Promising big man from Nigeria linked to Kentucky Wildcats


Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso has risen up the rankings to become one of the most highly touted big men in the 2023 class.

Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso has risen up the rankings to become one of the most highly touted big men in the 2023 class.

FIBA

As college basketball calendaring calendar turns to the ever-important month of July, a promising big man from Nigeria has been linkedy to the Kentuck Wildcats.

Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso — a 7-footer with a 7-5 wingspan — has risen swiftly up the 2023 rankings in recent months. He jumped 60 spots — from No. 86 to No. 26 overall — when the Rivals.com list was updated a couple of weeks ago. Around that same time, On3.com moved him up even more — all the way to No. 5 overall in the 2023 class, making him the highest-riser in those rankings.

Onyenso is No. 22 in the new 247Sports rankings — he wasn’t on that list at all, previously — and he clearly has the potential to move even higher.

“Kingsley is a very gifted physical talent,” 247Sports analyst Travis Branham told the Herald-Leader. “Really good size, really long arms, and has a promising frame. He’s a great athlete. He’s shown some flashes of the ability to score both with his back to the basket and in facing the rim. He has the ability to stretch the floor.

“Just a lot of talent, a lot of upside — to just kind of get in on campus and continue to work.”

While he’s showing more signs offensively, it’s rim-protection skills that have Onyenso standing out at this point in his development, and he’s tracking as one of the best bigs in the 2023 class.

Amid this rise, a consensus has formed that Kentucky is the team to beat.

Last week, Rivals.com analyst Travis Graf, who covers recruiting nationally for that website, logged a FutureCast prediction for UK on Onyenso’s page. Over the weekend, Branham put in a Crystal Ball pick in Kentucky’s favor. And earlier this week, On3.com national analyst Jamie Shaw made a prediction of Onyenso to the Wildcats.

“I don’t think it’s imminent, but I do like Kentucky’s chances,” Branham said. “It’s something that I’ll definitely be having a close eye on during the month of July, and I think we’ll get a lot more clarity on what’s to come in the coming weeks.”

Reclass to 2022?

If Onyenso is indeed trending toward UK, it would raise two major questions.

First, how would his commitment affect Aaron Bradshaw, another 7-footer coveted by John Calipari and seemingly leaning toward the Cats?

Second, might Onyenso reclassify this summer and join the UK program in time for next season?

It was notable that Branham also logged a pro-Kentucky prediction for Bradshaw — the first on that player’s Crystal Ball page — less than 48 hours after doing the same for Onyenso. On the surface, it seemed a bit odd. It’s rare that two 7-footers — possibly the two best centers in the class — would end up at the same school.

But things are looking up for UK in both cases, and Branham thinks it could work.

“I don’t see why there would be much of a problem with it, to be honest,” he said, adding that if one of the two can show an ability to stretch the floor offensively, they could even play at the same time . “Cal is not afraid of playing two bigs. As long as one of them can knock down a 15-footer, and as long as they’re able to defend the position, then he’s willing to do it. So I don’t see why it would be much of an issue.”

And then there’s the question of reclassification.

“Something I’m going to be having my eye on with Kingsley is the ability to reclassify,” Branham said. “… I think there’s a chance of it, for sure.”

This idea has come up publicly in recent weeks, with those close to the situation shooting down the possibility behind the scenes. The rumor clearly still has legs, however, and it would make some sense on both sides.

Onyenso, who turns 18 years old in September and could complete his high school academic requirements this year, is currently at Putnam Science Academy (Conn.), the same school that produced Hamidou Diallo, who left for UK during the middle of his postgrad year and played for the Cats the following season. Onyenso also played with the NBA Academy in Africa for two years before coming to the United States.

A fit at Kentucky?

UK doesn’t need much in the way of frontcourt help this season. National player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe is back, and he averaged 32 minutes per game last season. Onyenso has the long-term potential to play the “4,” but his skill set away from the basket will need to evolve for that to happen. Kentucky also welcomes back McDonald’s All-American power forward Daimion Collins, who Calipari has said should be “one of the cornerstones” of the 2022-23 roster. And junior power forward Lance Ware also returns and should provide meaningful minutes in the paint.

Those three players, plus the presence of talented wings Chris Livingston and Jacob Toppin — both capable of playing the “4” in certain lineups — leave little room for playing time in the frontcourt, as long as everyone’s healthy.

Branham pointed out that Tshiebwe is likely gone after this season, Collins could very well emerge as an NBA Draft pick in year two, and he said he wasn’t sure Ware would be back for a fourth season.

“There’s a lot of transition coming into that frontcourt,” Branham said.

Onyenso jumping aboard now would give him an opportunity to battle in practice against Tshiebwe and the others for a full season with no pressure of playing right away. That would, ideally, put him in a better position to produce immediately in 2023-24. And with massive turnover likely coming to UK’s frontcourt rotation, there should be more than enough playing time for both Bradshaw and Onyenso a year from now.

This still has to play out over the next few weeks.

Onyenso is scheduled to be on Oklahoma State’s campus for an official visit this weekend, though Louisville and Memphis are the two schools other than Kentucky generating the most buzz at the moment.

With the grassroots schedule ramping up this month and Onyenso emerging as one of the top stars on the Adidas circuit, that’s where most of the focus will be for the time being. The first day of fall classes at UK is set for Aug. 22.

“We’ll just continue to learn more over the month of July,” Branham said.

Ben Roberts covers UK basketball, football, horse racing and other sports for the Lexington Herald-Leader and has specialized in UK basketball recruiting for the past several years. He also maintains the Next Cats recruiting blog, which features the latest news on the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts.
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