NBA Draft

Onu Offers Athletic Upside in 2021 Draft Pool

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You may not have heard of the NAIA product from Shawnee State University in Ohio.

But you will sooner than later. E.J. Onu, a 6’11”, 240-pound Clevelander, is literally and figuratively one of the bigger unknowns in the draft. He started playing basketball at 14 years old, making him a relative newcomer. Onu just today decided to forego remaining eligibility and stay in the draft, likely on the heels of a promise from a team.

The now 2021 draft hopeful had recent known workouts with the Celtics and Warriors. D-1 schools were allegedly interested in his services, so it took a promise to keep him on the board. When watching the tape, it’s not hard to see why at least one NBA team has deemed him worthy of selection.

Offense

A bruiser down low, Onu shot an impressive 67% on his two-point attempts. His colossal frame and soft touch made him a tough cover. The ability to self-create is a work in progress at the moment. He has limited post-up ability, drastically favoring his right hand dribbles. He also lacks control in certain areas, prone to gathering too much momentum and running into charges. Exceptional balance and control in the air makes him a lethal finisher around the cup once he reaches his spots.

Though Onu has the profile and (relative lack of) playmaking ability of a true paint big, his ability to shoot the ball is exciting. He shot 72% from the line through his four-year career, with a clean and confident one-motion stroke. What sets him apart from other paint monsters is his perimeter ability. Onu shoots a confident and soft ball from the arc, canning 40% of his treys senior year. He mostly shoots set looks but has the balance to hit some movement shots.

Watch him call a downscreen before working himself open for a pretty on-the-move make:

Onu has the physical tools and instincts to make some solid passes, but his vision is lacking. This isn’t a big knock for a colossal center, but it would be a nice skill to add. It limits his ability to create for others, additionally making him almost totally reliant on others for creation. But as he moves up to a more skilled league, he will benefit from better passes, especially post entries. His teammates were simply not talented enough to consistently put him in positions to win.

Ultimately, he has the physical and instinctive tools to be a massive scoring threat around the basket and perimeter. He won’t be fighting uphill battles against more athletic or stronger players because there will be few of those at the next level. If he can soak up NBA coaching and talent development, there is no ceiling for his offensive prowess.

Defense

When watching Onu on defense, I find myself laughing a lot. His instincts to contest shots are simply astounding. Combined with his incredible vertical athleticism, no shot around the rim is safe.

Onu is as close to a pure drop big as they come. It’s really easy to put a freight train in motion and very difficult to back it up. The lack of switchability and recovery quickness keeps him anchored to the restricted area for the most part.

While some would say this limits his ceiling, the NBA doesn’t change overnight.

Bigs who thrive in drop coverage and as pure rim protectors can be excellent defenders (see Ayton, Deandre). He’ll require high-level screen navigators to be part of a high-functioning defense, but a good front office can recognize that.

This is a man who blocked 4.2 shots per game for his CAREER. The NAIA isn’t the highest level of competition, but it’s close to the top. Opponents looked scared to enter the paint, and he erased all comers when they dared enter his domain.

Here’s Onu going to work in the post. He recovers well and uses his body to get in position for a block, then forces a travel.

Here he is two minutes later, bullying the same guy.

What Onu really needs to clean up is staying glued to the floor on fakes; just ask him. He’s very prone to biting which leaves the rim exposed. His presence and 7’6″ wingspan alone is a deterrent. Jumping at every chance to swat a shot will get him in trouble as he moves to a higher level.

Swing Skills

EJ has a pretty solid path to becoming a burst rotational center, who can affect the game in 15-20 minute-per-game roles expending his full energy on every play.

But no path is certain. Here are some skills that can affect his potential outcomes.

The biggest obstacle to stardom for Onu is the lack of ballhandling skill. He’s a rough dribbler who needs space to operate. The touch and feel are present, but he has to work hard to overcome his self-creation deficiency. A stronger left-handed dribble and gather would go a long ways toward improving his self-reliance.

Otherwise his offense will be limited to rim-running, rolling/cutting and quick post-ups with some shooting ability.

Not the worst, but not the best.

His lateral agility and fluid hip/body movement can set him apart as a drop-defensive big. Quicker, smaller bigs had a hard time getting around him because he moves so well. Nobody is expecting him to be Bam Adebayo, switching all the way to the top of the key.

But to succeed, Onu will need fluidity of movement to match his instincts at the next level.

Another skill that can put him over the top is movement shooting. He has exceptional balance for such a large human, and can put it to good use hitting unsettled shots. The ability to come off screens or hit pick and pops would be a major asset to any team. If he develops the handle necessary to attack closeouts when drawing his man to the perimeter, look out.

Draft Stock

Assuming Onu opts to stay in the draft, he will likely have second-round guarantees in hand. You could make an argument that his athletic potential pushes him to first-round territory, and I wouldn’t have much of a rebuttal. Centers that size with his two-way skillset are tough to find. I hesitate on a player comp for Onu, but the best scenario is Brook Lopez’s skillset with Robert Williams’ vertical and lateral athleticism.

Ultimately, the devaluation of centers that cannot self-create consistently or fit multiple schemes makes him an early second-round prospect. There hasn’t been an NAIA player drafted since 2005, when Robert Whaley went 51st overall, so it’s a big projection for Onu.

Some seasoning and a low-pressure environment are what Onu needs to find his footing early. The Pelicans and Thunder have high roster churn upcoming and multiple picks between 31 and 40, and would be prime landing spots for a player of his caliber. Anyone who loves a good underdog should be rooting for Onu to keep dominating the paint at the next level.

Follow us on Twitter @Draft_Lead for the latest NBA rookie, prospect and draft insight. 

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About Charlie Cummings

Warriors writer born and raised in the Bay Area. University of Denver graduate currently living in Denver

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