Arinze Onuaku’s path to NBA filled with adversity
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
As Arinze Onuaku’s 2009-10 senior season at Syracuse University progressed, he envisioned a promising future. The No. 1-ranked Orange appeared poised to make a run at the national championship. The burly 6-foot-9, 261-pounder was projected by many to be picked in the NBA draft that June.
On March 11, 2010, everything changed. During a Big East Tournament game vs. rival Georgetown, Onuaku sustained a frightening quadriceps injury that essentially ended his college career. Syracuse lost in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 to Cinderella story Butler University, while Onuaku was forced to watch from the sideline. Unable to work out for interested NBA teams due to his injury, the Maryland native went undrafted.
It’s taken more than three years, but this fall Onuaku is participating in an NBA training camp for the first time, with the New Orleans Pelicans (he was also invited to a 2012 NBA camp but declined after committing to play overseas). After stints in Lithuania and the D-League, the 26-year-old has earned his best shot so far at sticking in the league.
“Ever since I had that injury at school, it’s been a tough road for me,” Onuaku said after a workout inside the Pelicans’ new practice facility. “Being a senior on the draft board, and then having that big-time injury that takes about a year to come back from, I’ve been trying to get back on the map since then. It’s a big thing if you can’t come in and work out for a team. These days, if you’re not going to be the No. 1 or No. 2 pick, they don’t (have the patience to see) how you’re going to bounce back (from a serious injury).
“After something like that happens, a lot of people forget about you. So you’ve got to make yourself known again. I’ve been trying to get my body right and work on the little things to get me over the hump.”
Onuaku, who also missed the 2006-07 college season due to left knee surgery, spent 2012-13 with the D-League’s Canton Charge and was selected to play in the circuit’s All-Star Game. He averaged 12.6 points and 9.5 rebounds in 38 games. He participated in a two-day Pelicans minicamp for unsigned players in August, along with free agent NBA center Hamed Haddadi and other front-court prospects. Days later, New Orleans signed the free agent to a contract.
“I was supposed to be here for two days,” Onuaku said of his successful tryout for the Pelicans. “I’ve been here six weeks. They wanted to keep me, and my agent thought it was a good place for me to be. It’s been good so far. The guys (Pelicans players) are great. It’s like a family here, with great guys to be around. They’ve been helping me get better and better.”
Onuaku has spent all of September at voluntary workouts in New Orleans, preparing for the Oct. 1 start of training camp and the start of preseason game action Oct. 5 at Houston. The blue-collar interior presence is focused on filling his role and providing muscle to the Pelicans in the paint.
“I try to be a physical big, play defense, set great screens and finish around the rim,” Onuaku said. “I know they need some physicality down low. We’re a defensive team, so they need a guy who’ll bring a lot of defense. If Jrue (Holiday), Tyreke (Evans) and those guys are getting double-teamed, I want to be a big man who can finish around the rim. Basically do whatever this team needs.”