By John Denton
Oct. 23, 2016
ORLANDO – When you’ve played before angry Lithuanian fans throwing firecrackers down onto the court, as Arinze Onuaku has done during his circuitous basketball odyssey around the globe, you don’t dare take the comforts of the NBA for granted.
When you’ve taken 12-hour bus rides for basketball games only to have to turn around and make that same 12-hour ride back home later in the night, as Damjan Rudez did in the Adriatic League, you deeply cherish the opportunity to stick with a NBA roster.
When Onuaku and Rudez got word on Saturday that they had made the Orlando Magic’s roster – news delivered to them by GM Rob Hennigan and head coach Frank Vogel – their emotion was raw and real. Both have been on NBA rosters before, but still there’s no replacing the euphoria of sticking with a NBA team when you’ve travelled the globe and played in basketball’s backwaters while chasing a dream.
``It was a big blessing. When you are out here fighting for a spot every day it’s stressful and to get that news, it was great,’’ said Onuaka, a bruising 6-foot-9, 275-pound power forward originally from Lanham, Md. ``You’ve always got to wait to hear if you’re in or you’re out, so it wasn’t easy sleeping at night.’’
Onuaka and Rudez can sleep easy for the time being after overcoming long odds and sticking with a Magic team that has high hopes this season. The Magic, who face Miami in the season-opener on Wednesday at the Amway Center, opened training camp on Sept. 26 with 13 players under contract, meaning only two spots were open for the six non-roster invitees. Onuaka and Rudez had played previously for Vogel, a factor that might have given them an edge, and then they both went out and performed at a high level throughout the preseason. Onuaka made seven of 11 shots in four games of action, while Rudez drilled 10 of 18 shots and eight of 14 3-point tries to catch the eyes of management and the coaching staff.
``Dam-O has been a breath of fresh air since he’s come in here and he’s a great, great culture fit and a guy that is a specialist who, at 6-10, can be a knock-down 3-point shooter,’’ Vogel said. ``I brought him in here to show everybody what I thought about him and everybody in the organization concurred that they wanted him on the team.
``A.O. is a story about improvement. I had Arinze a couple of years ago and I felt like he could do some things, but I didn’t feel he had committed to some of the defensive details at a high enough level,’’ Vogel continued. ``But I really feel like he’s a different player now than he was a couple of years ago.’’
Orlando’s biggest strength is its power along the frontline with Nikola Vucevic, Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo. Keeping Onuaku will allow the Magic to sporadically send rookie power forward Stephen Zimmerman – a second-round pick in June – to the NBA’s Developmental League for playing time.
Forced to start the season without guard Jodie Meeks (foot surgery), the Magic had a need for the kind of 3-point shooting that Rudez can provide. The 6-foot-10, 228-pounder can play two positions and he’s a 39.1 percent shooter from 3-point range in two NBA seasons.
``I really admire the journey that these guys have gone through in their basketball lives, trying to make it to this level,’’ Vogel said. ``All of the hard work, it’s a year-round thing now these days, and the sacrifices they have to make with their families and playing for little money in the Development Leagues. So I’m really happy for someone like (Onuaku and Rudez) make it and get over the hump.’’
Rudez, 30, is a native of Croatia and he’s known Magic teammate Mario Hezonja for several years. Rudez played professionally in Croatia, Belgium, Slovenia and Spain, winning three championships and becoming an all-star three times. His first shot in the NBA came in 2014 when he signed with the Vogel-led Pacers. The biggest game of his NBA career came in Orlando on Jan. 25, 2015 when he made four 3-pointers and had 16 of his career-high 18 points in the fourth quarter of a 106-99 Indiana win. With the Magic this preseason, he made his eight shots – five of which were 3-pointers – and became a favorite of his teammates with his team-first mentality.
Rudez said that he and Onuaku can appreciate each other’s appointment to the Magic roster because of their similar journeys in chasing this dream.
``I can relate to (Onuaku) because I’ve been to all of those places,’’ said Rudez, who saw action in just 33 games with the Minnesota Timberwolves last season. ``I played for years overseas in different international leagues and playing for the national team you really get to see the world. I played in Israel, I played in China and I took those 10-hour bus rides for years in the Adriatic League. Sometimes, you might get on a 12-hour bus ride and go straight to the arena and, after the game you stop at a gas station and get a sandwich and then you have another 12-hour bus ride back. Once you go through that you appreciate other (opportunities).
``That’s what makes me even more happy for (Onuaku) because I’ve been there.’’
Onuaku, a four-time academic honor roll selection while at Syracuse, has been almost everywhere chasing his dream of making it to the NBA. After going undrafted in 2010, Onuaku had three NBA D-League stints sandwiched around a four-month stint playing in Lithuania. Later, he played for Summer League teams with Phoenix and New Orleans before getting his first crack in a NBA game with the Pelicans in 2013.
He was back in the D-League later that season before reappearing at the NBA level with the Cleveland Cavaliers thanks to two-day contracts that allowed him to play in two NBA games.
In the 2014-15 season, Onuaku got NBA shots with Summer League teams from the Pacers and Pelicans before later heading back to the D-League and playing professionally in China. A short stint with the Timberwolves (six games and his only NBA start) broke up his return to Asia where he played in the Philippines. While there, he was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who could speak English and the presence of American restaurants such as Chili’s and Applebees.
Onuaku, 29, was a summer league star for the Magic’s alternate entry this past July, leading the team to the championship with his array of lefty hook shots and gritty rebounding. Onuaku admitted on Sunday that there were several low moments along the way in getting back to the NBA, but his spot on Orlando’s roster made it all worth it.
``The roughest stop for me was Lithuania. It was my first time overseas and it was a big culture shock. Being away from my family and it was very cold, that was rough for me,’’ said Onuaku, a five-time all-star in the D-League. ``Being away from your family, not getting paid on time, sometimes not getting paid at all – it shakes you up as a player, but one thing about me is that I have been so persistent chasing this dream. I really never took no for an answer and just kept pushing.’’
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