Kentucky trends for five-star center. Could he join the Cats in time for this season?

As the college basketball recruiting calendar turns to the ever-important month of July, a promising big man from Nigeria is increasingly being linked to the Kentucky Wildcats.

Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso — a 7-footer with a 7-5 wingspan — has quickly climbed the 2023 ranks in recent months. He jumped 60 spots — from No. 86 to No. 26 overall — when Rivals.com’s list was updated a few weeks ago. At the same time, On3.com bumped him up even further — all the way up to No. 5 overall in the 2023 class, making him the highest rising prospect in those rankings.

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

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

“Just a lot of talent, a lot of positives — to get on campus and keep working.”

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

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

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

“I don’t think it’s imminent, but I like Kentucky’s chances,” Branham said. “It’s something I’ll certainly be watching closely in July and I think we’ll have a lot more clarity on what’s going to happen in the coming weeks.”

Reclassification in 2022?

If Onyenso is indeed leaning towards the UK, it will raise two big questions.

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

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

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

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

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

And then there is the issue of reclassification.

“One thing I’m going to watch out for with Kingsley is rebounding,” Branham said. “… I think there’s a possibility, for sure.”

That idea has emerged publicly in recent weeks, with those close to the situation shooting down the possibility behind the scenes. However, the rumor clearly still has legs, and it would make sense on both sides.

Onyenso, who turns 18 in September and could complete his high school academic requirements this year, is currently at Putnam Science Academy (Conn.), the same school that produced UK-bound Hamidou Diallo midway through his graduate 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.

Do you fit in Kentucky?

UK doesn’t need much help in the frontcourt this season. National Player of the Year Oscar Chibue is back and averaged 32 minutes per game last season. Onyenso has the long-term potential to play the “4,” but his ability to move away from the basket will need to develop for that to happen. Kentucky also welcomes back McDonald’s All-American power forward Daimion Collins, who Calipari 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 play in the frontcourt as long as everyone is healthy.

Branham pointed out that Tshiebwe is likely to leave after this season, Collins could very well emerge as a second-year NBA Draft pick, and said he wasn’t sure Ware would return for a fourth season.

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

If Onyenso jumps now it would give him a chance to battle in practice against Tshiebwe and the others for a full season without the pressure to play right away. That, ideally, would put him in a better position to produce right away 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 should still be done in the coming 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 besides Kentucky that are generating the most buzz right now.

With the grassroots program 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 now. The first day of autumn courses in the UK is set for 22 August.

“We’ll continue to learn more in July,” Branham said.

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