LAS VEGAS — Chinanu Onuaku stepped his massive Jordan 13 sneakers to the foul line on Friday. With 7:20 remaining in the second quarter of the Houston Rockets’ summer league bout against the Atlanta Hawks, Onuaku bent his knees, exhaled a breath and flicked his wrists—plural. Onuanku shoots free throws underhanded, so instead of reaching his right hand up into the cookie jar, both his paws flick outward as he lofts the ball from between his knees up towards the rim.
After Onuaku converted a dismal 46.7% of his foul shots during his freshman season at Louisville, head coach Rick Pitino suggested the explosive, 6’10” forward mimic the legendary Rick Barry, who is still seventh in NBA history for career free throw shooting (89.3%) after retiring in 1980. The new—well, old—mechanics worked. Onuaku connected on 58.9% of his attempts during his sophomore season. After a year oversaturated with questions about his “granny style” motion, Onuaku quite frankly doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. “I do my form and I shoot it,” he told SI.com. “I line my hands up, bend my knees and shoot it.”
Long after the underhanded free throw’s heyday in the 1950s, only two players in the NCAA utilized the technique last season: Onuaku and Rick Barry’s youngest son, Canyon. In this sports era of branding, poor free throw shooters like DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard and Andre Drummond wouldn’t dare adopt a motion more affiliated with grandmothers than NBA basketball players. It’s what makes Onuaku a modern pioneer.
“A lot of guys probably feel like coming out here in this NBA setting, ‘I’m not gonna shoot that. I’m scared of guys laughing at me,’” said Montrezl Harrell, a 53.3% foul shooter at Louisville. The two Cardinals have now reunited in Houston. “But he went to the free throw line, he stuck to his free throw routine and he shot it. He shot his shot.”
“I really don’t care what people think,” Onuaku said. “As long as I get a bucket, I’m fine.”
Canyon Barry, currently preparing for his graduate transfer season at Florida, believes Onuaku has room for even more improvement. “I think he has a lot of wrist in his shot still, a lot of flick action,” Barry told SI.com. “Right before you release it in the squat you don't really flick your wrists, you roll them.”
Onuaku’s follow through essentially mimics a magician gesturing, “tada!” after performing a disappearing trick. Barry recommends his hands finish closer to the Miami “U” hand sign, an homage to his father Rick’s college days. “You kind of want to roll your hands together and your thumbs are pretty much touching on the follow through,” Barry said.
Barry converted to his father’s form following his junior year of high school. Rick had instructed the antiquated motion throughout Canyon’s childhood, and he finally committed once his hands were big enough and his fingers could fill the grooves within the orange leather.
After hovering around 73% during his first two seasons at College of Charleston, Barry sank 84.5% of his free throws during his redshirt-junior season with the Cougars before moving on to Gainesville. He expects to shoot between 85 and 90% for the Gators this winter.
When word of Barry’s impending transfer traveled across coaching circles, Pitino called, hoping to lure the offensive talent to Louisville. In addition to offering an unofficial visit, Pitino also asked Barry to provide Onuaku with a private lesson. Of course, Onuaku forwent his junior season for the NBA draft and Barry has taken his talents to the SEC. "Whenever I go to a new place, nobody expects it,” Barry said of his mechanics. “It'll be interesting to do see how bigger stadiums and bigger crowds try to make fun of me."
Onuaku has already performed the underhand motion on the Thomas & Mack Center stage. It could soon be coming to an NBA arena near you.