John Calipari expects Ugonna Onyenso to be one of college basketball's best bigs next season

On3 imageby:Jack Pilgrim03/15/23

Ugonna Onyenso will not be Kentucky‘s secret weapon in the NCAA Tournament. No false promises of playing time for the former blue-chip recruit, arguably the best shot-blocker in high school basketball before reclassifying and signing with the Wildcats this past offseason.

The two parties were always going to play the long game with each other. Onyenso knew that while he had defensive instincts unlike very few at this level, his offensive game was a work in progress. The 7-foot center was limited to putbacks and lob finishes when he first arrived on campus. His footwork, fluidity, jump shot, ball handling, passing, all of it, the native of Owerri, Nigeria remained a step away from being a step away.

And there is no rush to get there, not this year anyway. Onyenso made that clear with his head coach leading up to the NCAA Tournament.

“I met with Ugonna, he’s just the greatest kid,” John Calipari said during his call-in radio show Monday evening. “He said, ‘Coach, coach, coach, I didn’t expect to be playing. Whatever you need me to do, I’m there.”

The freshman center has played 18 total minutes in SEC play, 11 coming in one game (at Alabama). He got some run early, playing 20 minutes vs. Howard, 19 vs. Duquesne, 22 vs. South Carolina State and 18 vs. North Florida, but a few minutes here and there since. Certainly the last guy off the bench for the Wildcats among scholarship bigs.

That’s to be expected when you have Oscar Tshiebwe anchoring the post with Lance Ware and Daimion Collins splitting backup minutes. At this point, the opportunity just isn’t there — not yet, anyway.

“You’ve got a physical player in Lance (Ware) who will mix it up. You have Daimion, who gives you kind of the same stuff as Ugonna,” Calipari said. “He’s gotten so much better as a player, he’s just behind some pretty good players.”

But Onyenso’s day will come, and when it does, look out. He simply does things you can’t teach, physical gifts that make him unique. It’s why Calipari believes the payoff will be worth the wait.

“You’ve got Oscar, you’ve got Daimion, you’ve got Lance, you’ve got some big guys out there,” the Kentucky head coach said. “… At the end of the day, my guys is he’ll be the best big guy, if not one of the best big guys in the country next year. Think about what he did early.”

Onyenso had six points, four rebounds and four blocks in his debut vs. Howard, followed by nine points, 10 rebounds and three blocks vs. Duquesne. Six points, four rebounds and three blocks vs. South Carolina State, then seven points, 10 rebounds and three blocks vs. North Florida. Then he managed four points, two rebounds and two blocks in seven minutes vs. Michigan.

The spurts have been there and the potential is glaringly clear. He may not get his shot this month in the NCAA Tournament — though Calipari did tell him “Be ready, because if I go to you … you can make a difference” to close out the regular season — but it’ll come.

The Kentucky head coach believes next year is the breakthrough.

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