Let’s kick this off with the NCAA Box Score Plus Minus leaders from this past season. BPM is a useful stat because it is adjusted for strength of schedule and is likely the most predictive of any catchall stats, as well as the most likely to correlate with draft models:
These are mostly seniors, and most of them are going to get drafted. Valentine is a potential lottery pick, Brice Johnson is a possible 1st round pick in spite of being stuck in a skinny PF body, Caris Levert would likely go round 1 without injury concerns, and Payton and Hammons have 2nd round stock.
The players who project to not get drafted are Thomas Walkup who has obvious physical limitations and accrued most of his stats vs. low major competition, Daniel Ochefu who definitely deserves to be drafted, and Jonathan Holton who is ancient.
Then there are two teenagers on the list: possible #1 pick Ben Simmons who is often accused of posting empty stats and then the younger, statistically superior Chinanu Onuaku who is currently slated to go 2nd…round (ESPN: 36th, DX: 38th).
Consider the insanity of this for a moment. Onuaku may be a sophomore but he is freshman aged, and over the past six seasons only four freshmen have posted a higher BPM than him:
The top 2 players on the list are historically good #1 overall picks followed by two other bigs who would have been clear choices at #1 overall without injury concerns. Over six seasons, no freshman has posted a better BPM without deserving a #1 overall selection.
After that it’s a slew of lottery picks who rank comfortably behind Onuaku plus Dieng who was a 21 year old freshman and has nevertheless become a useful NBA rotation player.
The sample is small, but there are not any false positives for elite BPM at a young age making an unworthy NBA prospect on its own legs. Nevertheless BPM is far from perfect, and win shares and PER paint a less glowing portrait of Onuaku. Also prospect profiles extend beyond statistics, so let’s dive into why he may not be as good as his statistics suggest.
Onuaku has three noteworthy flaws: he is an inch shorter than ideal for center, he is an average athlete, and he is a poor shooter who has resorted to shooting free throws underhanded.
He is 6’10” with a 7’2.75″ wingspan, which is about an inch shorter than ideal for center. Since he cannot shoot, teams will look at him as a slightly undersized center without great athleticism to compensate. While his lack of size and burst harm his upside, Onuaku is not a misfit physically. He has great mobility and strength, and overall his physical tools are clearly adequate to play center at the NBA level, especially as teams trend toward lineups with smaller centers.
Onuaku is an inept shooter who was largely invisible on offense as a high school aged freshman. As a sophomore, his offensive stats spiked across the board as he became an efficient medium usage scorer with a good assist to TOV ratio (2.7 vs 3.4 per 40) for such a young center. He still does not have a mid-range shot in his game, but he did elevate his FT% from 47% to 59% by shooting underhanded.
At this point his only clear weakness offensively is his shooting, so I am not sure if his freshman limitations still linger on his scouting report. Another plausible explanation is that he is not a positive in any of the three most coveted traits of size, burst, and shooting which causes him to drift toward the bottom of the scouting pile.
How He Compares To Peers
It’s fair to devalue Onuaku’s statistically implied upside based on these limitations. But the statistics imply that he is the #1 pick in the draft, and there is no way that these problems are so terrifying that his stock should plummet out of the first round. He is a clear plus at defense, rebounding, passing, rim finishing, strength, mobility, and has some semblance of post creation ability. This is a strong base package and his fellow baby bigs projected to late lotto hardly appear more appetizing.
Davis is currently rated as the #10 prospect by DX and #15 by ESPN. I believe he deserves a selection in the back end of the lottery. Davis is a bit more explosive than Onuaku, has a slightly greater hope of developing a mid-range game.
Both players have similar bodies, ages (Davis is a month younger), and molds as players. Onuaku anchored a much better defense (#2 vs #52) has better statistical indicators of feel (1.9% vs 0.8% STL, 12.6% vs 7.5% AST), had a higher DREB%, and created more offense for himself as he did not have a Denzel Valentine feeding him lobs.
If you are particularly bullish on Davis’s athleticism and defense it is arguable that he is slightly superior to Onuaku, but it is difficult to argue that he is drastically ahead of Onuaku.
Chriss is a different mold, as he checks off scouts’ two favorite boxes of athleticism and shooting which instantly commands boatloads of attention. While he undoubtedly has significant advantages over Onuaku in both categories, he is outlier good at neither. He is a solidly good athlete but not a freak. He shoots well for a big man making 35% of 3’s on a small sample of 60 3PA and 69% of FT’s, which doesn’t nearly guarantee that he becomes an above average NBA 3 point shooter.
Chriss is also 9 months younger, but Onuaku crushes him in all other areas. Chriss is an anemic rebounder and passes scarcely (whereas Onuaku is great at both), and it’s rare for players to be poor in both areas and valuable as a player. Onuaku is also 2.5 inches longer and is a much better defensive player.
The case for Chriss is that if he makes an outlier leap in rebounding and passing from his young freshman to sophomore (or NBA rookie) season like Onuaku, his edges in shooting and explosiveness give him an extra degree of upside. This is a fair point in his favor, except the more likely case is that he doesn’t and remains clearly inferior to Onuaku for their entire careers.
The only way that Chriss should rate above Onuaku is with significant advantages in work ethic and intangibles that are invisible from afar. The most likely case is that Onuaku is equal or better, and Chriss is currently rated higher due to a Boolean Bias where his athleticism and shooting boxes are rated as “true” and Onuaku’s as “false.”
Labissiere is similar to Chriss with his athleticism and shooting battling poor rebounding, passing, and instincts. He’s 2 inches taller and longer, but also was slightly worse statistically while being 1.3 years older and lacking 3 point range. I rate him worse than Chriss and comfortably below Onuaku.
Onuaku is outlier good at basketball for his age, and he doesn’t have any glaring red flags that will preclude him from success in the NBA. He has pink flags that deflate his upside, but I cannot see how he should ever slide out of the lottery. He is 3 years younger than Kris Dunn and Buddy Hield, and was arguably a more valuable NCAA player this past season.
He could potentially be a beast defensively and rebounding with a respectable offensive repertoire of passing, finishing, and post scoring to preclude him from being a drain on that end due to his shooting. Even if his lack of size and burst limit him to being a casually good defensive player, he could nevertheless be a great return on a top 10 pick in a weak draft.
I believe that ESPN and DX are wrong about his value. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him shoot up draft boards in June, and whoever picks him is likely getting awesome value. He’s a top 10 prospect on my board.
Great post! I’ve been working on my own draft model since Layne Vashro can’t publish results anymore, and my current model has Onuaku as the #1 prospect in the entire draft (Simmons is #3 behind Onuaku and Domantas Sabonis – LSU’s poor scoring margin drops him from #1, but not too far).
Overall, I agree – it’s fair to drop Onuaku a little bit, but he doesn’t have any red flags that would make me think my model is that far off. I suspect the real reason his stock is low is lack of exposure – he wasn’t a hyped recruit, and because Louisville was banned from the postseason this year.
I had the same thought about Louisville missing the postseason but it’s gotta be a bunch of different things because he feels like he belongs in the top 5 and he’s not even round 1. Really hard to explain that discrepancy without having a number of different biases plaguing scouts (or possible flags from the behind the scenes evaluation perhaps?)
Josh (@JoshsPseudonym) said:
The only other flags I’ve noticed while watching Onuaku are that he gets called for illegal screens all the time, and he’s often beaten down the floor, suggesting poor conditioning. Those seem like correctable flaws for a 19 year old prospect.
Andrew Sutton said:
Qi and Onuaku seem like Popovich Picks to me. ESPN, DX, and the whole recruiting industry is enamored with potential. I’m still waiting on this Wiggins hype to be something but i’ll keep waiting.
Great post. I agree he is a great late round pick and possibly a steal down the road. Hard worker. Good instincts and a couple of things he can provide on offense. Potentially an elite defender. I guess my main concern is the combination of so-so height, combined with limited athleticism. I think there is a chance that he will just have limited effectiveness against the size and athleticism of NBA frontlines. And without being an impact player in D and on the boards, it will be hard to keep him out there. I think that is a realistic risk. But there is a point in the draft where the reward outweighs that risk. For me it is end of the first. I love that you have him pegged so much higher. It’s one of the reasons I am glad you are back and writing about the draft. You have great insights and viewpoints. I’m curious to see how this plays out.
I wouldn’t worry about his offense much since he doesn’t need to be a great scorer to be a star NBA player, and he should be fine in the low post anyway with his length. The main question is how much does his size + athleticism inhibit his defensive upside– does it permit for great or is he capped out at good?
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Awesome post. You’ve sold me on Onuaku.
Does his heart issue change your stance on him at all? http://www.todaysfastbreak.com/fastbreak-news/nba-teams-scared-chinanu-onuakus-heart-issue/
(Wow, i completely overlooked that this article actually quotes you. I honestly just pulled the 3rd result from google. That’s kinda spooky)
It puts a dent in his value, but it doesn’t overhaul things. Creates an extra downside tail and makes it slightly less likely he reaches his upside, but the upside is still there and attainable so I wouldn’t slide him far down my board because of it. Gotta gamble on the guy who will be a star, not the guy who won’t bust.
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Sounds like he has an NBA workout with Boston at the end of June after his successful year in Europe. Any idea on what his level would look like in the NBA at this point?
Dunno. He did alright in Israel but at this point I wouldn’t expect much. Maybe he’s like a decent rotation big off the bench but hard to hope for more.