Ugonna Onyenso will make an impact, but when? "He's just young."

On3 imageby:Jack Pilgrim03/08/23

The expectation for blue-chip center Ugonna Onyenso when he reclassified and signed with Kentucky this past offseason was that his growth would take time. Considered arguably the best shot-blocker in his original class, there was no question the defense would translate. His offense, though, was a serious work in progress.

Arriving in late August, the 7-foot center’s offensive production was limited to putbacks and lob finishes. Onyenso continued developing his jump shot and learning to battle through physicality going against Oscar Tshiebwe every day in practice, but the process was always going to be a slow one.

Is it surprising that the native of Owerri, Nigeria played a combined 18 minutes in SEC play — 11 coming in one game (at Alabama)? Certainly not, especially big-picture. Tshiebwe is the anchor down low, Lance Ware is the backup, with Daimion Collins splitting limited time at the four and five.

But there have been times throughout the season Onyenso’s rim protection could have possibly been used. And when you consider Adou Thiero has gotten his shot — albeit due to injury — there have been some questions about why the freshman center hasn’t gotten his. Really, he’s the only player on the roster who hasn’t gotten a real shot against real competition down the stretch.

And John Calipari knows that. The Kentucky head coach likes that essentially everyone on the roster has gotten some run, with Onyenso being the lone exception. His only games of 10-plus minutes have come vs. Howard (20), Duquesne (19), South Carolina State (12), North Florida (18) and Alabama (11) — the opportunity in Tuscaloosa coming after a disastrous defensive outing for Tshiebwe and ensuing blowout loss. That was a ‘find something that sticks, because nothing else is right now’ moment.

Elsewhere, he’s gotten a minute or two, here and there. But Calipari wants him to stay ready this postseason, just in case. Onyenso’s real production will come in the future, but that doesn’t mean he can’t help now should his name be called.

“The greatest thing is they all have had an opportunity now. The only guy that really hasn’t is Ugonna,” Calipari said during his call-in radio show Monday evening. “I just keep telling him, ‘Be ready, because if I go to you, you’re 7-foot tall. You can make a difference.'”

The future is undeniably bright for the reclassified freshman. He’s had his moments, blocking at least three shots in four games while pulling down ten boards twice. You can’t teach his length and instincts. When everything else falls into place, look out.

It just may take a minute to get there. That’ll likely come next season.

“He’s a good scorer, shooter, shot-blocker, you know?” Calipari said. “He’s just young, really young.”

Until then, it’ll be up to Tshiebwe and Ware to hold down the five spot. Make no mistake about it, though, Onyenso’s got next.

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