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‘Big, strong’ Arinze Onuaku wants roster spot with Phoenix Suns

LAS VEGAS – He played the most of any Phoenix Suns reserve.

He grabbed the most rebounds of any player on either team.

Arinze Onuaku, 6-foot-9 and 276 pounds, stood out — even more so than Marcus Morris’ fluorescent yellow shoes or Diante Garrett’s traffic-cone-esque orange footwear — in the Suns’ Summer League opening victory against the Portland Trail Blazers Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Onuaku, who went undrafted in 2010 after a four-year college career at Syracuse, finished with seven points and 11 rebounds in a little over 17 minutes, turning his 26th birthday into what he hopes is a coming out party with the one present that has alluded him thus far: an NBA contract.

“I’ve been feeling like I belong (in the NBA) for a long time,” he said.

Onuaku thought his opportunity might’ve come last season when playing for the Canton Charge, the NBA Development League affiliate of the Cleveland Cavaliers; he was named an all-star averaging 12.6 points and 9.5 rebounds on 56.4 percent shooting in 38 games, including 32 starts.

“Being an all-star in the D-League and not getting the call up, it was a frustrating year,” he said.

Frustration has been a reoccurring theme for Onuaku.

He suffered a knee and thigh injury his senior year in the Big East Tournament that likely scared off teams, resulting in him not hearing his name called on draft night.

Then two years ago, a second knee injury limited him to only three-game stint with Neptunas Klaiped of the Lithuanian League.

Finally healthy, Onuaku is getting a chance this summer with the Suns.

“He’s a big strong guy,” GM Ryan McDonough said. “Not only is he strong and physical but he’s pretty smart too. He positions himself well for rebounds, especially on the offensive glass. He’s a load. When the defense rotates and gets a little out of position, he just goes right to the front of the rim. You have to account for him or else he’s going to get put backs or draw some fouls.”

Against Portland, Onuaku made three of his four field goal attempts, including a rebound slam on a PJ Tucker missed three.

“The development I’ve seen with Arinze is finishing around the basket,” McDonough said. “That’s something I think he’s really improved at over the past year. With that rebounding ability and his physical nature, he’s going to get fouled a lot. He’s going to get a lot of put back opportunities, so if he can finish around the basket I think he can be pretty good.”

Whether it’s the Suns or one of the other 29 teams in the league, Onuaku hopes to make a big enough impression in Las Vegas to earn, if nothing else, an invitation to training camp.

It would make for a nice belated birthday gift.

“Every day I’ve just been trying to get better; work on my body, work on my game,” he said. “They say when you work hard things are going to start to pan out. It’s been a great summer for me so far; just trying to feed off that.”