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Joe Boozell | | June 13, 2016

Onuaku's game is beginning to overshadow his granny shot

  Chinanu Onuaku has significantly improved his free throw percentage in 2015-16 thanks to a new style.
In a Wednesday game against the Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond attempted 36 free throws. He missed an NBA record 23 of them, and that caused a frequent debate to resurface in basketball circles: Does something need to be done about the ‘hack-a’ strategy?

Most hoops pundits will cite one of two solutions: either teams that intentionally foul must be harshly punished, or bad free throw shooters simply must start becoming better free throw shooters through hard work and repetition of textbook mechanics.

Coming off a freshman season in which he shot 46.7 percent from the free throw line, Louisville center Chinanu Onuaku chose neither of those paths.

In one sense, yes, Onuaku has worked relentlessly in improving his free throw stroke. But in another, calling it a ‘stroke’ isn’t necessarily accurate.

Onuaku has worked hard to perfect his granny shot from the charity stripe. That is a more accurate assertion.

“I was willing to try anything in order to get better,” Onuaku said. “Coach [Pitino] called me up to his office one day and showed me film of Rick Barry shooting underhand. He said he thought my percentages could go up if I tried it, and I went along with it.”

The Louisville big man is shooting 58.5 percent from the foul line this year. That’s far from spectacular, but it’s solid given how many other ways he impacts the game. At the NBA level, guys like Drummond and DeAndre Jordan struggle to crack the 40 percent threshold (Drummond shoots 34.7 percent from the line; Jordan is at 41.5 percent this season).

Onuaku has drained 11 of his last 14 free throw attempts, and he’s becoming a passable free throw shooter despite his peculiar style. His response to coaches that want to intentionally foul?

Bring it on.

“If I was the coach of a team and hacking gave me the best chance to win, I’d do it,” Onuaku said. “It’s just sort of a tit for tat kind of thing. That’s why I knew I needed to improve.”

As a 58.5 percent foul shooter, the Cardinals score 1.17 points per possession that end in Onuaku free throws. Arizona scores 1.17 points per possession as a team, and it has the No. 12 offense in the country, per KenPom. In other words, Onuaku has become effective enough as a foul shooter that sending him to the line intentionally is a useless tactic.

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And that’s all glossing over the fact that Onuaku has been an absolute monster in every other facet of his game this season. The sophomore is playing almost six more minutes per contest than last year, but his scoring has gone way up (3.0 points per game in 2014-15; 10.6 points per game in 2015-16) as have his rebounding numbers (4.6 to 9.2 boards per game). He’s also blocking two shots per game this year, and credits his improvement to a few key factors.

“I worked hard on my game every day this offseason, and my Team USA experience definitely helped,” Onuaku, who played on the U19 World Championship Team this summer, said. “I got to learn from a lot of great coaches and see the different ways they teach the game.”

The traditional numbers don’t even tell the whole story of just how good Onuaku has been. Louisville ranks second in the country in defensive efficiency, and Onuaku is by far its best defensive player.

  Chinanu Onuaku has notched six double-doubles in a row for Louisville.

Opponents score an icy 79.2 points per 100 possessions with Onuaku on the floor, which ranks tops on the team. And though he’s tied with Damion Lee for the team lead in defensive win shares (1.6), Lee has played 155 more minutes this season than the big man. Onuaku is clearly an intimidating force on the court, but he’s humble about his impact.

“I wasn’t aware that I was the No. 1 defender on the team or anything like that,” Onuaku said. “Our team defense is great, and it’s a group effort. My teammates do a great job of helping me out and I just try do to the same for them.”

Many speculated that the Cardinals might not make the NCAA tournament before the season. But at 16-3 and 5-1 in the ACC, it would take a monumental collapse for Louisville not to go dancing. Lee and Trey Lewis have gotten plenty of credit for the team’s success so far; Onuaku usually just makes headlines for his granny style free throw. But make no mistake -- he’s the Cardinals’ defensive anchor. And he was confident in this bunch all along.

“Once we got this group together over the summer, I thought this could be one of the best teams in the country,” he said.

Louisville is proving Onuaku right. And whether he’s scooping shots in from the free throw line or swatting them into the third row, he’s been a huge reason why the Cards are blitzing past preseason projections.

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