Kentucky Wildcats big man sets goals higher than hoops

AP photo by John Amis / Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe, shown as the Wildcats' 78-66 win against Vanderbilt comes to an end Tuesday night in Nashville, has per-game averages of 17 points and 15.1 rebounds this season. He had 13 rebounds to go with a career-high 30 points at Vanderbilt.

Kentucky's offense now runs through big man Oscar Tshiebwe.

Already leading the nation in rebounding, Tshiebwe (pronounced SHEE-bway) set career highs in scoring in consecutive games for the 18th-ranked Wildcats (13-3, 3-1 Southeastern Conference). He had 30 points and 13 rebounds in a lopsided victory at Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, three days after finishing with 29 points and 17 boards against Georgia.

Back-to-back eye-opening performances should have Tshiebwe's NBA draft stock on the rise.

"I wouldn't say I was surprised," said teammate Keion Brooks, "but sometimes we've got to take the time to appreciate what somebody really does. And Oscar has been tremendous for us all year and playing exceptionally well."

His next chance to showcase his potential is at 1 p.m. Saturday, when Lexington's Rupp Arena will be the site of a rivalry matchup with Tennessee (11-4, 2-2) that will be televised by ESPN.

A 22-year-old junior from the Congo, Tshiebwe began his collegiate career at West Virginia. He left in the middle of his sophomore season for personal reasons and ended up transferring to Kentucky. Coach John Calipari believes Tshiebwe can give the Wildcats a post presence they missed last season.

Tshiebwe hopes to do way more.

"I want my name to be remembered forever," he said. "Not just as a basketball player - the way I treat people, the stuff I'm bringing to Kentucky basketball. I want my name to be remembered as Oscar who was different, not just a basketball player."

Size: 6-foot-9, 255 pounds.

Stats: 17.0 points per game, 15.1 rebounds per game, 62.7% shooting, 72.5% free throws.

Strengths: Tshiebwe is running the floor like never before and getting easy baskets in transition. While his hands seemed suspect early in the season, he has shown great touch around the rim in recent weeks - on both ends of the court.

"We had a game a couple of games ago where he graded out, on his sprints, the worst he had all season," Calipari said. "So now I'm focused on him running that floor. It puts him ahead of the action. He's going to get some easy ones. He's in a great position to rebound."

Weaknesses: For an athletic big man, Tshiebwe isn't much of a shot blocker. He hasn't had more than two blocks in any game since early December and has just 23 in 466 minutes this season. He also needs to continue to develop his post skills and extend his range.

"Remember early in the year, he couldn't make two-footers?" Calipari said. "Now he's hitting jumpers and making free throws."

Draft projection: Once considered a second-round project, Tshiebwe is climbing draft boards and could end up being taken near the middle of the first round by the time the draft arrives in July.

photo AP photo by James Crisp / Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe drives between Georgia's Tyron McMillan (4) and Jabri Abdur-Rahim during last Saturday's SEC matchup in Lexington, Ky. Tshiebwe had 29 points and 17 rebounds to help the Wildcats to victory.

Here's a quick look at other NBA prospects in the SEC to keep an eye on this winter.

JABARI SMITH, AUBURN

The 6-10 freshman forward from Fayetteville, Georgia, could be the No. 1 pick this summer if he decides to turn pro. Smith scored a season-high 25 points in a victory over No. 24 Alabama on Tuesday. He also had seven rebounds, four blocked shots and two steals. He can shoot, dribble and play defense.

ADEN SHACKELFORD, ALABAMA

The smooth-shooting left-handed guard leads the SEC in 3-pointers made (51) and attempted (133). The 6-3 junior has averaged 16.1 points - tied for sixth in the league - and 5.9 rebounds a game this season.

KENNEDY CHANDLER, TENNESSEE

The 6-1 freshman from Memphis ranks fifth in the SEC with 71 assists to go along with 13.4 points a game. He's an efficient ball handler, making smart decisions in pick-and-roll situations, and has the speed and shooting range to be a dynamic point guard in the NBA.