Oscar Tshiebwe is leaving Kentucky. How can UK fill the void left by his departure?

Tribune Content Agency

LEXINGTON, Ky. — One of the most celebrated Kentucky basketball players in recent memory is moving on.

Oscar Tshiebwe — last year’s national player of the year and an All-America selection this past season — announced Wednesday that he will remain in the 2023 NBA draft and forego his final season of NCAA eligibility.

Tshiebwe, who came to Lexington as a transfer two and a half years ago, will go down as one of the most impressive UK players during John Calipari’s tenure as the Wildcats’ head coach. And his departure — more than two months after the 2022-23 season ended — will leave Kentucky with yet another hole to fill on its 2023-24 roster.

A McDonald’s All-American recruit, Tshiebwe — originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo — considered Kentucky out of high school but ultimately signed with West Virginia, emerging as an instant-impact player for the Mountaineers as a freshman. Following an uneven start to his sophomore campaign, Tshiebwe decided to transfer at the semester break and ended up at UK, where he sat out the remainder of the 2020-21 season before blossoming into a star during his first full year with the Wildcats.

Tshiebwe averaged 17.4 points and 15.1 rebounds per game as a junior, sweeping the major national player of the year honors for the 2021-22 season and leading Kentucky to a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, though the Cats were upset in the first round by 15-seeded Saint Peter’s.

The 6-foot-9 post player was projected as a second-round NBA draft pick after that season, but he chose to return to Kentucky, and — despite suffering a knee injury that required surgery a few weeks before the start of the 2022-23 season — averaged 16.5 points and 13.7 rebounds, earning consensus second-team All-America honors.

Tshiebwe led the Wildcats in scoring in both of his seasons with Kentucky, and he led the nation in rebounding each of the past two years. His NBA draft stock took a hit in year two at UK, however, with his defensive ability called into question and lingering doubts about how his game fits with the current direction of the league solidifying over time.

As of now, Tshiebwe is not widely projected to be chosen in this year’s NBA draft, which will consist of only 58 picks after two teams were forced to forfeit their second-round selections. Tshiebwe is No. 75 on ESPN’s most recent list of the top 100 available players for this year’s draft. That ranking was largely unchanged even after Tshiebwe turned in an impressive week of performances in front of league scouts at the NBA combine in Chicago in mid-May.

There, the Kentucky star made it clear that his preference would be to stay in the draft, despite his seemingly uncertain status as an NBA pick this year.

“I’m praying everything can go well. I’m praying that a team can get me,” Tshiebwe told the Herald-Leader at the combine. He later talked glowingly about his time at Kentucky and his continued appreciation for Calipari and the UK fan base, but Tshiebwe, who will turn 24 years old in November, also said he was eager to get started on a professional career.

“This is my dream,” he said at the combine. “My dream is to play in the NBA.”

Tshiebwe will find out for sure at the June 22 draft whether a team is willing to take a chance on him as an official selection that night. If he goes undrafted, the college basketball star will surely be approached with opportunities to make an NBA roster through the free-agent route. He had to make a final decision on his draft status by Wednesday, the deadline for college players to remove their names from consideration and retain their NCAA eligibility.

Tshiebwe’s legacy at Kentucky

Toward the end of the 2022-23 season, Tshiebwe became the first Kentucky player in more than a decade to join the program’s vaunted 1,000-point club. He finishes his college career with a total of 1,550 points in 107 games, including his season and a half at West Virginia.

From his time at Kentucky, he’ll go down as one of the greatest rebounders in school history.

Tshiebwe wraps up his UK career with 952 rebounds in 66 games, good enough for sixth on the all-time list. If he had elected to return to Kentucky for one more season, Tshiebwe almost certainly would have become the Wildcats’ all-time leader in that category. Dan Issel has 1,078 rebounds, a school record that has stood for 53 years.

Tshiebwe, who officially has the most rebounds for any two-year UK player, likely would have passed Issel’s mark fairly early in the 2023-24 season.

He also currently sits at No. 48 on the Cats’ all-time scoring list with 1,117 points. If he had returned to Kentucky and kept up his previous scoring pace, Tshiebwe could have broken into the top 10 in career points. (Issel also holds the school scoring record with 2,138 points.)

Tshiebwe’s two seasons of statistical excellence at Kentucky both ended with heartbreak in the NCAA Tournament. First, the stunning defeat to Saint Peter’s in the first round of last year’s tournament. Then, a second-round loss to Kansas State in March, what will now be the final game of his college career.

A stunned and reflective Tshiebwe sat in silence for several minutes after that defeat.

“I came here, and my dream was to do something great,” he said in UK’s postgame locker room. “Two years in a row, it did not happen. But I’m very happy to be part of Kentucky.”

In three NCAA Tournament games, Tshiebwe averaged 21.0 points and 19.7 rebounds, including a 25-rebound performance — one board shy of the modern NCAA record — in the Cats’ first-round victory over Providence this year, the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 2019.

Off the court, Tshiebwe quickly emerged as a fan favorite and one of the most recognizable figures in Kentucky, often making public appearances and staying long after games in Rupp Arena to sign autographs. There were rumblings this offseason that Tshiebwe might look to transfer elsewhere for his final season of college basketball if he decided to pull his name out of the NBA draft. In his interview with the Herald-Leader at the combine, he stressed that such a move had never even entered his thinking.

“That is not an option,” Tshiebwe said. “I will never transfer. Kentucky’s my home. If there’s a chance to go professional, I’ll go pro. If there’s a chance to not go professional, I will go back to Kentucky. I’ve never even thought about going (another) place. Kentucky is my home. It’s a dream place. I can’t leave my home. That’s my place, forever.”

What’s next for UK’s roster?

Tshiebwe also said at the NBA combine that he had complete faith in returning center Ugonna Onyenso and incoming recruit Aaron Bradshaw — a 7-footer and possible NBA pick next year — to hold down the paint for the Wildcats next season, should he decide not to come back.

“I believe Kentucky’s going to be great, even without me,” Tshiebwe declared.

Now that reality is here, and — despite Tshiebwe’s endorsement of UK’s current frontcourt duo — Calipari and the Wildcats’ coaching staff will be looking for reinforcements before next season begins.

Kentucky had already been pursuing talented options in the transfer portal to cover its bases in the event that Tshiebwe didn’t return. At various times throughout the spring, UK looked like the leader for both Michigan center Hunter Dickinson — the clear No. 1-ranked transfer this offseason — and San Diego State forward Keshad Johnson, a starter and defensive stalwart for the national runner-up Aztecs this past season. The Cats missed on both, with Dickinson committing to Kansas and Johnson picking Arizona.

Where does that leave Kentucky?

Tshiebwe’s departure means the Wildcats have just seven confirmed scholarship players for the 2023-24 roster, and Bradshaw and Onyenso are the only two taller than 6-7. While Calipari rarely fills his entire allotment of 13 scholarships, the Hall of Fame coach obviously won’t be going into the season with just seven players. More Cats will be needed, and the clock is ticking on a UK offseason that will be much shorter this time around.

Kentucky is scheduled to play in the “Globl Jam” — a four-team, international tournament in Toronto in July — and while the games there won’t matter for the win-loss column, the event was supposed to be an integral stage in UK’s offseason, serving as an early series of opportunities for the Wildcats’ young team to jell ahead of the more pressure-packed season to come.

As it stands, UK’s roster of scholarship players consists of just five freshmen — highly touted as they are — and two sophomores (Onyenso and Adou Thiero) with little college experience.

The fallout of the NBA draft deadline will likely bring some additional potential game-changing transfers into play, and it’s important to note that college players that have already graduated can enter the portal at any time, so an influx of those types of veteran transfers is also expected in the coming days and weeks.

There should still be plenty of talent for Calipari and his coaching staff to pursue this spring, but it’s now looking like the program will need two or three (or more) additional players, and getting them on campus for those pre-Toronto practice sessions would be preferable to trying to bring such players in later in the summer, after the other Cats have already gone through an international exhibition trip together.

In the frontcourt, rebounding is likely to be a main focus for Calipari, who was able to rely heavily on Tshiebwe in that area over the past two seasons but will need to add some strength and bulk to a front line currently lacking in both.

With Tshiebwe now gone — after dominating the UK landscape for two years — a new era of Kentucky basketball is on the horizon. Calipari still has some important work to do to make sure the next stage of the Wildcats’ program is a successful one.