What happens to Kentucky basketball if Oscar Tshiebwe exits?

What happens to Kentucky basketball if Oscar Tshiebwe exits?

Aaron Bradshaw is one of the top recruits in the 2023 class, but the 7-footer projects to play more of a face-up, finesse game than the physical style Oscar Tshiebwe has brought to UK over the past two seasons.


As Oscar Tshiebwe continues to deliberate on his basketball future, the question of what Kentucky would do without him lingers.

Tshiebwe — the national player of the year a season ago and a second-team All-American in 2023 — has until May 31 to either pull his name out of the NBA Draft or remain all in on the process of going pro. He told the Herald-Leader at the NBA Combine in Chicago last week that he has no exact timetable to make his final decision, leaving open the option to stretch it out all the way to that May 31 date as he continues to meet with NBA teams and receive feedback on his status.

So, Kentucky can only wait to see what happens next.

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What would happen if Tshiebwe decides to stay in the draft?

John Calipari could try to bolster the Wildcats’ frontcourt via the transfer portal, though many of the top available players from that pool have already made new college commitments, including former Michigan center Hunter Dickinson, who was the clear-cut No. 1-ranked transfer this offseason but has decided to play the 2023-24 campaign at Kansas after visiting Kentucky and a few other schools.

There’s also the possibility that Calipari stands pat with what he has at the “5” position — a risky but intriguing option that would probably see two promising-but-unproven young post players get ample opportunity to blossom into college basketball stars.

And if that happens, Tshiebwe thinks Kentucky will be just fine.

In that scenario, the Cats would go into the 2023-24 season with sophomore center Ugonna Onyenso and freshman 7-footer Aaron Bradshaw to man the spot that Tshiebwe has held for the past two years.

Tshiebwe is obviously plenty familiar with Onyenso’s game. The Nigeria native was a late addition to UK’s 2022-23 roster, arriving in Lexington with few immediate expectations before being pushed into action early while Tshiebwe rehabbed from a preseason knee injury.

Onyenso played only 110 minutes over the course of his freshman year — and barely saw the floor at all during the final couple of months of the season — but the 6-11 center flashed enough potential as a shot-blocker to think he could be a major part of UK’s plans in 2023-24.

While Kentucky fans didn’t see much of Onyenso down the stretch, Tshiebwe had an up-close look at his development during the team’s practice sessions.

“His game has changed,” Tshiebwe said. “Ugonna is going to be big-time for Kentucky next year. He had to learn, he had to know that this game is not like high school. You think you’re going to come in and get so much playing time in college — you have to build up your confidence. You have to build up your body. Be strong. And be strong mentally, too.

“I can see, next year, Ugonna step up and help out a lot at Kentucky.”

Ugonna Onyenso tallied 16 blocked shots in just 110 minutes on the court during the 2022-23 season. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com

When it was noted that Onyenso seemed like a pretty mature player for an 18-year-old, Tshiebwe interrupted with an emphatic, “Yes!” — flashing back to the scene in UK’s locker room immediately after the season-ending loss to Kansas State in March, when the freshman walked over to console his senior mentor and convinced him to talk to the reporters that had gathered around his locker.

“I see him stepping up and being a young leader who can help the kids coming up,” Tshiebwe said. “Ugonna helped us — even though he was a freshman … he’s going to come and talk to me? I can see him being a great leader and help the team next year. He loves to work. He’s in the gym all the time.”

Tshiebwe acknowledged that he took Onyenso under his wing when the newcomer arrived on campus last fall, showing him the ropes of what was expected to be a basketball player at Kentucky.

He said he’d often get late-night texts from his young teammate asking Tshiebwe to join him in the Craft Center for a workout or a game of one-on-one. Sometimes, those texts would pop in as late as midnight. Tshiebwe shook his head and smiled. “I’d say, ‘Bro, it’s midnight. We gotta wake up tomorrow at 7!’

“He really wants to get better,” he continued. “And he’s a great shot-blocker — that’s going to help the team next year a lot. And I believe he’s going to be a big thing for Kentucky.”

Tshiebwe isn’t quite as familiar with Bradshaw — listed at 7-feet and 210 pounds and ranked No. 5 in the 2023 class by 247Sports — but he’s watched videos of the UK recruit and flashed a grin when his name was mentioned.

“That boy’s good,” Tshiebwe declared. “He can extend and shoot — a three-point shooter. He does a lot of things. He’s going to help the team in a lot of different ways. He’s a shot-blocker. He shoots the ball really good.”

Going into the season with only Bradshaw and Onyenso to play the “5” spot would be an obvious gamble. Both are unproven against top-flight college competition, though both possess fascinating upside and potential star-making qualities.

The biggest area of concern in this scenario would probably be on the boards.

“I just gotta teach them how to rebound,” Tshiebwe said with a laugh. “It’s effort, and you need to be able to know how to go get the ball. They need to learn that. Other than that, they’re going to help Kentucky be great.”

Calipari lamented last season that Onyenso was sometimes pushed around by more physical opponents, to be expected with a young player still learning the game. Bradshaw is even thinner — listed at 15 pounds lighter than Onyenso — and is likely to find a tough learning curve as he adapts to a rougher brand of basketball in the paint next season.

Tshiebwe, of course, has led the nation in rebounding each of the past two seasons.

Without him, UK will have some major gaps to fill.

One candidate to bolster the Cats’ frontcourt was San Diego State transfer Keshad Johnson, but the 6-7, 225-pound forward with the reputation as a defensive stopper announced his commitment to Arizona over the weekend.

Chris Livingston could still come back for another season and provide some physicality and grit in the paint, but he, like Tshiebwe, is currently locked in on the draft process.

There’s also the possibility that Kentucky could play more of a small-ball style, and there’s already been speculation that star recruit Justin Edwards — a 6-7 wing projected to be a lottery pick in the 2024 draft — could play some minutes at the “4” spot in a lineup that featured four Cats on the perimeter. Such a combo would necessitate rebounding from some of those perimeter players, however.

The simplest solution would be the return of Tshiebwe, who could split minutes with Onyenso at the “5” while Bradshaw slid over to the “4” spot. But his return isn’t guaranteed, and while he continues to mull his future, there’s a restless feeling that Kentucky is running out of time and options to bolster its post play.

And as that NBA Draft deadline nears, Calipari and the Cats will continue to wait.

“I believe Kentucky’s going to be great, even without me,” Tshiebwe said. “… Right now, I just have to keep focusing on this process.”

This story was originally published May 22, 2023 6:30 AM.

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