It seems likely that Oscar Tshiebwe has played his final game for the Kentucky Wildcats.
When speaking with reporters Sunday in a subdued UK locker room after the Cats fell to Kansas State 75-69 in the NCAA Tournament round of 32, Tshiebwe often used past tense when referring to his college career.
“My dream was to do something great,” Tshiebwe said of his time at Kentucky. “Two years in a row, it did not happen.”
Kentucky Coach John Calipari told reporters after the loss to KSU that his “guess” was that all six of UK’s seniors — each of whom has an additional season of college eligibility available due to the NCAA’s “free COVID year” which was offered to all athletes who were enrolled in 2020-21 — would leave.
“That’s my guess, but I have not talked to them all,” Calipari said.
For Tshiebwe, the decision on what to do next is more complicated than for most.
College basketball’s unanimous national player of the year in 2021-22 and a consensus Second Team All-America choice in 2022-23, Tshiebwe (16.5 ppg, 13.7 rpg this season) is one of the most-decorated players in men’s college hoops this decade.
Yet the 6-foot-9, 255-pound product of Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, appears to have slight odds of hearing his name called in the 2023 NBA Draft.
In today’s NBA, the preferred style of basketball — with emphasis on outside shooting and pick-and-roll actions — has moved against a rebound-first forward prospect such as Tshiebwe.
As the NBA game has evolved, the role for a non-shooting big is as a rim-running, alley-oop dunk option on offense and a shot-blocking rim protector on defense. Tshiebwe’s skills and physical traits do not fit those tasks.
Out of five 2023 NBA mock drafts that I checked Thursday morning, only one, USA Today’s, had Tshiebwe being drafted — and that was in the second round as the No. 49 overall pick. Only first-round selections receive guaranteed NBA contracts.
At nbadraftroom.com, they listed Tshiebwe as the 76th-best prospect available in 2023 for what is typically a 60-player draft. “Oscar is a force as a rebounder but doesn’t bring much on the offensive end,” was the accompanying analysis.
With the draft looking a long shot, Tshiebwe would seem to be in close to the same position in which he and other college post players with games that are not ideal fits for the current NBA — such as North Carolina’s Armando Bacot and Gonzaga’s Drew Timme — found themselves last year.
That is, weighing whether the money available to them in college hoops thanks to name, image and likeness opportunities makes staying in school a more attractive option than playing professionally overseas.
UNC’s Bacot has already announced that he will return to Chapel Hill to use his “super-senior” year of eligibility in 2023-24.
According to europrobasket.com, the average salary for pro basketball players in the EuroLeague — the top tier of professional hoops in Europe — is between $400,000 and $800,000, though star players can command low-to-mid seven-figure contracts.
Yet if Tshiebwe decides it is in his best interests to return to college hoops to use his “super-senior” year of eligibility, it will be interesting to see if that opportunity is available to him at UK.
In a normal circumstance, a player whose two-year career at a school — like Tshiebwe’s at Kentucky — had left him standing 48th in school history in scoring (1,117 career points), sixth in rebounding (952), 30th in steals (112), 24th in blocked shots (87) and tied for second in career double-doubles (48) would have an automatic invitation to return.
Yet for all Tshiebwe has meant to Kentucky, his physical skills dictate that, with him as Kentucky’s primary post player, the Wildcats (22-12 in 2022-23) do not have the rim protection nor the lob-pass-catching threat at the goal that Calipari’s best Kentucky teams have all featured.
Tshiebwe’s struggles in defending against the high pick-and-roll this season are a big reason the Wildcats rank only 66th in adjusted defensive efficiency in the Pomeroy Ratings.
On his final weekly radio show of the season Monday night, Calipari was already envisioning a Twin Towers lineup for 2023-24 with 6-11, 225-pound, current UK freshman Ugonna Onyenso and 7-foot, 207-pound incoming recruit Aaron Bradshaw playing together.
Of course, if Tshiebwe, who transferred to Kentucky from West Virginia, were to decide to remain in college basketball for one more season, he would have another option besides returning to UK. As long as he earns a degree from Kentucky, Tshiebwe could go back into the portal as a graduate transfer.
In what is still a relatively-new era in college sports, the latter scenario would yield two fascinating questions:
1.) What could a former national player of the year command financially on the college hoops “free-agent market?”
2.) How would Kentucky fans feel if Oscar Tshiebwe, beloved Wildcat, were to finish his college career playing for, let’s say randomly, Tennessee?