Rockets rookie breaks out ‘granny-style’ underhand free throw in NBA debut

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The Houston Rockets never trailed against the Phoenix Suns on Monday. They were never even really threatened, racing out to a 10-2 lead, going up by double-digits less than seven minutes into the game, and hanging 39 points on the NBA’s 24th-ranked defense by the end of the first quarter. They’d lead by as many as 34 in the third quarter, meaning James Harden, Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza and Nene spend the entire fourth on the bench, as Mike D’Antoni allowed the Rockets’ reserves to finish off a 131-115 win.

D’Antoni also gave center Montrezl Harrell, elevated to the starting lineup thanks to Clint Capela’s fractured fibula, the rest of the night off less than four minutes into the fourth. When Harrell hit the bench, the coach inserted rookie Chinanu Onuaku, recently called up from the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the D-League, to man the five spot. And when Suns big man Alan Williams fouled Onuaku — who was attempting a Eurostep layup! — with 2:46 remaining in the contest, we were treated to a neat little throwback oddity: the return of underhand free throws to the NBA game.

If you’re wondering why the heck a 6-foot-11 bruiser would choose to shoot “granny-style” from the charity stripe, you might pay attention to the fact that Onuaku made ’em both — which was the whole point of the midstream switch that he made between his freshman and sophomore seasons at Louisville.

After shooting 46.7 percent from the line during his freshman season with the Cardinals, Onuaku decided to experiment with the old-school, Rick Barry-style stroke during the summer of 2015 at the suggestion of head coach Rick Pitino. Evidently, he liked how it felt and how he shot, because he decided to carry the experiment over after summer turned to fall … and after a marked improvement in his first year of going underhand, jumping up to a 58.9 percent success rate at the stripe, Onuaku figured he might as well keep it going after declaring for the 2016 NBA draft.

“I came to the notion that I don’t care what anybody thinks,” Onuaku told Shams Charania of The Vertical in July, after the Rockets had selected him with the seventh pick in the second round of the 2016 draft. “As long as I get the bucket, the point, I’m fine. It’s up to other people to ask themselves why they don’t shoot underhand, but for me, I needed to put pride to the side and make shots. I can’t worry about why other people aren’t doing it. It’s just a different form.

“I want to make free throws. Overall, I want to show I can play for a long time in this league.”

Onuaku’s strength, athleticism, agility, finishing and rebounding gifts will earn him chances to prove he merits a longer look, especially with Capela likely to be sidelined for another month or so and the Rockets ever looking for dudes who can screen for Harden, roll hard to the rim afterward, run the floor in transition and clean the glass. Being able to knock down free throws, though, can earn bigs chances to not only appear in games, but to play high-leverage minutes and even finish them, because their coaches don’t have to worry about them becoming a liability that can be exploited by opponents who’d prefer to send poor shooters to the line over letting Houston’s high-powered offense run unfettered.

Onuaku — who finished with six points, three rebounds, an assist and a steal in eight minutes in his NBA debut — might not become a game-changer on the order of DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond, who have ascended to All-NBA and All-Star status as the kind of talents whose coaches will learn to live with their foul-shooting woes. But as a player trying to fight his way out of the D-League and into the long-term plans of a Rockets team with its sights set on perennial contention, he’s doing what he can to increase the likelihood that once he gets in the door on the NBA level, he’ll stay there — even if it leads to snickers from fans, slander on social media and some roasting from his teammates.

“I don’t really care what people think,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis earlier this year. “I know they’re going to make fun of me. I just brush it off. It’s all about getting better.”

That doesn’t mean he wasn’t sweating at least a little on Monday as he stepped to the line for the first freebies of his professional career, though.

“I was nervous as hell,” Onuaku told ESPN’s Calvin Watkins after the game. “I’m just happy that I made them.”

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