The Draft Files: Why EJ Onu Could Be the NAIA’s Sleeping Giant
A mere 20 miles from where NAIA legends and all-time great NBA defenders Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman laced them up every day, a new-age NAIA talent is honing his craft and ready to take the 2021 NBA pre-draft process by storm.
Meet EJ Onu – a quintessential modern big man and the sleeper of this year’s draft.
Prior to routinely carving up recent Division I conference players of the year, all-defensive team members, McDonald’s All-Americans, and other standouts at elite pre-draft runs in the Chicago suburbs (see below), Onu was a four-year starter at Shawnee State in Portsmouth, Ohio.
Onu catalyzed one of the most monumental program turnarounds in recent college basketball history, leading a team that won only nine games the year prior to his arrival to 31 victories and a national championship as a senior. In doing so, Onu racked up just about every conceivable accolade in the book.
While everyone loves a feel good underdog story, many natural questions arise before performing scouting and analytical due diligence. Many great non-Division I players have come and gone, the majority flashes in the pan and most not even within the realm of NBA consideration.
What makes EJ different? Why was he underrecruited out of high school? Why didn’t he transfer up? In the modern era, why take a risk on a relatively unknown commodity at the often devalued big man position? Why should NBA scouts and executives be taking Onu seriously as a potential 2021 draft selection?
EJ grew up in a small town just outside of Cleveland, Ohio, one of five children to two Nigerian immigrant parents. From an early age, it was instilled in each Onu sibling that education always comes first and basketball wasn’t even on Onu’s radar until high school. He was only between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3 as a freshman, played at a small high school, and didn’t participate in major shoe circuit AAU tournaments or exposure events.
Despite growing at least six inches throughout high school and performing at a high level, Onu’s lack of exposure led to a light recruitment. But Shawnee State coach DeLano Thomas, entering his first season as the head coach of his alma mater, saw something special.
Thomas gave Onu an opportunity to hit the ground running at Shawnee as an underclassman, which led to strong transfer interest from the likes of Ohio, West Virginia, Youngstown State, and Kent State following his sophomore season. Ultimately, Onu opted to honor his commitment to Thomas and pursue a national championship in hopes of leaving a lasting legacy at Shawnee State. The rest is history.
As a senior in 2020-21, Onu averaged 16.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 4.5 blocks on 57.3% shooting. He also hit 40% from 3-point range on 130 attempts while scoring in double-figures in 31 of the team’s 33 games.
Let’s begin framing these translatability questions through a historical lens.
Onu, who stands a shade under 7-feet tall and boasts a 7-foot-6 wingspan, finished his career with a school-record 529 career blocks, which is believed to one of the highest totals of all time across all levels of collegiate basketball. Here, we compare his block total to the career marks of the most dominant big men in history:
Most Career Blocks, Onu vs. NBA Legends
|EJ Onu||Shawnee State||2017-21||529|
|Tim Duncan||Wake Forest||1994-97||481|
Digging into the film, it becomes evidently clear that this isn’t simply a matter of an overwhelming size, length and talent advantage over NAIA competition. Onu’s instincts, help-side reads, positioning, timing, footwork, balance, coordination, explosiveness, recoverability, and closing speed complement his length and frame to form a uniquely talented rim-protector prospect.
With Onu holding down the paint, Shawnee State led the NAIA in defensive field goal percentage in each of the past two seasons, allowing a mere 36.0%.
As can be seen in the video above, Onu isn’t simply a stationary tree planting himself in the paint, but rather a dynamic rim-protecting force that instills his will on the opposition. He is quick off the ground, has an elite second jump, covers up for teammates’ mistakes, maintains verticality and closes space quickly both as a helper and on closeouts. Shot-blockers like this don’t come around every day.
“EJ gave us the ability to cut the court in half and enabled our perimeter defenders to take more risks,” Thomas said. “His dominance as a rim-protector tests opposing personnel’s basketball IQ and ability to relocate off-ball to find a sliver of space. He challenges opposing coaching staffs to the fool’s errand of adjusting to the unadjustable. EJ’s paint presence catalyzes his teammates’ defensive energy and wears down the opposition, which has to put in a lot of effort to create what is ultimately a low percentage look with EJ looming.”
While anchoring the paint defensively is certainly the calling card of many centers, the modern NBA calls for a more versatile skill set in its big men. NBA players and coaches excel at identifying and taking advantage of mismatches – especially against flawed, one-dimensional big men in high-leverage moments. There are two primary skills (one on each side of the court) that, if lacking, render players unplayable in crunch time or in the playoffs:
- Perimeter Shooting
- Defensive Mobility
Onu has both of these skills in spades.
Remember the list of historically great shot-blockers? Those six Hall of Famers took a combined 77 career collegiate 3-point attempts. Onu attempted 130 in his senior season alone, converting at a 40.0% clip.
The game has changed drastically since those legendary bigs graced the hardwood, so let’s take a look at how Onu compares statistically with efficient, floor-spacing, rim-protecting big men of the past decade of draft classes.
Onu and Charles Bassey, a fellow Nigerian and 2021 draft prospect, join Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis and Jaren Jackson Jr. as the only 6-foot-10-or-taller draft prospects over the past decade to be age 21 or younger entering their respective draft and eclipse the following statistical thresholds in their pre-draft season:
- 62.0 true-shooting percentage (TS%)
- 11.0 block percentage
- 5 3-point attempts
Lofty company, to say the least…
Thomas speaks highly of not only Onu’s natural talent as a shooter, but his drive and work ethic throughout the ups-and-downs of shooting development.
“Young, skilled big men often grow up with coaching constraints at the youth level where they’re forced to set up shop in the paint,” he added. “Coming into his freshman year, it was evident to the coaching staff that perimeter shooting was something he was capable of, and that it was in everyone’s best interest to get EJ as many reps as possible. EJ sacrificed his summers to limit wasted mechanical movement, fine tune his release, and footwork to build up his confidence as a dynamic 3-point shooter in a variety of game situations.”
Onu only put up 1.6 3-point attempts per game throughout his freshman and sophomore campaigns as he relentlessly worked on bolstering his jumper. He took a major leap in volume as a junior, putting up 3.5 3-point attempts. While there was certainly value gleaned from a gravitational/spacing perspective with his willingness to shoot, Onu posted a cold shooting season across the board with a sub-50.0 effective field-goal percentage (54.8 2P%, 27.0 3P%) and a career-low 67.9 free-throw percentage.
While disappointing on the face, neither Thomas nor Onu were discouraged.
“Despite a down shooting season last year, EJ didn’t divert from the good habits he had developed – he only worked harder,” Thomas said. “As his senior season approached, EJ’s confidence as a shooter was through the roof. It doesn’t matter if he’s unguarded or has a defender in his shirt – with his height, length and release point, nobody can viably impact his jumper.”
Among the consensus top-200 draft prospects per our weighted mock/board model, those shooting at least 5.0 3-point attempts per 40 minutes this season at a better than 40.0% clip measure in at an average height between 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 as compared to Onu’s 6-foot-11-plus. Hyper-efficient shooting from deep on a .350 3PAr (the proportion of total shot attempts from 3) as a near 7-footer… a true unicorn.
What NBA players fit the stretch big rim-protector mold today? Through a joined query (with consideration to significant lines of demarcation in establishing this clustered statistical archetype) using our statistical database and advanced leaderboard, there were eight true “stretch bigs” identified as 6-foot-8 or taller who posted a 4.0 or better block percentage while shooting at least 30.0% from 3 on a .200 3PAr (min. 500 minutes) this season:
The True Stretch Bigs, 2020-21
Coincidentally, Onu names two players on this list when talking about which current NBA players he feels he compares most similarly to: Kristaps Porzingis and Serge Ibaka. The other name he mentions: Christian Wood, who came up just short on block percentage, but met all of the other thresholds, and has similar size, skill and mobility.
On the defensive mobility front, Billy Donovan’s “Can’t Play Kanter” realization in the first game of the 2017 NBA playoffs served as a microcosm of the new requisite – defensive versatility for a modern playoff big. Despite putting up more than 14.0 points per game on a nearly 60.0 TS% and grading out as one of the top per-minute offensive rebounders among players with 1,000 or more minutes played that season, Kanter found himself parked on the bench when things mattered most because he couldn’t move his feet, defend in space, or viably defend the Houston Rockets’ pick-and-roll actions.
Onu’s mobility, on the other hand, is notably impressive. Onu was a high school track star at Richmond Heights High School, qualifying for the OHSAA Track and Field State Championships in the 400-meter dash with a time of 50 seconds flat (he has since ran sub-48 seconds in college). While this is certainly a positive indicator of mobility and Onu’s ability to run the floor in transition, track speed doesn’t always translate to lateral quickness in space. This requires reactive athleticism, hip fluidity, and fleet footwork.
Let’s take a look at the tape:
While his high hips and naturally high center of gravity present some challenges as a lateral mover, Onu has shown encouraging flashes of perimeter defensive aptitude, making up for what he lacks in other ways. A consummate communicator, Onu can hold his own switching ball screens and getting down in a stance against smaller, quicker guards in space. Even if he gives up a first step and seems like he may be beaten, Onu leverages the significant margin for error allowed by his length, athleticism and instincts. It enables him to stay on the court in high-leverage moments.
“This unlocks schematic advantages for a coaching staff by enabling them to maintain a size advantage without sacrificing floor spacing or defensive versatility… this makes him a lottery pick, to me,” Thomas insisted. “Any NBA organization would be lucky to have him… a scout’s evaluation shouldn’t be overly skewed based on level (of competition), it should be based on what you see. And the numbers match the eye test. This is a kid you take a chance on.”
The numbers do, at least in part, match the eye test. We had a team flush Onu’s statistical profile through our NBA draft model, which is derived from an array of volume- and rate-based statistical inputs, consensus draft rankings and biographical/anthropometric information to see where he stands relative to his peers in the 2021 draft class.
In the “stats only” version of the model, which looks solely at the statistical indicators and biographical/anthropometric details, Onu projects as a late first- to early second-round prospect, sandwiched between the likes of Pitt’s Justin Champagnie and Greg Brown of Texas in the rankings.
When strength of schedule, rating percentile index and consensus draft rankings are factored into the equation in the “full” model, Onu drops out of draft range. The stark variance driven by an adjustment for level of competition makes one thing clear: Onu’s performance throughout the next two months of pre-draft workouts will be of the utmost importance.
Onu seems a likely candidate to drum up enough front office intrigue to be invited to the NBA G League Elite Camp, hosted June 19-21 in Chicago. At the inaugural event in 2019, 11 top-performing participants were invited to the NBA Combine, and five of them ended up being drafted. While it’s safe to say Onu will measure and test well, performing well against elite, high-major prospects will go a long way in the eyes of potential draft suitors.
Onu has already caught the eyes of the Golden State Warriors’ Mike Brown and David Fatoki, who run the Nigerian national team and have extended him an invitation to the team’s mini-camp this June. Nigerian basketball has seen a strong wave of young talent in recent years, most notably with eight Igbo people of Nigeria selected in the 2020 draft:
2020 Draftees with Nigerian Ties
|Born in Nigeria||Parents from Nigeria||Father from Nigeria|
|Precious Achiuwa||Isaac Okoro||Zeke Nnaji|
|Udoka Azubuike||Onyeka Okongwu||Desmond Bane|
|Daniel Oturu||Jordan Nwora|
While Onu has signed with an NCAA certified agency and left the door open to using his extra year of eligibility to transfer to a high-major program (Florida State, Maryland, Texas and Texas Tech being the strongest suitors), he has his eyes set on realizing his NBA dream sooner rather than later and becoming the next Igbo person of Nigerian descent to hear his name called by Adam Silver.
“If an NBA team were to bring me into their organization, they can expect a competitor with a will to win,” he said. “They’d be getting a guy who can run rim-to-rim, pick-and-pop, short roll, play above the rim as a lob threat, and protect the paint. I’m a stretch big rim-protector that will work hard every day at making both myself and my teammates better.”
It’s a strong pitch when considering the NBA prototype for a big man in today’s game.
We’re telling you now: Don’t sleep on EJ Onu.
Data modeling provided by Matt Scott. Design by Matt Sisneros.