Oscar Tshiebwe faces a May 31 deadline to decide whether to remain in the NBA Draft or come back to Kentucky for another season of college basketball.
At a Kentucky basketball road game this past season, I sat next to a former NBA front office executive. After discussing Cason Wallace’s pro potential, I began a question about Oscar Tshiebwe only to be shut down in a hurry.
“Europe,” he interrupted.
The ex-exec then expanded that there were legitimate questions about Tshiebwe’s listed height of 6-foot-9, his overall offensive game and his ability to guard NBA players, especially on the perimeter. The exec’s evaluation of the Kentucky center: Great college player. Skills don’t translate to the next level. Not right now, anyway.
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From all reports, Tshiebwe went about the task of proving his evaluators wrong last week at the NBA Combine in Chicago. He put up impressive numbers during the five-on-five scrimmages. In one particular game, Oscar grabbed an Oscar-like 16 rebounds in 18 minutes.
Was that enough to coax an NBA team into drafting Tshiebwe come June 22 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn? Even if undrafted, will Tshiebwe begin his professional journey? Or will he return for a third full season at UK?
Meanwhile, Kentucky waits for Oscar’s decision — the deadline is May 31 — and what it means either way.
It’s hard to argue with Tshiebwe’s college numbers. After all, he was unanimous national player of the year in 2021-22 when he averaged 17.4 points and a ridiculous 15.1 rebounds per game. His numbers dipped slightly in 2022-23 to 16.5 points and 13.7 rebounds. Still, he was a second-team All-America choice.
Thing is, despite the shiny numbers, Tshiebwe’s game was not without flaws. He struggled defensively against the pick and roll. He wasn’t a rim protector. After averaging 1.6 blocked shots per game in 2021-22, the number dipped to 1.0 last season. (He measured 6-foot-7 at the combine.) His per-game turnover average was 1.9 in 2021-22 and 2.0 last season.
Despite Tshiebwe’s individual stats and personal awards, Kentucky failed to win the SEC either season, regular-season or tournament. In 2021-22, the Cats finished 14-4 in league play, tied for second place with Tennessee behind first-place Auburn at 15-3. Last season, the Cats dropped to third place at 12-6, trailing both Alabama at 16-2 and Texas A&M at 15-3.
And, in those two seasons, Kentucky won a combined one NCAA Tournament game.
Still, it’s hard to imagine where Kentucky would have been the last two seasons without the transfer from West Virginia.
In 2021-22, Oscar grabbed 28 rebounds against Western Kentucky and 20 against Missouri. He scored 30 points each in games against Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Saint Peter’s. Last season, Tshiebwe scored 37 points and collected 24 rebounds against Georgia and had 21 points and 20 rebounds against Vanderbilt. He grabbed 25 rebounds in UK’s NCAA win over Providence.
In 66 career games at Kentucky, Tshiebwe has produced 48 double-doubles.
A Tshiebwe return gives John Calipari a skilled and experienced big man to go with a roster that depends heavily on freshmen, even by Cal’s standards. Tshiebwe’s return would relieve some of the pressure from incoming 7-footer Aaron Bradshaw, who is reportedly capable of playing alongside Oscar in the front court.
And what if Tshiebwe doesn’t return? Well, Calipari will do what Calipari has done in the past, attempt to squeeze as much as he can as quickly as he can out of a stellar group of recruits — five in 247Sports’ top-30 rankings — before it heads off to the pro ranks.
If Oscar does depart, Calipari will have more opportunity to see exactly what Ugonna Onyenso can do. The 6-11 center from Nigeria is undeniably raw. He played sparingly last season as a freshman, but showed the potential to be elite. Without Oscar and backup Lance Ware, who is transferring to Villanova, Calipari will have to let Onyenso play through his mistakes.
This isn’t to say Tshiebwe’s stay-or-go decision is make-or-break for Kentucky’s 2023-24 season. It will have an impact, however. Consistent production is not the easiest thing to replace.
This story was originally published May 20, 2023 11:30 AM.