Record-setting big man Oscar Tshiebwe is coming back to Kentucky for his senior season.
Tshiebwe announced Wednesday he’d be returning to Lexington rather than turning pro after testing the NBA draft waters earlier this month. The defending National Player of the Year averaged more than 17 points and 15 rebounds per game in 2021–22, his first year with Kentucky, and helped lead the Wildcats to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament before being stunned in the first round by Saint Peter’s.
After transferring in from West Virginia midway through the 2020–21 season, Tshiebwe quickly asserted himself as perhaps the best rebounder in modern men’s college basketball history. He averaged more rebounds per game than any player in at least the last 30 years and snatched a ridiculous 28 boards in a December meeting with Western Kentucky. His emergence from him helped Kentucky bounce back from its worst season since the Great Depression and made him into one of the sport’s most recognizable names.
Despite the remarkable stats, Tshiebwe’s future in the NBA is murky. Sports Illustrated‘s Jeremy Woo had Tshiebwe projected to go undrafted in his most recent mock draft and has this to say about the big man’s NBA outlook:
“Tshiebwe was on the outside looking in as far as the draft was concerned, considering his skill set remains somewhat limited and he best projects as a rebounding specialist. He’s under-sized and under-skilled for an NBA five-man, and while it’s entirely possible he eventually carves out a niche with his motor and energy from him, the upside proposition of drafting him is somewhat limited. He’ll likely make more money through NIL deals in college next year than he would in the pros.”
Of course, NIL deals are a newly added variable to the NBA decision-making process. Tshiebwe’s star power and the fact that he plays for a team with a fan base like Kentucky’s makes him one of if not the most valuable men’s player from an NIL standpoint in the country. But because Tshiebwe was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and attends school on an F1 student visa, there had been significant limitations to what work he could do from an NIL deals standpoint. As Kyle Tucker of The Athletic reported, several of those hurdles were cleared late in the season, allowing Tshiebwe to make enough money to begin the process of moving his mother, Kaya, from Congo to the United States. Now, his mother will get to see the star he has become in Lexington.
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“My mom, she means a lot to me. She has never watched me play basketball,” Tshiebwe told SI in March. “If she comes here, I’ll be more than happy, I’ll be emotional. You might even see me cry for that.”
Jeff Goodman of Stadium reports that Tshiebwe “will likely earn in the neighborhood of $2 million this season through NIL.”
Tshiebwe’s return isn’t just big for Kentucky, it’s big for college basketball. He becomes the first men’s National Player of the Year winner (across the Naismith, Wooden and Associated Press awards) to return to college the following year since Tyler Hansbrough in 2008. Hansbrough didn’t win the award the next year, but did lead North Carolina to a 34–4 record and a national championship in his senior season.
Could Tshiebwe accomplish something similar? Like most teams, Kentucky’s roster for next season is still in flux, but the Wildcats will certainly have talent. Guards Kellan Grady and TyTy Washington Jr. are moving on, but point guard Sahvir Wheeler will return. Kentucky also has a monster recruiting class incoming, with top-10 recruits Chris Livingston and Cason Wallace both signed for next season. The biggest remaining question mark for next year’s roster is the status of Shaedon Sharpe, an explosive guard who reclassified to join Kentucky midseason but didn’t play in a game. Sharpe is eligible for the NBA draft and is currently projected in SI’s most recent mock as the No. 6 pick in 2022, but no decision has been made yet as to whether he’ll return to Kentucky next season.
Even if Sharpe doesn’t return to school, Kentucky with Tshiebwe in tow is enough to put the Wildcats squarely in the mix to be the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason. The Wildcats were the No. 2 team in SI’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 released earlier this month.
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