Breaking News

He’ll be billed as Kentucky basketball’s 10th man. But he could be ‘something special.’

He’ll be billed as Kentucky basketball’s 10th man. But he could be ‘something special.’

At 11:05 a.m. Thursday, the current height for Adou Thiero was 6 feet, 6 inches.

Ask him the same question tomorrow or next week or a few months down the line, and you might end up with three different answers.

Thiero, the last-minute addition to Kentucky’s basketball recruiting class of 2022, emerged late in his high school career as a high-major prospect due, in large part, to an amazing growth spurt. And he’s still growing. Quite rapidly.

Quaker Valley (Pa.) head coach Mike Mastroianni said Thiero was about 5-9 or 5-10 when he joined the high school team as a freshman. He had high-level ball skills and a willingness to compete against older, bigger kids. He got by early on his skill and his grit.

“And then all the sudden, he just had this spurt,” Mastroianni said.

He still wasn’t much taller than 6 feet when his junior season ended. By the time the next school year began, he’d grown a couple of inches. By the time it was finished, Thiero was a 6-5 senior with state player of the year honors and a growing list of scholarship offers.

He ultimately chose to play for Kentucky and John Calipari, who had coached his father, Almamy Thiero, at Memphis nearly two decades ago. As a kid, Adou attended Calipari’s youth camps at UK. He dreamed of playing at this level, but he wasn’t even on the national recruiting radar until his high school career was nearly finished.

At the time Kentucky extended a scholarship offer, none of the national recruiting websites had ranked him at all. He’s still far down those lists, by UK standards. 247Sports pegs him as the No. 130 overall prospect in the 2022 class, but few analysts have even seen him play in person.

In a recruiting landscape where players — especially those who end up at places like Kentucky — are closely scouted from middle school on, Thiero is a rarity. He’s a true mystery prospect.

Nobody knows exactly what UK is getting here.

As a senior this past season, Thiero averaged 23.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 3.9 steals and 2.3 blocks per game. Quaker Valley achieved a 27-1 record, winning a class title and finishing the season as the state runner-up.

He comes to Kentucky with a 6-6 frame and point guard skills. And, again, he’s not done growing.

Almamy Thiero, who went through his major growth spurt as a 16-year-old, was listed at 6-10 on Memphis’ roster. Adou’s mother, Mariam Sy Thiero, was the No. 33 pick in the 2006 WNBA Draft. She was listed at 6-4 in her playing days. Adou’s little sister starts high school later this year and is already 6-3.

Doctors have told Adou, who turned 18 in May, that his growth plates are still “wide-open,” and the Kentucky freshman said he’s already experienced literal growing pains in his short time on campus. There are aches, especially in his knees, and some days are better than others.

Those same doctors have told Thiero he could grow another 3-5 inches. So, it’s possible the kid who was barely over 6-feet tall not much more than a year ago could be a near-7-footer in the not-too-distant future.

The possibilities boggle the mind. Hearing about a player who could reach that height and retain guard-like skills will send just about any Kentucky fan thinking in the direction of Anthony Davis, who went through a similar growth spurt late in his high school career, going from mid-major prospect to Kentucky recruit to No. 1 NBA Draft pick in a short amount of time.

He’ll be billed as Kentucky basketball’s 10th man. But he could be ‘something special.’

Adou Thiero shoots around during one of his first practices with the Kentucky Wildcats.

Thiero said Thursday that he’s aware of Davis’ story, but he added that Calipari hasn’t brought up the subject. There’s no need to compare an 18-year-old to one of the greatest players in Kentucky basketball history before he’s ever played a college game.

And Thiero says he’s just trying to stay in the moment. He doesn’t know what his role on this Kentucky team will be. He doesn’t know exactly how much he’ll continue to grow, or how that will affect his skill set and potential. He does know that, after years of hope and hard work, he’s now exactly where he wants to be. And he’s not about to let up.

“I was always confident, because — from a young age — I’ve always been working to get here,” Thiero said. “And now that I have that chance I’m not just going to come in and think, ‘Oh, everyone’s better than me. Let me just do a little bit.’ I’m going to come here and do what I’ve always been doing.”

Adou vs. Oscar

Perhaps the best example of Thiero’s inner drive comes in the form of an “it’s a small world” anecdote from nearly four years ago.

On his very first day of scrimmages as a high school player, Thiero and Pittsburgh-area Quaker Valley were scheduled to play against Kennedy Catholic and Moon High School, with the latter program hosting the exhibition games.

Moon High is Calipari’s alma mater. The star for Kennedy Catholic was senior center Oscar Tshiebwe, the reigning state player of the year at the time.

Mastroianni said Quaker Valley was coming off a good season and had some starters back, so Thiero, then a 14-year-old freshman, was relegated to the bench at the beginning. The coach threw him into the mix to start the second quarter.

Memories vary on exactly what came next. But the gist of what happened was disputed by no one involved. The freshman didn’t back down.

“Now, again, he’s a little guy,” Mastroianni said as a reminder. “If I had film of it, it would be fun to watch. He didn’t hesitate. He went right at Oscar. And they’re four-time state champs. He’s the state player of the year. And we knew right away that guy — he had to get on the court all the time. And he started from that point on. That was like five days into his high school career.

“Oscar probably won’t even remember that, to be honest with you. Because he was there dunking on us.”

Oscar remembers. Because ever since Thiero arrived on UK’s campus, he hasn’t let the big man forget.

“I tell him all the time,” the freshman said with a smile.

Thiero recalls that nobody on his team wanted to challenge Tshiebwe — already listed at 6-9 and 250 pounds with that strong frame and outsized motor — for a rebound. So, the sub-6-footer came in and did the dirty work.

“I went in, and I got a rebound over him,” Thiero said proudly. “And that’s when my coaches realized: ‘He wants it. He’s going to play hard every second.’”

Mastroianni chuckles as he keeps thinking back on that day.

“He’s not backing down,” the coach said now. “It didn’t matter to him. He knew who Oscar was. Everybody on our team knew who Oscar was. And he didn’t blink. He didn’t hesitate at all.”

Tshiebwe said Thursday that he remembered that scrimmage from nearly four years ago. He recalled the “kid” with “a lot of confidence” and acknowledged that Thiero was playing well.

About that rebound …

“Some rebounds just come in your hands,” Tshiebwe said with a smile, putting his hands together, palms pointed upward, gesturing as if someone was catching a long rebound that just fell into his grasp like a gift.

“And you’re going to say, ‘I got a rebound over Oscar.’ I’m going to let them get those,” Tshiebwe continues, clearly joking, giving the freshman a hard time.

Kentucky’s reigning national player of the year and master rebounder kept on with the playfulness, looking ahead to sharing the court with Thiero as a teammate. “The one thing I told him: ‘You can get as many rebounds as you want to get in practice. You’re not getting them in the game.’”

The UK center laughed at that. This season, like the last one, all the rebounds when Tshiebwe is on the court belong to him.

Getting a little more serious for a moment, Tshiebwe talked about the impression Thiero has made on him in Kentucky’s early summer practices.

“What I’m seeing from him right now, he has jumped from here to here,” Tshiebwe said, moving his hands apart to indicate not only Thiero’s physical growth in the four years since the pair first met on the court, but the freshman’s evolving game, as well. “He has gotten better. And he’s in a program where everybody’s working. … Nobody is going to let you take a day off.”

Expectations at Kentucky

Thiero was the 10th and (as of now) final scholarship player to join Kentucky’s team for the 2022-23 season. He enters this summer at that same number on the depth chart of most UK basketball observers.

The Cats’ backcourt will feature Sahvir Wheeler, the returning point guard from last season; Cason Wallace, the McDonald’s All-American combo guard and projected lottery pick; and shooting guards CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves, two players who excelled at Division I schools before transferring to Kentucky.

At the wing spots will be returning contributor Jacob Toppin and McDonald’s All-American recruit Chris Livingston. The frontcourt consists of Tshiebwe, sky-high-upside forward Daimion Collins (another McDonald’s All-American) and third-year player Lance Ware, who could get the bulk of the minutes that Tshiebwe doesn’t play.

Thiero is the youngest player on the team. He’s also the least heralded.

“When you look at Kentucky’s roster and you throw in a lot of those older guys — look, it’s about winning now. It’s about winning every game now,” Mastroianni said. “Obviously, at that level there’s a process. It wouldn’t surprise me if — when he’s given that opportunity — he starts to make plays and he finds a niche. But I think, like every freshman, you have to find your footing. There’s definitely going to be an adjustment. And there’s an adjustment for any player who goes there. We’ve sent players to different colleges, but we’re talking Kentucky.”

Thiero is realistic about his immediate future, but — like that first high school scrimmage four years ago — he’s not backing down just because he’s the overlooked newcomer. He’ll accept whatever role he earns, but he won’t just settle into the projection that he’s given.

“I came in thinking everyone gets their chance,” he said. “So when I get mine, I’m going to show my skill.”

That ability, he said, includes just about everything. Thiero describes himself as a playmaker who can score and facilitate. He rebounds well for his size. He apparently has a knack for protecting the rim, doing so last season as a 6-5 guard. (So imagine what’s possible there if he keeps on growing). He says his ongoing growth spurt has made him better at finishing around the basket and made it easier to shoot over defenders. It’s also made him a much better ball-handler.

The one drawback has been his shooting touch. Thiero’s hands are growing at such a rapid rate that it’s made it difficult to properly hold and release the ball on jump shots. He’s working through that, and — once he settles into whatever size he’s going to be — there’s confidence the shooting stroke will return.

Adou Thiero is the youngest player on UK’s roster for 2022-23. “I came in thinking everyone gets their chance,” he said. “So when I get mine, I’m going to show my skill.”

Adou Thiero is the youngest player on UK’s roster for 2022-23. “I came in thinking everyone gets their chance,” he said. “So when I get mine, I’m going to show my skill.”

“He shoots it well,” Mastroianni said. “He was a shooter for us — he had games where he’d have eight or nine threes as a sophomore. And I think that will continue to come, too, because he’s growing into his hands and his whole body.”

The veteran high school coach of more than three decades — Mastroianni played against Calipari as a kid, by the way — said the most impressive aspect of Thiero’s growing game isn’t the physical potential or those guard-like skills that will go with it.

“His strongest attribute is his level of leadership. His ability to pull people in is really outstanding for such a young guy,” he said. “He has an infectious way of pulling his teammates in in a positive way. I always thought he was above the curve in understanding his teammates.

“And, look, he’s not at Kentucky unless his skill set is that of a Kentucky player. But I think the other things that make him a special player are his leadership and intangibles — he knows his teammates well, he understands the game well.”

Whatever happens in the actual games over the next several months, that type of attitude should play well on the practice floor. And if Thiero stays in this for the long haul, everyone could look back at that ranking outside the national top 100 a few years from now and wonder what those recruiting experts were thinking.

“When he’s going in practice, he’s going to be extremely competitive,” Mastroianni said. “He’s not going to back down an inch. And he’s going to continue to fight until he finds himself a niche and a role that fits there. …

“He has an opportunity down the road here to be something special. But it’s going to take patience, for sure.”

Major Kentucky target showing out in Spain. And the top UK basketball recruiting links.

Saying goodbye to Kentucky basketball, and thanks for the memories

Kentucky freshman guard will need no coaxing to play defense: ‘I love it’

It’s early, but four SEC teams ranked in top 25 will play at Kentucky