Yale’s Oni on the verge of overcoming long odds to leap from Ivy League to the NBA
AUBURN HILLS – Olumiye Oni would like one thing – and one thing only – in common with Jack Molinas.
Oni, a Yale junior, would be only the second Ivy Leaguer to suit up for the Pistons, joining Molinas. And Molinas was only a Piston briefly – and a Fort Wayne Piston, at that.
Oni’s goal to play in the NBA got a stamp of legitimacy last week when he was one of 66 invitees to this week’s NBA draft combine in Chicago. Ahead of that, he was the headliner of the first Pistons draft workout group of 2019 on Friday.
Taking advantage of newly relaxed rules that allow college players to hire agents to fully vet the process, Oni hasn’t burned bridges with Yale just yet. But he’s as good as 100 percent committed to staying in the draft past the May 29 deadline for withdrawal to retain NCAA eligibility.
“I think so,” he said. “Of course, we have to see. Take it step by step. I still have my eligibility, but that’s my intention as of now.”
At 6-foot-6 with a promising shooting stroke and the ability to move his feet, Oni has a chance to emerge as a 3-and-D wing so much in demand in today’s NBA with a need for defensive versatility. Oni was the Ivy League Player of the Year, averaging 17.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists, hitting .371 from the 3-point arc in 31 minutes a game while leading the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament.
“I wanted to get to the NBA as quickly as possible when I felt ready,” said Oni, who goes by Miye. “I feel like my game and my maturity is at a level that I’m ready to take that step now.”
That Oni ever became a Division I player, never mind a legitimate NBA prospect, defies the odds. His only offer while a high school player in Northridge, Calif., was to Division III Williams College but his parents, both natives of Nigeria, couldn’t foot the $60,000 annual tuition. Oni wound up spending a year at prep school after catching the eye of the Yale coaching staff and became an instant freshman starter, averaging double figures in scoring all three years on campus.
He’s now projected as the No. 53 prospect according to ESPN.com and No. 43 by The Athletic, putting him firmly on the radar of teams with mid-second round picks. The Pistons hold the No. 45 overall pick.
“I think I’m a very versatile player,” Oni said. “I can do a lot of different things on the floor. I feel I can shoot the ball, defend, rebound, pass the ball. Then I think I’m a very cerebral guy that any team would want to have. I can play as a role player or main player. I can kind of fit to what the coach and team’s style is and what they want to do.”
Mindful of the value of a Yale degree, Oni isn’t abandoning his opportunity to graduate. A political science major, he’s committed to finishing up and hopes to go to law school at some point with an eye toward helping “develop and strength the political and government system” in his parents’ Nigeria, where he’s visited twice.
If he gets drafted, he’d be the first Ivy Leaguer selected since Penn’s Jerome Allen was picked 49th overall in 1995 and one of only three taken since the NBA reduced the draft to two rounds in 1989. The last Yale product drafted was 7-footer Chris Dudley, a fourth-round pick in 1987.
And going to the Pistons would put him in company with Molinas, a notorious figure caught up in gambling scandals. The No. 3 pick in 1953 out of Columbia, Molinas played 32 games for the Fort Wayne Pistons that season and was selected to the All-Star team but was suspended before it was played for betting on Pistons games.
Molinas went on to become an attorney in his native New York, cleared of wrongdoing to be admitted to the state bar, but later became the key figure in a college gambling ring that ensnared future Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins and resulted in him being banned from the NBA until he was 27.
Molinas spent five years in prison and was killed at his Los Angeles home in 1975. Police suspected a mob hit but never closed the case.
So, yeah, Oni would be fine becoming the first Pistons Ivy Leaguer since Molinas but the similarities should stop there. By all accounts, he’s the type of player who’ll maximize his potential and be a positive force for team chemistry. When Yale played Duke last season, Mike Krzyzewski – who knows a thing or two about NBA-level talent – declared Oni a first-round pick. His Pistons workout was the second for Oni, who’ll get another chance to cement his status at the draft combine.
“I believe I made the right choice to take on the process,” he said. “Very fortunate and excited to participate in the combine and I’ll just take the decision step by step after that.”
Others to participate in Friday’s workout were Duke big man Javin DeLaurier, one of 40 college players invited to the G League elite camp in Chicago this week; 6-foot-7 Jordan Caroline of Nevada; and guards B.J. Taylor of Central Florida, Payton Pritchard of Oregon and Armoni Brooks of Houston.