort and being able to use his strong 250 pound frame to outmuscle opposing players. Of course, he can also occasionally his tremendous athleticism to lay down some vicious putback slams.
Alongside his knack on the offensive glass, the 6’9 player also excels as a roll man and facilitator. He’s able to accomplish the first part due to having quick feet, soft hands and a bulky 250 pound frame that makes him into a solid target for guards.
That 2nd trait is probably the most intriguing of them all as his 2.9 assists per game average places him first in the G League among bigs not under an NBA contract. Onuaku is able to maintain that average through displaying solid court vision whether he’s working on the elbow or low-post. While working on the elbow, he does a great job of being able to spot cutters and throw smooth bounce passes to them in stride.
On the other end of the court, Onuaku has made a positive defensive impact for the Swarm. While that is evident from him averaging 1.7 blocks per game, opponents were also five points per 100 possessions worse when he’s on the court (107.6 points per 100) compared to when he’s on the sidelines (102.7 points per 100). While some of that may be due to some of the other starters, he’s still an important contributor on that end of the court.
Onuaku is able to make that type of impact because of the trifecta of solid defensive awareness, quick feet and solid athleticism. First off, his awareness is evident by how he’s able to quickly spot when someone is starting to drive to the paint. Once he’s able to recognize that driver, he does a great job of swiftly moving his feet to either get to the paint or move from the strong to weak side of the court. Finally, he can use his athleticism to jump up and block the shot to either send it out of bounds or start a Swarm fast break.
In addition to working in the paint, Onuaku has also shown a knack of being able to work on the perimeter. Of course, a lot of that comes when he’s defending pick-and-rolls. Although he either trails the roll man, he has shown this rare ability to stick with the guard or wing. As evident from the clip below, he’s able to do a good job of helping on those players on the perimeter, as he cleanly blocks a Shake Milton perimeter jumper before going in transition.
His ability to contribute on both ends of the court as allowed Onuaku to be one of the best front-court players in the G League and help push the Greensboro Swarm to maintain a respectable 8-8 record. That combination will allow Onuaku to be one of the players to when that NBA scouts will keep their eyes on when the G League Winter Showcase begins on Wednesday, December 19th.
If he’s able to shine during that event In Las Vegas, the 6’9 player could be on the precipice of returning to the NBA on either a two-way or 10-day contract. Although getting signed to one of those deals won’t return him to that feeling of intense optimism that was felt when Chinanu Onuaku was drafted in 2016, it’ll be a solid step in the right direction for a player that has been stumbling for the majority of his pro career.