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Thanks to an NCAA rule change this season, underclassmen are allowed to declare early for the NBA draft, go through the evaluation process and then choose to go pro or return to school (if they haven’t signed with an agent). From now until May 25, which is decision day, SI will periodically weigh in on the most interesting decisions left to be made. Up next is Louisville sophomore center Chinanu Onuaku.
Season review: The 6'10" sophomore was a near double-double producer for a 23-win Louisville team that banned itself from the postseason, averaging 9.9 points and 8.5 rebounds while shooting 62.0% from the floor.
The Case for College: In the less glitzy categories, there is very little about Onuaku’s game that demands major improvement at the college level. He ranked second nationally with a defensive rating of 84.9. His rebound percentage (19.8) was just outside the top 20 nationally. His plus-minus of 13.9 ranked third nationally. He was a very valuable asset. But his offensive repertoire just isn’t there, at least not at an NBA level.
Yes, he shot 62.0% for the year. But in specific situations, Onuaku leaves something to be desired. He was only involved in a pick-and-roll on 8.6% of his offensive possessions, per Synergy Sports, and he was abysmally inefficient in those scenarios. Onuaku averaged 0.815 points per possession in pick-and-rolls, which ranked in the 27th percentile nationally. He was terrible as a pick-and-pop guy (0.364 PPP, 6th percentile) and just average on rolling to the rim (1.125 PPP, 42nd percentile). It is a small sample size, but that’s sort of the point: Onuaku has demonstrated little capacity to be effective in a bread-and-butter play for NBA offenses. His post-up game is fine (1.000 PPP, 87th percentile), but he evidently has no range. Another year in Louisville might not make him a deft three-point threat, but he can diversify his offense for a Final Four contender and, potentially, move into the first round of the 2017 draft ... and maybe inch toward the lottery.
The Case for the NBA: Well, the league doesn’t necessarily mind its projects. And Onuaku is actually ready-made for a rotation spot in several ways. He can help immediately as a defender and he can gobble up the boards, attacking the offensive glass and finding his buckets there; attempting to score on putbacks accounted for 16% of his offensive possessions for Louisville last season. You’re basically bringing in a guy who doesn’t mind doing the dirty work and should be more defensively advanced than most sophomores entering the NBA. That’s a worthwhile cog for any team. Just ask the Cardinals: Onuaku’s 4.2 Win Shares were second on team in 2015–16.
It’s also unclear how much Onuaku would be able to improve as a pick-and-roll threat on campus. The pick-and-roll accounted for 18.3% of Louisville’s offensive possessions last year—that’s a decent chunk, but hardly indicative that the play is the backbone of Rick Pitino’s offense. This will always be a guard-oriented attack, and the arrival of grad transfer Tony Hicks, who led Penn in scoring for two straight seasons before sitting out 2015–16, means it will be again this winter.
And, of course, there is the looming specter of an NCAA sledgehammer blow resulting from the investigation into the program’s escort scandal. If Onuaku’s camp feels the program might get whacked with another postseason ban, or if Pitino is clobbered with a suspension, why stick around?
Mock Draft rankings: SI (first round only): Unranked; Draft Express: No. 48; NBAdraft.net: Unranked
Verdict: Go. Even if it means a draft slot in the second round and a stint in the D-League to work on his offense, Onuaku’s ability to defend and protect the rim can put him on track to make a roster sooner than later.