6’11” Ugonna Kingsley Oneyso of Putnam Science Academy and the NBA Academy has committed to the University of Kentucky. He recently decided to reclassify to the class of 2022. The Nigerian native, who was a part of Team New England on the Adidas circuit, spoke with Andrew Slater about his decision to attend Kentucky, his rapid ascent through his experiences with the Academy in Senegal and Putnam Science in Connecticut, and what he hopes to bring to Big Blue Nation.
Pro Insight: What were the major factors in your decision?
Ugonna Kinglsey: First and foremost, the most important factor was the culture and the family atmosphere. Coach Cal does a great job of forming a family atmosphere with his guys. In his recruiting process with me, he consistently showed that family was and is the most important part of the program.
PI: How long did it take for you to come to your decision?
UK: There were really three schools that were heavily recruiting me on a day-to-day basis. Each school brought something new to my situation. The last two weeks, after going on the Kentucky visit and doing a number of Zooms with the other programs…we had taken an official visit to Oklahoma State. It really boiled down to two schools and my relationships, playing time and development also factored in.
PI: Where have you decided to attend?
UK: As everyone knows, since you were the one that announced it, I am re-classing back to the class of 2022 and I will be attending University of Kentucky.
PI: Congratulations, of course. What set Kentucky apart? Were there one or two things or was it the complete package?
UK: Their process of developing bigs like me and their family culture.
PI: On your recent visit to Kentucky, what did you get to see and who did you meet with?
UK: I spent a lot of time with the Kentucky coaching staff and with Oscar Tshiebwe. I spent time with each of the coaches and some time individually with Coach Cal and Coach Antigua. I spent most of my non-basketball time with Oscar. He is a great person. A lot of people don't know how good of a person Oscar is. He is very humble and he's from Africa, as well. We just connected right away.
PI: What did Oscar say about his experience at Kentucky and also why you would be a good fit there?
UK: Being in the NBA Academy and a Putnam Science product, I know that everything is earned. The hardest working man usually plays the most. Oscar is that and that's what he kept telling me during the visit. He was like, “man, everybody is good here, but, if you outwork the next man, you will play and you have the potential to be a star.” He told me that when he first came, he didn't think that he would be anywhere near the player that he is now and it is because of his mindset and their development.
PI: Has he gotten into how you guys could play together?
UK: Actually that was one of the reasons why I like Kentucky — because Coach Cal kept emphasizing that he plays positionless basketball. He tells his bigs to move and dribble like guards. A lot of what he does is making the bigs become playmakers. I love that about the system and that's where I think I fit in most. I feel like I am an agile big. That was a key factor. With Oscar, he told us he used to be just a back-to-the-basket guy, but Cal lets him shoot and take risks and that’s what I liked as well.
PI: You mentioned Coach Antigua’s involvement earlier. What role and message did he try to convey throughout the process? And Coach Calipari as well…
UK: Coach Orlando was the one who began recruiting me really from the beginning, as soon as I got to Putnam. We built a really good relationship, where everything that he did and said, you know, even pointers of how I can be better became true. I give a lot of the credit for the recruitment to him actually. I really feel that when he became confident in me and then he got Coach Cal to see me play with Putnam at the NEPSAC showcase…that’s when things went viral.
PI: I know they also want to see you play at the Academy games recently in Atlanta. Do you think that helped as well?
UK: Yes, actually, Coach Cal said that he watched me before the games, when I was warming up and shooting. He saw my movement and my shooting, which I’m sometimes not able to show during games. He could see my ability to dribble and shoot the ball before the games. I tried to use that time to showcase more of my abilities. I used like half an hour with a trainer to show what I'm capable of and Coach Cal said that really impressed him a lot. He said a lot of the other guys weren't doing that and it also allowed me to show my level of skill. He said that I have great hands, great feet, and I run the court very well. He said that is what he was looking for.
PI: What role did Coach Cal say or envision you having next year?
UK: I would say Coach Cal tried to differentiate himself from some of the other coaches by saying that, if I come in and outwork the others, I will play. And the big picture, which he is confident again and I am confident in…is that whatever path we choose, we choose together. He didn't necessarily say that I would get guaranteed minutes, but he did say that if I work for what I earn, I will get what I earn. That’s all I can ask for.
PI: For the Kentucky fan base or Big Blue Nation, what are fair expectations?
UK: I’m coming in and want to be the most elite shot-blocker in the country. I want to help Kentucky win games with my positive energy, with my basketball skills, and I just want everybody in Big Blue Nation to know that they have another Wildcat that they’ll be able to depend on moving forward.
PI: Similarly phrased, but what do you hope to bring to Kentucky?
UK: When I went to Kentucky, I saw high energy and high movement and everyone was positive and that’s me through and through. That is the kind of player I am and what I thrive in. I love being surrounded by positive energy and high energy. That's what I'm about. Competitiveness fuels me. I think I can add to that.
PI: That’s almost like positive peer pressure.
UK: Yes, absolutely.
PI: What physically and skill-wise do you want to add to your game next?
UK: I think I really need to work on my core. So, that way I can play lower and less erect. I think if I work on my core enough that I will be more explosive. I want to show the world that I can shoot the ball. I think I need to be a little bit more aggressive on the offensive end, while I continue to do what I do on the defensive end.
PI: What do you think you have improved on most since arriving in America?
UK: I think the biggest thing is getting used to the speed and the physicality of how the game is played in the States. It took me a while to get used to it, but Putnam did a really good job. They did a really good job of throwing me deep under the water and having me figure it out on my own. They really helped me figure out the speed of the game and, once I did, the game got easier for me. That was probably the most difficult transition: the speed of the physicality of the American game.
PI: Who's there a turning point or game this season?
UK: Yeah I would say in February, when we made a playoff run to the championship. It felt like it was sometime in February with Putnam on our run to the title.
PI: There have been a lot of Wildcats who made the NBA. Who, if any, did you grow up looking up to?
UK: Coach Cal thinks I am like Bam Adebayo. He thinks I move like him.
PI: That's high praise. I think you're actually a better rim-protector then Bam was, at the same stage.
UK: I hope I can just get close to Bam Adebayo, as a player.
PI: You'll make a healthy living, if you do. You arrived in America about a year ago. You first went to the NBA Academy briefly and then to Putnam Science Academy. How much do you feel it sped up your development?
UK: I think what I got out of the NBA Academy was the idea of being a gym rat. I realized I need to get very focused on skill development and just loving being in the gym. I realized I need to hone in on skill. Then, when I came to America and went to Putnam, Putnam helped me translate or put that into an American game. I don't think I could've done one without the other. I think I learned how to love the game and the process through the Academy. I learned how to take the skill and be able to put it into games at Putnam.
PI: I would say Putnam has a uniquely competitive environment. Would you say coming out of that Americanization of your game will helps smooth the transition to the challenges of playing in the SEC at Kentucky?
UK: Absolutely, I mean my goal is to one day, hopefully, play in the NBA. I needed to learn how the top guys in America play. I need to be in that environment, in order to feel comfortable playing at the next level. I'm glad that I was blessed to be able to play at the Academy, which allowed me to go play at Putnam because I am a lot more comfortable than I otherwise would've been, if I had never come to America or Putnam.
PI: Can you tell the audience a little bit about your background? How did we get to this point?
UK: I’m from Owerri, Nigeria. Three years ago, I joined the NBA Academy in Senegal. I really never had touched a basketball before then. Basketball was just for fun before then, but then I started to take it seriously. My guardian had played at the University of Wisconsin. He always had faith that I would be a really good player. He brought me to the States and I got to play some AAU basketball…from there, it just took off.
PI: The first time I saw you play was at the Hoop Group Future All-American Camp about a full year ago and you were just so dominant, particularly on the defensive end of the court.
UK: Yeah, when I came full-time in January, nobody knew who I was, but then they did and it was because of guys like you. So, thank you.
PI: Absolutely, I’m happy to be of any help. I’m honored. Did you play any other sports growing up, like soccer, given your footwork?
UK: Yeah, soccer. Soccer was my big sport growing up and I love it. If I didn’t end up playing basketball, I’d be playing soccer.
PI: Lastly, do you have any message for Big Blue Nation?
UK: I’m just so happy and excited to be joining Big Blue Nation. I’m going to bring energy, shot-blocking, and just be a great teammate, doing whatever Coach Cal needs me to do. I’m proud to be representing Kentucky and look forward to getting there as soon as possible.