On Saturday afternoon, it finally happened.
With 15:01 left in the first half of Kentucky’s matchup with UNC Wilmington, freshman Aaron Bradshaw — the five-star 7-footer and one of the best young basketball prospects in America — checked into the game and walked onto the Rupp Arena court.
The heavily favored Wildcats were trailing the upset-minded Seahawks 13-4 at the time, necessitating a 30-second timeout from John Calipari, who sent Bradshaw to the scorer’s table. A loud cheer broke out at that moment — much of the Rupp crowd realizing what was about to happen — and it turned into a roar when Bradshaw broke the huddle and stayed on the court, everyone in the building now knowing that he was coming into the game.
There was a miscommunication with freshman guard Rob Dillingham on Bradshaw’s first possession, and a pass bounced off the UK big man and out of bounds for a turnover. On the next trip down the court, Tre Mitchell nailed a 3-pointer as Bradshaw battled for position underneath the rim.
And then came his first big Kentucky basketball moment.
On Bradshaw’s third offensive possession, he was posting up 5-11 guard Shemar Rathan-Mayes on the block, and the Wildcats freshman reached over the UNCW senior to grab the ball, pivoted to face the rim, and leaped into the air for a powerful two-handed dunk. Bradshaw was celebrating before his feet returned to the court, and the UK fans were doing the same in the stands.
— Kentucky Men’s Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) December 2, 2023
Bradshaw finished the game with three points, two rebounds and one blocked shot in 13 minutes, but Kentucky lost a stunner to UNC Wilmington, falling 80-73 on what was supposed to be a night of celebration in Rupp Arena.
Calipari noted afterward that Bradshaw had a plus-11 rating, the highest on the team in the seven-point loss.
“Plus 11 in a game we lose by this. So, obviously, that says he did OK,” he said. “He’s still not in the flow of the stuff yet. But he did some good stuff. That’s a good start for him.”
Bradshaw hadn’t played against outside competition since the McDonald’s All-American Game in late March, when he suffered a foot injury that eventually necessitated a medical procedure three months later. That surgery kept him out of Kentucky’s trip to the GLOBL JAM in Toronto in July and sidelined him for all of the Wildcats’ preseason practices.
Amid his recovery, there was considerable chatter that Bradshaw would never play a minute for the Wildcats, instead opting to sit out the season and take his chances in next year’s NBA draft, a narrative he shot down at the team’s media day gathering in October.
The New Jersey native didn’t participate in his first UK practice until the day before Thanksgiving, and he wasn’t able to do full-contact basketball activities until five days after that. But after missing the first seven games of Kentucky’s season, he was on the court Saturday, silencing any remaining skeptics as he walked onto Rupp floor.
His addition will be a welcome one for a team that’s already off to a hot start and was likely — before Saturday’s loss — to break into the top 10 nationally when the new Associated Press poll comes out Monday.
How much Bradshaw can play right away remains to be seen. The time he missed — from both a conditioning and developmental standpoint — would have been crucial for his ability to contribute, but there’s no questioning his potential.
“I think it’s all predicated on Aaron. Is he in good enough shape to get up and down? How many minutes can he play?” said UK assistant coach Chuck Martin earlier in the week. “I think his skill set fits the way we play. He’s a 7-footer that can protect the rim defensively, which would be unbelievable for us — without compromising offense. Because he’s skilled enough to shoot the 3. He’s skilled enough to put the ball on the floor. Which makes it really, really exciting for us.”
Bradshaw is indeed all of those things. A versatile 7-footer offensively, his range extends beyond the perimeter, and he possesses enough handle to take bigger, slower defenders off the bounce. He can also run the floor and play above the rim as an alley-oop target.
Freshman guard Rob Dillingham said Bradshaw is also going to be a handful for opposing defenses in the pick and roll.
“He can shoot. He can stretch the floor,” he said. “He’s just like Tre (Mitchell) almost, honestly. But he can dunk the ball crazy, so I think he’ll help us a lot.”
Aaron Bradshaw is getting loose … pic.twitter.com/DUpv0WDpCE
— Ben Roberts (@BenRobertsHL) December 2, 2023
Dillingham — and pretty much everyone else around the UK program who has been asked about Bradshaw lately — also mentioned the defensive boost he should bring to the Cats.
“It’s gonna help us way more, because — even though we mess up sometimes — we have a 7-footer to block shots and help us when we mess up,” Dillingham said. “It’ll definitely help us a lot, and we can still run the floor with him, because he’s pretty fast.”
Sophomore guard Adou Thiero was the team leader with 43 rebounds going into Saturday — despite playing one fewer game, due to injury, than the rest of the eight-man rotation to that point — and he brought up boards and blocked shots as two key areas where Bradshaw will help.
“Being able to have a 7-footer on the court is just a great feeling,” Thiero said. “You got someone to get rebounds, block shots. He’s going to be able to bring all of that. … Teams are definitely gonna rethink going up (at the rim) with him right there. It’s gonna give us more stops.”
UK entered the weekend tied for 58th nationally with 4.9 blocked shots per game.
Everyone around the program — from Calipari down — has said that Kentucky will not change its fast-paced approach just because one of its three sidelined 7-footers is back. Bradshaw and 7-2 freshman Zvonimir Ivisic, who is still waiting for the NCAA to rule on his eligibility, are uniquely athletic and mobile for their size. And they can both make 3-pointers. Sophomore Ugonna Onyenso, who could make a full return to practice in the next few days, is the closest of the trio to a traditional center, but he, too, can step out and face the basket.
Calipari is hoping all three will be available soon. Ivisic returned to the UK layup line Saturday afternoon after missing extensive practice time recently due to illness. The UK coach said on his pregame radio interview Saturday that Onyenso is nearing a return to full practice.
“I watched Ugo today,” he said. “He looked pretty good, too.”
But Bradshaw has the highest upside of the bunch. He was the No. 4 overall recruit in the final 247Sports composite rankings for the 2023 class, and he’s been viewed as a possible one-and-done NBA lottery pick.
“He can block shots. He can shoot. He can do everything,” said senior guard Antonio Reeves. “And him being that 7-footer — that’s gonna cause a lot of problems.”
Now, it’s just a matter of staying healthy, getting up to speed, and rounding into game shape. With the skill set Bradshaw brings, blending in to what the Cats already have cooking — his teammates have been saying — shouldn’t be a problem.
“Just having a big inside being able to do the same thing we do — dribble, pass, shoot — he’s capable of doing what we’ve been doing the whole (season),” Thiero said. “He’s been watching us. He’ll be able to do it.”