LEXINGTON, Ky. — The announcement that Ugonna Onyenso — a highly touted center from Nigeria — would be joining the University of Kentucky basketball team for the 2022-23 season came on Aug. 1, just a few days before his future teammates were headed to the Bahamas for a series of exhibition games.
Onyenso’s commitment happened after the Wildcats had already gone through extensive offseason practices. The 6-foot-11 post player wasn’t there for those workouts, wouldn’t be able to make the Bahamas trip, and wouldn’t even be on UK’s campus until about three weeks later.
In just about any other year, Onyenso would have been walking into the unenviable situation of needing to catch up in a hurry. In this case, however, the circumstances couldn’t have been much better.
With reigning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe on the depth chart at his position, there will be zero immediate expectations placed on Onyenso, who was ranked No. 18 nationally by On3.com in the 2022 class and in many past seasons would’ve been counted on to make an instant impact.
Not only is Tshiebwe firmly entrenched as UK’s starting center, he has the reputation as a caring team player, someone who lifts up those around him.
Watching from afar, officials at the NBA Academy Africa — where Onyenso trained for two years before coming to the United States in January — knew Tshiebwe’s story, and they figured their young pupil could be entering a favorable scenario once they found out he was headed to Kentucky.
“I think this is perfect for Ugonna — to be under his wing and learn,” said Franck Traore, who oversees NBA basketball operations in Africa and worked with Onyenso at the Academy. “To learn under him — how the system works, how to work at the college level — he couldn’t have a better mentor. And I hope that’s going to be the case, that Oscar takes him under his wing.”
Tshiebwe, predictably, has done just that.
From day one, Kentucky’s star player — a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, now in his fourth year of college — emerged as a mentor for Onyenso, who just turned 18 years old in late September and is still working his way through American life on and off the court.
“It’s been great,” said UK associate coach Orlando Antigua. “What Oscar did immediately is to kind of take him under his wing, in terms of, ‘Come hang out with me.’ They spend time together. They’ll come in and shoot together. They play one on one together. So, early on, your confidence is going to be shook, because you’re playing the national player of the year every day.
“But, over the long haul, you’re playing the national player of the year, and you’re being able to hold your own. And you’re getting better. And he’s getting better. And you’re pushing each other. And that’s only going to grow both of them.”
Oscar vs. Ugonna
Onyenso recently spoke at length to the Herald-Leader about a variety of topics surrounding his journey from Africa to the United States. He was candid and cheerful throughout, and the biggest smile of the conversation came at the first mention of Tshiebwe’s name.
“Playing against Oscar is a big deal for me,” Onyenso said.
Onyenso explained — and NBA Africa Academy officials confirmed — that the setup there included several peers of a similar size to the 6-11, 225-pound Kentucky newcomer. Obviously, none were as skilled and accomplished as Tshiebwe, however, and Onyenso added that what struck him most about his early battles with UK’s star was the way Tshiebwe could control his body. The freshman quickly found that the veteran center knew when and when not to be physical, and that was something new.
It was also apparent that Tshiebwe — listed at 6-9 — sometimes struggled with length.
“Oh boy, he got me in trouble,” Tshiebwe said with a chuckle. “I’m in trouble in practice a lot. He’s blocking my shot, blocking my shot, blocking my shot. He will be a problem as a basketball player. … I see him as a great basketball player. And I see him making a big impact one day. I see him blocking shots. I see him like a new Anthony Davis blocking shots.”
Clearly, this is shaping up as a mutually beneficial situation for Onyenso and Tshiebwe, and it’s one that could shape the success of the Kentucky basketball program for years to come.
In the short term, the Wildcats’ national player of the year gets an up-close look — every day in practice — at the kind of player that he struggled against last season. In a 2021-22 campaign filled with otherworldly performances, Tshiebwe’s most-human moments came against long, athletic players.
“It allows Oscar to work in real time against someone with that kind of length. And that timing,” Antigua said. “It allows him to expand his game. At the same time, it reinforces his strengths close to the basket.”
Onyenso said he’d already blocked some of Tshiebwe’s hook shots. Tshiebwe has started to adapt, to find new and different ways to get shots off around the freshman’s length. That’s bound to pay off once the season starts.
“I struggled last year with height,” Tshiebwe acknowledged. “But now he’s in the practices, and he’s making me a lot better. I have to figure out how I gotta score in front of him.
“If I can score in front of him, I can score in front of anyone.”
As Onyenso helps Tshiebwe evolve into an even more versatile player, the Kentucky freshman is learning what it takes to succeed in college basketball, on and off the court.
Tshiebwe took it upon himself to help guide Onyenso in his first days on campus, something he said he’s trying to do with all of the freshmen on this season’s team.
“Trying to help keep them focused,” he said. “In college, there’s so many distractions — you can lose your head so fast. But, for me, I just want to be straight with them. Tell them the truth. ‘You should not do that. You should do this. If you want to go far, you gotta just do the right things. … You came here for a very good reason. Be in the gym. Go to class. Do the right thing.’
“The right thing is going to help you get to wherever you want to go.”
Onyenso is apparently taking that to heart. Tshiebwe said the younger center checks in with him on all manner of decisions related to life and basketball. Fellow UK veteran Jacob Toppin said the same, noting that Onyenso would lean on the older players’ knowledge and make choices based on their advice. All while bringing maximum effort in a practice setting unlike any he’s ever experienced.
“I’m proud of him for that,” Toppin said. “He’s pushing through.”
Anything Onyenso gives to Kentucky basketball away from the practice floor this season will be a bonus. When UK’s coaches first started recruiting him, it was with the idea that he would come into the program for the 2023-24 season. Instead, he chose to reclassify to 2022, and he joined a team that already featured Tshiebwe, returning power forwards Lance Ware and Daimion Collins, as well as Toppin, who is fully capable of playing the “4” or even the “5” in college.
Though he expects to play meaningful minutes this season, Onyenso’s first major contributions to the Cats are likely to come in the 2023-24 campaign. And that development has already begun.
Last week brought the first set of full practices for the upcoming season. Toppin spoke to the Herald-Leader on Friday and was asked who had impressed in those early sessions. Onyenso was one of the first players he mentioned.
“Ugo has actually come a long way,” he said. “Obviously, he’s still a little behind, because he wasn’t with us in the summer, but he’s doing really good. …
“He’s going to be a great player. I truly believe that. Not only because of the type of talent that he has, but he’s going against the reigning national player of the year every day. He’s going against Lance, who battles all the time. And sometimes he’s going against me and Daimion. He’s being coached by Coach Cal — one of the best coaches in college basketball — so he’s going to make strides, and he’s going to be a great player. He has the people and the tools around him that are going to make him successful, so he has to just stay locked in to that.”
Tshiebwe said Onyenso arrives at every practice ready to battle. His new teammates are coming at him, trying to push him around. He’s not backing down, even if he’s not quite ready to give as much as he takes physically.
“I can’t wait to get to the point where I will go to head to head with Oscar. Right now, Oscar thinks, ‘I’m gonna bully him.’ So I can’t wait to get to the point to where I will give Oscar a tough time at practice.
“It’s coming,” he said behind a confident smile. “I promise you, it’s coming.”