Kentucky is Ugonna Onyenso’s next stop on path to greatness. ‘He’s built for basketball.’

When it came time to announce his college decision, Ugonna Onyenso chose to travel back to the place where his budding basketball career truly began.

Still just 17 years old and nearly 7 feet tall, Onyenso had spent the spring and summer dazzling scouts and recruiting analysts on the grassroots circuit. Before that, he helped lead Putnam Science Academy (Conn.) to a national prep school championship. It was that string of showings that led to Onyenso becoming a hot name on the recruiting trail.

But that’s not what got him to the place he is today.

Technically speaking, he first picked up a basketball in his native Nigeria, several years back, though it wasn’t there that he learned how to play the game.

Between his first flirtations with the sport and his emergence as one of the world’s most intriguing young post players, there was an all-important stop on his basketball journey.

Onyenso spent two years at NBA Academy Africa — a relatively new outlet for promising youngsters like him — and that’s what set him on his current trajectory, one with seemingly limitless possibilities.

“The player I am today — they made me that player,” Onyenso said in a wide-ranging interview with the Herald-Leader. “They saw the potential that I had. That I have. And they believed in me.”

The college freshman — just a few weeks into his time on campus, a few days shy of his 18th birthday — was speaking from an office in the University of Kentucky’s Joe Craft Center, what would have been an unthinkable landing spot just a few short years ago.

Back on Aug. 1, he revealed to the world that he would be playing his college basketball at UK. He made that announcement from the NBA Academy Africa headquarters in Senegal, traveling back to the place that molded him into a highly touted college prospect.

“We’re very proud of him,” said Franck Traore, who oversees the NBA’s basketball operations in Africa and worked closely with Onyenso at the Academy. “He understands where he comes from. And he understands what the NBA is trying to achieve on the continent: being able to build an entire ecosystem, where you can build and create a pathway for people in Africa.

“So for him to come back to give credit to the work that’s been done on the continent, and also paving the way for future African kids … he has shown leadership. He has shown maturity. And we are very, very proud of him. And we hope that a lot of the young kids coming behind him — and a lot of them were very excited to have Ugonna back — he was able to inspire them.”

Several weeks after that joyous occasion, Onyenso reflected on his reasons for returning and acknowledged that — even at 17 years old — he’s already seen as a role model for younger African kids hoping to follow in his footsteps. Going back, he says, was a way for him to show his appreciation as well as show those who might follow what’s possible with hard work.

Asked where he’d be without that two-year stint at the NBA Academy, Onyenso — wearing his Kentucky gear and sitting in a room filled with photos of former UK stars — paused only long enough to lean forward in his chair to emphasize his point.

“I’d still be in Nigeria,” he said.

Basketball beginnings

“Growing up in Nigeria, it was kind of difficult for me and my family,” said Onyenso, the middle child in a family of five siblings.

He was born in Owerri, the largest city in Imo, a state in the southern region of Africa’s most populous country. There were financial struggles, and — as he continued to grow — basketball emerged as a possible path to prosperity.

“I decided to play basketball, because I was the tallest in the family, and I found out the benefits of playing basketball,” he said. “I see basketball as a way I can help my family. And also to help the younger ones — the people who are coming after me in Nigeria. Because I’ve been in their situation there.”

Like pretty much every kid in the country, soccer was Onyenso’s first sporting love. But it was evident early on that he was going to be tall, and he was advised to give basketball a try. At first, he saw it as a possible route to a free education. Onyenso talked to his mother about it and received further encouragement, even if no one in the family knew what to make of the sport.

“They know nothing about basketball,” Onyenso said with a smile. “Nothing.”

He soon learned plenty, taking it seriously from the beginning. Onyenso was about 12 years old when he first started playing, and his size and potential drew some fairly immediate interest. When he was 14, Onyenso played in an annual competition in his home country, and one of the event coordinators had a connection with the NBA Academy. He told Onyenso it would be a good opportunity to seriously pursue the sport and arranged a tryout.

“I wasn’t that good,” Onyenso said now of his skills at the time, but the NBA Academy saw the promise, and he was extended an invitation to move to Senegal and join the program.

In Onyenso, the NBA officials saw a great example of what their Academy system is supposed to be about. It was a natural fit.

“There’s so much talent (in Nigeria), but … a lot of the young people don’t have the opportunity to learn to play the game the right way,” Traore said. “Or the infrastructure where they can learn to play. And that’s where the Academy comes in. So, when he arrived, he was just like any other African player. He was a player with a lot of enthusiasm, with great athletic ability. But he still needed to really learn to play.

“We had to break him down completely and rebuild his foundation. But we knew early on that he was one of the players that had a chance. You could tell right away that this kid is gifted.”

This was a great opportunity for Onyenso. Of course, it also meant leaving home for the first time — for a destination more than 2,000 miles away — while just barely into his teenage years.

“I felt alone,” he said. “I felt something left me. Before I started playing basketball, it was all me and my family. I didn’t leave my family. So leaving them for months, years — it was difficult for me. That was the hardest part.

“Then, being at the Academy, they showed me that I don’t really have to miss my family at home. They’re like family here. But in a different way. You have to think about what you’re here for. So it was difficult at first. But as time went by, I knew what I was there for. And I knew the sacrifices I would have to make.”

Ugonna Onyenso throws down a dunk during his time at the NBA Academy Africa, before coming to the United States and enrolling at UK.
Ugonna Onyenso throws down a dunk during his time at the NBA Academy Africa, before coming to the United States and enrolling at UK.

Life at the NBA Academy

Onyenso had plenty to occupy his time at his new home.

“I didn’t play organized basketball when I was in Nigeria,” he said. “Because they didn’t take it seriously. So going to the NBA Academy was like starting to play basketball from the first. So it took me a while to adjust to the system, playing organized basketball.

“I think it was kind of starting over.”

The NBA Academy system — with sites in Africa, Australia, India and Mexico — was designed to give promising players like Onyenso a professional approach to development and a more structured pathway to the highest levels of the sport. The young players in the Academy system are identified through a global scouting network, taught the game by experienced coaches and instructors, and given access to academic resources that meet NCAA standards.

The setup is similar to the highest levels of prep school basketball in the United States, where highly touted players often play before heading to college, an athletic and academic environment that’s structured similarly to what they’ll see at the university level.

Onyenso thrived in the new setting.

“He was obviously a project and a prospect that we knew could do some special things,” said Greg Collucci, an NBA official who works closely with the Academy system. “And his personality, his willingness to accept coaching and do all of the things that we ask of our athletes — he went on to really blossom. He was really beginning to turn a corner when he left to go to Putnam Science Academy and make that last transition to the final four or five months of his high school career. And he did an awesome job of really taking it to that next level.”

Off the court, Onyenso was an engaging student who always performed well academically, according to Collucci. On the court, he was given a fundamental foundation for future success.

Traore, one of Onyenso’s mentors at the Academy, had a similar path, participating in the first Basketball Without Borders camp in 2003, an event that has become a staple of the NBA’s development system. Traore, a 6-8 center from Burkina Faso, later played for Manhattan College. He now oversees the NBA’s basketball operations in Africa, and he immediately saw the potential in Onyenso, even if there was a lot to learn at the beginning.

“One thing that comes to mind — he has a great body. A beautiful body,” Traore said. “Anyone who walks in the gym — that’s the first thing you pick up, right? He’s like a superman. He’s built for basketball. And that’s before he even touches the ball once. He looks great. He runs very well. He catches the ball. And his demeanor — you can’t ask for anything more than having a kid like Ugonna, to be quite honest.”

To build Onyenso into a five-star recruit, his coaches at the Academy had to start from scratch.

For the first time in his life, he was learning to play organized basketball in a proper facility with a team of instructors who knew the fundamentals of the game.

“Learning to finish around the basket. Learning to read (situations). Learning to defend. All of those things he learned at the Academy,” Traore said. “Understanding the game. Transition D. Transition O. The X’s and O’s. … And he grasped them pretty fast.”

Onyenso also ventured outside of the Academy, competing in tournaments in the United States and Europe. Last year, just a few weeks after his 17th birthday, Onyenso played for the Nigerian senior national team in a major FIBA event.

“That really opened his mind and helped him be aware of what being great means,” Traore said.

Throughout the process, he was a model pupil with a positive personality, willingness to learn and a strong work ethic. Onyenso’s coaches were quickly impressed with how consistently hard he played, so it was a bit of an eye-opener when the teenager called Traore one day and said he wanted to be even more aggressive on the court.

“I feel I can do more,” Onyenso told him.

“That was the day I knew that this kid was on the right path,” Traore said.

Kentucky comes calling

A little earlier than expected, Onyenso decided to leave the NBA Academy in Africa and enroll in high school in the United States, another journey far from home to further his basketball career.

His goal is to play in the NBA in the not-too-distant future, and he wanted to enter the American system of basketball at an earlier age to gain a more hands-on understanding of the way the game is played in the States.

Onyenso’s first stop was Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut, a perennial powerhouse on the New England prep school scene (and the alma mater of former UK player Hamidou Diallo).

There, Onyenso made his debut on Feb. 3, tallying 10 blocked shots in his first high school game. In his lone semester at Putnam, he averaged 11.4 points, nine rebounds and nearly six blocks per game, with his team going 20-0 over that stretch, ultimately winning the national prep school championship.

At the time, Onyenso, who just turned 18 years old last weekend, was considered a recruit in the 2023 class, meaning he’d have one more season of high school ball ahead of him.

Plans changed as his profile grew.

It was established when Onyenso came to the United States in January that he would play his travel ball with Team New England that spring, and his quick acclimation got those around him thinking big.

Already on the lookout for size in future recruiting classes, UK associate coach Orlando Antigua received a call from Isaiah “Zeke” Davis, co-founder of the Team New England program. Davis had also coached Kentucky guard Kellan Grady in the past, and Antigua picked up the phone assuming the call was somehow related to him.

“Hey O — are you guys looking for a big?” Davis asked.

The answer was yes, and Davis went on to detail Onyenso’s journey from the NBA Academy in Africa to the United States.

“And he’s ridiculous,” he said. “I know how much you guys like shot blockers. And he can run. I’d love for you to see him, get your eyes on him and let me know what you think.”

Davis sent some tape. It didn’t take long for Antigua to bite.

“Yeah, what is there not to like about him?” the UK coach recalled. “And we start digging into the kid, and we find out he’s a great kid. Humble beginnings. Hasn’t been playing long but has made an incredible leap very quickly. And when he got to Putnam in January — allowed them to just run off a bunch of wins, because he anchored their defense and just took them to a whole other level.”

Not long after that, Antigua received a call from Jay David, the director of the NY Jayhawks and another grassroots coach with whom he has a longstanding relationship. On the weekends when Onyenso didn’t have any games with Team New England, he was planning to play with the Jayhawks, and David thought he might be a Kentucky-caliber talent.

“O — you gotta see this kid!” David exclaimed.

Antigua laughed: “I’m already on it, Jay.”

The UK coach reached out to NBA Academy Africa officials and heard nothing but good things about the young center. Kentucky’s coaches watched Onyenso during the spring and liked what they saw. John Calipari made a special trip to see him during the summer, and he was sold.

Over a week-and-a-half span in late July, Onyenso took official visits to UK, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. By that point, it was widely expected that he would ultimately pick Kentucky, and he did just that on Aug. 1, announcing his commitment to the Cats and his move to the 2022 class.

Onyenso didn’t know much about American college basketball growing up in Nigeria, but he became familiar with Calipari and the Kentucky program while in Senegal, impressed with the number of big men like him that UK had put in the NBA in recent years. By the time he arrived in the United States — and especially after visiting Lexington over the summer — he knew where he wanted to be.

“I was interested to play for someone like Coach Calipari, because I knew it would help me in the long run,” Onyenso said, mentioning Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and DeMarcus Cousins as players he admired. “Those are players that people look up to, in the NBA. So coming here, that’s a big thing. I just want to be coached by the coach that coached those players. I want to be one of them.”

Redshirt in year one?

Onyenso might be new to Lexington, but he’s well familiar with the talk that preceded him.

A late reclassification and an even later arrival to UK’s campus, there’s been plenty of speculation that Onyenso won’t play at all in the 2022-23 season, instead using this campaign as a developmental, redshirt year to put him in position to make a major impact in 2023-24.

If that’s the plan, no one in the offices of the Joe Craft Center is saying so. And Onyenso plans to do whatever he can to get on the court and play meaningful minutes as quickly as possible. Asked what he’d heard on the subject from Calipari, the answer was straightforward.

“Coach told me he’s going to play his best players,” Onyenso said. “That’s all he told me. And that’s what I’m going with.”

And …?

“I believe I’m one of his best players,” he finished.

Onyenso is aware of the boldness of that statement, and he obviously knows who’s ahead of him on the preseason depth chart.

Listed at 6-11 and 225 pounds, he projects as a “5” at the college level (for now), and the man who holds that position at UK is Oscar Tshiebwe, the reigning national player of the year. The Cats’ roster also boasts power forward Daimion Collins, a McDonald’s All-American seemingly poised to make a major jump in year two. Lance Ware — a 6-9, 235-pound, tough-nosed post player — is back for his third season, and UK’s coaches have said throughout the offseason that he’s made strides in his game. Fourth-year college player Jacob Toppin is more of a power wing, but he appears fully capable of playing the “4” or “5” spot, and he could be due for a star turn this season.

Onyenso acknowledges all that talent and says he’s unsure of how much playing time he’ll get as a result. But he’s also quick to mention his greatest gift on the court — the ability to block shots — and how important that can be to a winning basketball team.

“Defense wins games,” he said. “If I do what I know how to do best — protect the rim, rebound and run the floor — I think that’s going to make a huge difference. … Not all bigs can do what I do. So I think that’s an advantage for me.”

Collucci, who helped oversee Onyenso’s career at the NBA Academy, was an assistant coach at George Washington at the time Anthony Davis went from mid-major prospect to No. 1 recruit in the country. He watched that progression firsthand.

“The gift that separated him that was just amazing was the shot-blocking,” Collucci recalled of Davis. “And it’s funny, because Ugonna has that same ability.

“His body, his length, his arms — he really makes it an art, blocking shots. He has a great ability to understand angles. He knows when to jump. He knows how to jump. He knows when to set guys up — he almost baits them into shooting a floater over him. Those kinds of things. He just has a very, very natural, innate ability to understand when and how to block a shot. It’s his gift, honestly. It’s one of those things that you just kind of see it and you know — that person was really born to block shots.”

Antigua obviously helped recruit Davis to Kentucky and coached him during the 2012 national championship season. He also coached Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein — the other two players at the top of UK’s all-time, single-season blocked shots list.

“He has the instincts of it,” Antigua said of Onyenso’s similarly impressive shot-blocking skills. He noted that Davis and Noel were gifted with the total shot-blocking package upon their arrivals at Kentucky, while Cauley-Stein needed to learn more nuance early in college, something that came with more time and practice. Onyenso is similar, in that regard. Also like Cauley-Stein, he still has plenty of room to grow offensively, though the tools are there to excel.

“He rebounds everything. He runs like a gazelle. And he challenges shots,” Antigua said. “Once you start working with him, you realize he’s got really good touch. He can shoot the ball. We have some things that we have to help him to understand the game closer to the basket — using leverage, getting lower, getting stronger. There are some things — maturity-wise and experience-wise — that just come with time.

“But, he’s a sponge. He’s really, really bright. Picks things up quickly. It’s exciting to be able to have that kind of a player and to be able to mold him into what you think he could be.”

Onyenso says his early practices at Kentucky have been tough, understandably. He’s still learning to deal with the faster pace of the game, the size and strength of players like Tshiebwe and Ware, but he expressed no doubts that he’ll get to the point — and soon — to where he can hold his own with college basketball’s reigning player of the year. He fully expects to play real minutes for the Cats this season and then be a key part of Kentucky’s 2023-24 season.

“My goal this season is to make an impact any way I can,” he said. “So we can win a championship. We’re looking for a nice trophy now. That’s what we’re looking for. And we’re working for it.”

Longer term? Onyenso thinks for a moment and earnestly states that he sees himself as an NBA All-Star five years from now. Lofty goals.

“I think he’s the only one that will determine his ceiling,” Antigua said. “I think it’s that high for him. He’s fluid, he can move. He’s intelligent. He’s long. He’s a legit 7 feet. He’s only going to get better. He’s only going to get stronger. He’s only going to get more experienced. He’s only going to get more confident. So, his ceiling? He’s the only one that can determine that.”

Ugonna Onyenso contests a shot by fellow Kentucky freshman Cason Wallace during one of the Wildcats’ early preseason practices.
Ugonna Onyenso contests a shot by fellow Kentucky freshman Cason Wallace during one of the Wildcats’ early preseason practices.

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