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Puppy Love

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Kentucky coaches knew center Ugonna Onyenso was an intelligent player who ran the floor very well and had great timing when it came to blocking shots.

However, even the Kentucky coaches really didn’t know how quickly the 7-footer might develop.

“He really is still a puppy and is learning a lot,” said Kentucky assistant coach Orlando Antigua who spent a lot of time in the gym with Onyenso after he arrived in Lexington in August as a late addition to UK’s 2022 recruiting class. “You can’t tell how quickly a kid will be able to understand what we are doing when you are recruiting him until you start working with him.

“He is picking things up quickly and that’s impressive for a young man who could still be in high school right now. He has all the tools. It’s just understanding when and how to utilize those tools. Every level you go up the play gets faster. You have to adjust to that as well as slow down your thinking about what is happening. He’s trying to do all that.”

Onyenso knew he would be playing behind All-American Oscar Tshiebwe. He’s been learning from him along with Lance Ware, an older player with more experience without the same physical tools Onyenso has.

“Lance is a wonderful Wildcat. He loves wearing the UK uniform and gives every ounce of energy he has. But for me it’s hard to see his minutes staying up when you have a young player the quality of Onyenso,” Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy said. “Not every 7-footer is a shot blocker like him (Onyenso). Having a true shot blocker is rare. Certain players have that knack.

“Some players have qualities as Oscar (Tshiebwe) does for rebounding. This young man understands how to block shots. I was blown away when I saw him not at the shots he was blocking but the angles he was taking. I think by March he has a chance to really help this team.”

He has 10 blocks in just 54 minutes in UK’s first six games. He had 10 points and seven rebounds against Duquesne. He’s made 10 of 15 shots from the field this season. However, he played just one minute each against Michigan State and Gonzaga, the two best teams UK has played.

Coach John Calipari made it clear Onyenso is not ready physically or mentally to play against a top level team but thinks he will get there.

ESPN’s Holly Rowe noted she felt like she “saw the future” after talking to Onyenso, who has a 7 foot, 6 inch wingspan, and then watching him play. Lexington ESPN Sports Radio host Alan Cutler, the former sports director at WLEX-TV, predicted early that Onyenso was already better than former UK player Isaiah Jackson, a NBA first-round draft pick after his freshman year who is now playing with the Indiana Pacers.

Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot said  Onyenso “is going to make a lot of money” in the NBA.

Tshiebwe, the unanimous national player of the year last season, has become Onyenso’s mentor on and off the court. Onyenso likes to sit by Tshiebwe during games if he has the chance because Tshiebwe will basically “coach” him.

“Lance also helps me know the game and how I should play. He has really been there for me, too. Lance has been like a big brother to me both on and off the court,” Onyenso said.

Another UK player, forward Daimion Collins, has forced Onyenso to learn to react quicker. Collins is not as physical as Tshiebwe or Ware, but presents a different challenge that is helping the freshman’s development against a faster defender.

“Everybody helps me with something and I want to learn all I can, so that helps me get better,” he said.

Larry Vaught
Larry Vaught is a seven-time winner of the Kentucky Sportswriter of the Year award and has covered University of Kentucky sports since 1975. Larry now has a syndicated UK sports column appearing in 34 newspapers across the state as well as, and Larry also joins Mark Buerger and Anthony White on WLAP Sunday Morning Sports each week in Lexington as well as appearing each Tuesday with Tom Leach on The Leach Report.

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