Brother’s Example Helped Chinanu Onuaku Work His Way to USA Basketball Roster Spot
One of the top centers in the NBA G League, Onuaku was selected for World Cup Qualifying duty.
Role models often can be difficult to find. While NBA G League center Chinanu Onuaku grew up under difficult circumstances with very few advantages, what he did have was someone who would grow into his biggest role model.
Growing up as a young basketball player in the Washington, D.C., area, Onauku watched a familiar face playing for Syracuse University and later in the NBA: his brother, Arinze.
“That’s what really made me want to get into basketball, because I would see him on TV, and I was just so happy because growing up where I’m growing up a lot of people don’t make it out,” Onauku said. “So, when you see somebody in your family make it, that just motivates you more. I just wanted to be like him. I just wanted to get out and play the game that I love.”
Chinanu Onuaku is nine years younger than Arinze, who is still playing professionally and often helps his brother with advice. That advice no doubt has helped Onuaku earn a selection to compete for USA Basketball in FIBA World Cup Qualifying games this month against Argentina and Panama on Feb. 22 and 25.
It is the culmination of a lot of work and support from his family for Onuaku, who also has two other siblings and credits his mother for helping him maintain a positive attitude through tough times.
“I felt good (about being selected), because it (acknowledges) all the hard work that I put in, all the time in the gym, everybody helping me, showing me if I work hard that I’m going to be rewarded,” he said. “It’s just me going out there and doing what I need to do, playing for my country. I’m not just playing for myself and my family, I’m playing for how many millions of people that are in the U.S.”
Onuaku, a third-year pro out of the University of Louisville, is in his first season playing for the Greensboro Swarm, the Charlotte Hornets’ affiliate, averaging 14.0 points, 12.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists. All three of those figures are tops among centers in the NBA G League.
His 24 double-doubles lead the league, and he will be one of a handful of players with NBA experience on this USA Basketball squad, having played six games for the Houston Rockets over the first two years of his career. Onuaku was selected with the No. 37 pick by Houston in the 2016 NBA draft.
He spent time then with Rio Grande in the Rockets’ developmental system but has found his first season in Greensboro under coach Joe Wolf a better fit for his skill set.
“Houston’s system was a very guard-oriented team, it was a lot of pick-and-rolls, a lot of pass outs,” Onuaku said. “This one is more of running through the bigs at the top. I can get the ball in the post. In Houston, I didn’t really get to post up much and I didn’t really get to shoot my mid-range or even a little stretch 3. It was different.”
Onuaku’s style of play has made him somewhat of a fan favorite in Greensboro. That could prove very advantageous in this set of games for USA Basketball, since Greensboro is hosting both contests.
“In Greensboro, I believe I have a lot more freedom to play my game,” Onuaku said. “I’m getting post touches, I’m able to show my range a little bit. Greensboro is home, and a lot of people know me and hopefully they come out and support me.”
He will be putting on a USA Basketball jersey for the second time in his career after being part of a star-studded team that went 7-0 and captured the gold at the 2015 FIBA U19 World Cup in Heraklion, Greece. Onuaku shot 65.0 percent from the field and averaged 4.6 points, 1.7 blocks and 5.0 rebounds in that competition.
“We really had a squad, just to be honest,” Onuaku said. “I think everybody on that team made it to the league right now or is in the G League. We had a few players, we had Jayson Tatum, we had Harry Giles, big Caleb Swanigan, Thomas Welch, we had a lot of players.”
Among those stars, Onuaku was a major part of a thrilling 79-71 overtime win in the gold-medal contest over a Croatia team that boasted an imposing frontcourt that included rising Los Angeles Clippers center Ivica Zubac. Onuaku started and grabbed eight rebounds, registered a game-high four blocks and had a key basket in the extra session to help the U.S. pull away.
The competition taught Onuaku a valuable lesson about facing international competition. Those are lessons that should prove useful for the games this month.
“International players, when they put their (jersey for their) country on, they play their hearts out,” he said. “They’re out here diving on the floor, first quarter, two minutes into the game, they’re diving on the floor. They’re getting up into you, they’re not trying to let you do anything. So, you’ve got to go out and just do the same thing, basically. You’ve got to play harder than them, play smarter than them.”