Oscar Tshiebwe happy to be ‘home’ in Lexington as he looks forward to an NBA career

It’s been more than five months since he played his last game at Kentucky and three months since he made the final decision to close the book for good on his UK basketball career.

But on Sunday, the already obvious was readily apparent: Oscar Tshiebwe will always be a Wildcat.

The former Kentucky star was back in Lexington this past weekend to reconnect with the fans that spent the past two years adoring him.

On Friday night, Tshiebwe returned to Rupp Arena for an “autograph experience” that consisted of photo ops and signing sessions with Kentucky fans, who were permitted to take shots on the Wildcats’ home court and tour the team locker room.

On Sunday came the main event of the weekend: a youth basketball camp featuring Tshiebwe and just about every player on the current UK team.

Quite a bit has changed in Tshiebwe’s world since he last played in Lexington. The 23-year-old from the Democratic Republic of the Congo carried the Cats to their first NCAA Tournament win in four years in March before playing his final game of college basketball two days later, a loss to Kansas State in which he tallied 25 points and 18 rebounds.

In the weeks that followed that defeat, Tshiebwe grappled with the decision of whether to return to Kentucky for one more run with the Wildcats or get started on his professional career. He took those deliberations all the way to NBA Draft deadline day, ultimately choosing to keep his name in the draft. He said Sunday that he didn’t know how that decision would be received. And he sounded pleasantly relieved by the turnout at his basketball camp.

“I was not expecting it,” Tshiebwe said, beaming as he talked about his connection to Kentucky and its fans. “Because when I left, I thought people would be mad at me. But I came back, and these people did not care. They say, ‘We love you.’ I’m so thankful, and I appreciate all the BBN.”

Indeed, there were hundreds of folks packed into the Sports Center in Lexington to see Tshiebwe and the next wave of Wildcats, a group that includes nine new scholarship players, eight of them freshmen.

Every current UK player was there except for sophomore center Ugonna Onyenso, who is recovering from July foot surgery, and new addition Zvonimir Ivišić, who had not yet arrived in Lexington as of Sunday afternoon.

Tshiebwe was the first player introduced to the crowd, a perpetual smile on his face as he bounced around among the nine basketball courts at the complex, playing with the grade-schoolers who had signed up for his camp, signing autographs and posing for photos.

“It means a lot to me to be here,” he said. “I walk in here, there were like 300 kids. I was so happy. I want them to see — I want to be an example to help the people, especially the youngest.”

The reception for Tshiebwe’s camp was so overwhelming that organizers had to cut off registration earlier this month. There was talk Sunday of possibly holding a second Tshiebwe camp in Lexington sometime in the near future.

Former Kentucky basketball star Oscar Tshiebwe plays one-on-one with a camper at his youth basketball camp at Sports Center in Lexington on Sunday.
Former Kentucky basketball star Oscar Tshiebwe plays one-on-one with a camper at his youth basketball camp at Sports Center in Lexington on Sunday.

The two-time All-American wont have too much free time on his hands moving forward.

Though he wasn’t selected with one of the 58 picks in the NBA Draft two months ago, Tshiebwe had signed a free-agent deal with the Indiana Pacers within 24 hours. That he ended up with the closest NBA franchise in proximity to Lexington was no coincidence.

Tshiebwe said there had been preliminary discussions with other teams, specifically mentioning the Boston Celtics and Portland Trail Blazers.

“But when I heard Indiana was calling me, I said, ‘Nah, I gotta go close to home.’”

Tshiebwe, who led UK in scoring and the nation in rebounding in each of the past two college seasons, has made clear that he considers Lexington his home, and he’s talked in the past about settling in central Kentucky when his basketball career is finished.

He’s obviously hoping that doesn’t happen anytime soon.

Tshiebwe’s contract with the Pacers doesn’t guarantee he’ll be with the NBA franchise once the season begins — the “two-way deal” means he could split time between Indiana and its G League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants — but his sights are set on the highest level.

He made a splash in limited playing time with the Pacers’ NBA summer league team. In just 13.1 minutes per game, Tshiebwe averaged 6.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and made 68.4% of his field-goal attempts. No one in the entire summer league averaged more rebounds per game in fewer minutes. In fact, Tshiebwe was second in the league in rebounds-per-48-minutes, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who watched him dominate the boards during his time at Kentucky.

Another former UK player, Isaiah Jackson, who also plays with the Pacers, led the summer league with 12.5 rebounds per game. Tshiebwe arrived in Lexington as a transfer from West Virginia in the middle of the 2020-21 season, when Jackson was on the Wildcats’ roster. Tshiebwe wasn’t allowed to play the rest of that season due to NCAA transfer rules, but he did practice with the Cats and got to know Jackson off the court.

“He’s my mentor up there,” Tshiebwe said of his former-and-once-again teammate. “… I just lean on him.”

Indiana’s frontcourt for the 2023-24 season is projected to feature a mix of established NBA standouts and former top draft picks — Myles Turner, Jarace Walker, Jalen Smith, Obi Toppin and Jackson are all on the current Pacers roster — so Tshiebwe will have his work cut out for him.

“It’s a different level,” he said of his expectations. “I cannot say too much, because I have not competed up there yet. But I’m just going to take fighting, focus, discipline and all those things, and keep working and getting better.”

That’ll all come soon enough. This past weekend was about the past.

Tshiebwe referenced John Calipari multiple times during Sunday’s interview, crediting the UK coach for pushing him during his time in Lexington, which included national player of the year honors after the 2021-22 season. He said the two met up Saturday and he told Calipari that he would be watching and rooting on the Wildcats this coming season.

During the camp, he spent time interacting with his former teammates as well as the new Wildcats. In one particularly entertaining sequence, injured UK big man Aaron Bradshaw donned a referee’s shirt to officiate one-on-one games between Tshiebwe and the young campers. Bradshaw’s calls tended to benefit the kids. Tshiebwe just smiled and played along.

“I miss this already,” he said. “To be here with all these people, it just makes me so happy.”

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