Now, the Cardinals might be losing their best underclass player.
The spokesman told CBS Sports that Onuaku’s current plan is not to sign with an agent in order to maintain his collegiate eligibility, with a decision coming after going through the draft process and before the official early entry pull-out date that is currently slated for May 25.
The 6-foot-10 center is the kind of player who will benefit a lot from the new NCAA rule that will allow players to declare for the draft, test their stock, then return to college if they don’t like what they find out. Onuaku is currently the No. 59 overall prospect on CBS Sports NBA Draft Big Board. However, there are quite a few NBA scouts and executives out there who like him a bit more than that and consider him a borderline first-round talent.
Onuaku is a reallty interesting prospect in a lot of respects, beyond even the idea of having an under-handed free throw shooter in the NBA. There is a lot to like, and he also has quite a few holes in his game that could cause him issues in translating to the next level.
With a measured 7-2.5 wingspan and 9-1.5 standing reach (per DraftExpress), he should have solid — if unspectacular — size to play center in the NBA. His overall frame is also pretty stout already, as he weighs in at 245 pounds and has solid physical strength. In his two years at Louisville, he’s done a good job of transforming his body into a more muscular frame. That frame translates best on defense, as Onuaku is a really solid rim-protector. He does a good job of moving throughout the paint and contesting shots, as well as blocking his fair share of them as his 9.7 block rate shows.
Here’s a good example of him coming over from the weak side to protect the rim for a big block to seal Louisville’s game against Georgia Tech earlier this season.
He’s also a tremendous rebounder on the defensive side of the floor. Onuaku posted a 25.8 defensive rebounding rate on the season, which actually improved in the ACC to a 27.2 rate — good for second in the conference. He does a good job of clearing out space with his big frame and then using his length to grab the ball at its highest point when coming off of the glass.
Offensively, Onuaku also has done some interesting things this season and shown a lot of improvement. He’s at his best crashing the offensive glass and finishing put-back attempts. The big man posted a stellar 13.8 offensive rebounding rate this season and also finished put-backs at a 1.3 points-per-possession clip, good for the 87th percentile among 387 players who had at least 50 put-back attempts.
But more importantly than that, he’s shown off a bit of an improvement in his range and touch this season, which is surprising for a guy that was so ineffectual last season in this regard. Here’s a look at his shot chart from last season (on the left) compared to this season (on the right) courtesy of ShotAnalytics.com.
As you can see, last year he was more of just a simple threat around the basket. Now though, he has the touch to score of off post-up hook shots, as well as occassionally step away and shoot a 15-footer. These aren’t weapons that NBA teams will want to use immediately, but they do go to show his continual development curve at this stage offensively. There is room for growth in his offensive game.
That room for growth is important, because the problem is that he’s not a particularly good offensive player overall at this stage. Right now, Onuaku just doesn’t quite have enough game, so to speak, to be a consistent weapon offensively at the next level.
Everything he does to score is at the most rudimentary level, and a lot of works at the college level because he’s simply so much bigger than everyone else. His footwork in the post and in pick-and-roll situations is average at best. His passing has improved a lot this year in that he’s now able to find outlets when he gets into trouble, but he’s also not going to be someone who will create a look for a shooter consistently. Finally, turnovers are an issue, as he can get the ball ripped from him by smaller players pretty regularly.
Defensively, there is a bit of a concern regarding his ability to play in space without fouling. It’s fair to say that Onuaku is nimble for a player his size, but he also defends a lot with his hands and body due to — again — lacking footwork here. That can help him force steals more often than a player you’d expect at his height, but it’s also a reason why he’s averaged five fouls per-40 minutes over the course of his career. He might be able to become an adequate defender in space in time, but you’re not talking about a player that’s going to be a plus in switch situations or in the pick-and-roll either.
There are a lot of things to like, and some to dislike, about where Onuaku is as a prospect. But one thing that I haven’t mentioned yet that’s important to note is his age. Onuaku is a sophomore that has yet to turn 20 years of age (in November). For reference, that makes him younger than freshmen Skal Labissiere, Ben Simmons, Jaylen Brown, Stephen Zimmerman and Cheick Diallo. The growth curve that he showed this year was extremely impressive, and to do it at such a young age portends well for his future.
That could also be a factor in making Onuaku decide to stay. The center prospect status as a first round pick is currently very much in doubt, but with further growth in many of the areas that he developed in this season, he could get to that level next year. Without knowing his personal situation in regard to money or finances, I think you can reasonably make an argument both ways toward him staying or going at the present hour.
That’s going to make the pre-draft process extremely important for the big man. Can he make an impression on teams in workouts and in interviews and convince them to take a chance on him?
Only time will tell, but it’s clear that new NCAA rule on the NBA Draft is already having a profound impact in the way players make their professional decisions.