NBA prospect embracing underhanded free throws

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/players/126407/" data-ylk="slk:Chinanu Onuaku">Chinanu Onuaku</a> is just looking for results. (AP)
Chinanu Onuaku is just looking for results. (AP)

LAS VEGAS – Houston Rockets rookie Chinanu Onuaku stepped into a summer practice session at Louisville a year ago, and an assistant coach ushered him aside. Onuaku, a mobile 6-foot-11 center, was sent off the basketball court and into a video room.

For big men at every level of the sport, free-throw shooting has become a struggle, and Onuaku was destined for a familiar path: same form, same result.

So utilizing vintage video footage, Louisville coach Rick Pitino sold his starting big man on a most unappealing idea last summer: underhanded shooting from the foul line, aka Rick Barry-style. Onuaku’s free-throw percentage had fallen to 46.7 percent as a freshman in 2014-15. An understanding was made between coach and player. Change was in motion.

“When I started last summer, Coach P turned me on to it,” Onuaku told The Vertical. “He asked me, ‘Would you try shooting underhanded?’ I told him that I was ready for anything.”

Now Onuaku is entering the NBA as the Rockets’ No. 37 pick in the June draft, and his message to big men across the basketball landscape is clear: Forget your pride, just make free throws. The underhanded free-throw routine startled some scouts and executives at the NBA combine in Chicago, and now fans attending the Las Vegas summer league have taken notice. But yes, the shots are finally starting to go in for him.

He left Louisville as a sophomore and was one of two second-round picks for Houston, along with Chinese center Zhou Qi. During the 2015-16 collegiate season, Onuaku shot 58.9 percent from the line, showing improvement as he continues to master his unique lob from 15 feet.

“I came to the notion that I don’t care what anybody thinks,” Onuaku told The Vertical. “As long as I get the bucket, the point, I’m fine. It’s up to other people to ask themselves why they don’t shoot underhand, but for me I needed to put pride to the side and make shots. I can’t worry about why other people aren’t doing it. It’s just a different form.

“I want to make free throws. Overall, I want to show I can play for a long time in this league.”

Everywhere now, Onuaku has received quizzical looks from fans – and even team personnel – because of his unique shooting style, he said. In three summer league games, he has gone 1-of-2 from the foul line.

“I knew a lot of people were going to come after me because of the way the form is,” Onuaku said. “It’s up to them on how they react.

“I’m going to keep doing it.”

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