There’s plenty of mystery surrounding this Kentucky basketball team, an almost entirely new bunch featuring nine scholarship players who weren’t Wildcats a season ago. Eight of those newcomers are freshmen.
And none of them has more intrigue around him at this stage in the preseason than Aaron Bradshaw, the 7-footer from New Jersey with a unique skill set, NBA lottery upside and a foot injury that carries with it no clear-cut timetable for a full recovery.
In one of his first public appearances since arriving in Kentucky earlier this summer, Bradshaw participated Sunday in Oscar Tshiebwe’s basketball camp for kids at Sports Center in Lexington.
Bradshaw, who underwent a medical procedure for the injury in June, clearly isn’t back to full strength just yet. He showed up to Tshiebwe’s camp Sunday with a protective boot on his left foot, but it didn’t do a whole lot to limit his enthusiasm.
While the rest of Kentucky’s players waited to be introduced in a holding area just off the main court, Bradshaw stepped into everyone’s sight to watch Tshiebwe’s introduction to the crowd — a group of kids, parents and others that numbered in the hundreds — and spent the first few minutes of the afternoon posing for selfies, signing basketball and welcoming kids to the event.
There weren’t any highlight-reel dunks, of course, but Bradshaw was the first Wildcat to step onto the court and the first UK player to get his station started for the grade-schoolers in attendance. Before the basketball began, he stood at center court as his line of campers walked by and jumped up in the air to give him high-fives.
He moved well for someone two months removed from foot surgery, even showing off some light dance moves during one portion of the camp. Bradshaw stepped into the line of shooters during a game of knockout, playfully interacting with the kids as they put up shots. When one young camper was eliminated and sat down on the court, clearly upset, Bradshaw took a seat right next to him, put his arm around the boy and offered words of encouragement until the camper was ready to continue.
And when it was time for Tshiebwe to play one-on-one with a handful of kids, Bradshaw officiated the sessions — even donning a referee’s shirt and whistling the former Kentucky star for shooting fouls.
For the entirety of the afternoon, no UK player was more engaged and interactive with the kids.
Aaron Bradshaw spent the introductory part of the Oscar camp posing for selfies with parents, signing autographs and talking to some of the campers. pic.twitter.com/9oa7ny36kG
— Ben Roberts (@BenRobertsHL) August 27, 2023
Speculation about Bradshaw’s status at Kentucky has swirled privately for months and more publicly for the past several weeks as additional details regarding his injury have emerged.
Even before he arrived on campus, there were persistent rumblings in recruiting circles that Bradshaw might back out of his commitment to the Wildcats and head to Southern Cal, which put together the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, a group featuring top-ranked college prospect Isaiah Collier and fellow guard Bronny James. Bradshaw is represented by Klutch Sports Group, the agency headed by Rich Paul, the longtime friend of NBA legend LeBron James (Bronny’s father), and those collective ties sparked the speculation that the UK freshman might pull a last-minute switch to USC.
Bradshaw’s arrival in Lexington earlier this summer squashed those rumors, but the mysterious nature of his foot injury lingered as he settled in at UK.
NBA insider Shams Charania reported on June 16 — two weeks after Bradshaw’s arrival on UK’s campus — that the star big man had suffered a fractured foot and could possibly miss the start of the 2023-24 season.
It was later confirmed that Bradshaw injured his foot during the McDonald’s All-American Game in late March. In his first press conference of the summer on June 30, UK Coach John Calipari finally acknowledged that Bradshaw had injured his foot and elected to undergo surgery around that time after first waiting to see if the injury could heal on its own over the summer.
Clearly aware of the ongoing speculation that Bradshaw might ultimately decide to sit out the 2023-24 season to avoid further injury and protect his 2024 NBA Draft stock, Calipari stressed that the 19-year-old was “so excited” to play for the Wildcats as soon as he was able and had been “one of the stars” of the team’s June camp circuit at stops around the state.
“Aaron Bradshaw was unbelievable in the camps in our community. The kids loved him. The parents loved him,” Calipari said.
In a follow-up question from the Herald-Leader, the UK coach said he did not expect Bradshaw to miss any of the 2023-24 regular season, though he didn’t completely rule out the possibility.
“Not from what the doctors are telling me,” Calipari said when asked whether he thought Bradshaw might miss the start of the season. “But we will not rush him back.”
247Sports ranked Bradshaw as the No. 5 overall recruit in the 2023 class, but his NBA Draft projections vary widely. Some mock drafts peg him as a lottery pick in next year’s draft, though a few of the more-established boards — namely, ESPN and The Athletic — project him as a second-rounder, citing the injury as a factor.
Bradshaw has a unique skill set for a player of his size and possesses arguably the highest long-term upside of any player in the freshman class nationally. A 7-footer with impressive length, he projects as a possible impact shot-blocker and overall defender with a versatile offensive game that extends beyond the perimeter.
In an interview with the Herald-Leader at the NBA Combine earlier this offseason, Tshiebwe said he was familiar with Bradshaw’s game and had been impressed by what he’d seen.
“That boy’s good,” Tshiebwe said in May. “He can extend and shoot — a three-point shooter. He does a lot of things. He’s going to help the team in a lot of different ways. He’s a shot-blocker. He shoots the ball really good.”
Complicating matters for Kentucky is the status of fellow center Ugonna Onyenso, who suffered a foot injury during the Wildcats’ trip to the GLOBL JAM exhibition tournament in Canada last month and had to undergo surgery a few days later. Onyenso was not in attendance at Sunday’s camp.
West Virginia transfer Tre Mitchell, a 6-9 forward who had been with the Cats for about two weeks, took over most of the duties at the “5” spot during the team’s four games at the GLOBL JAM as a result of the injuries to UK’s young bigs.
Onyenso’s immediate future is also somewhat unclear, with Calipari only saying that the UK sophomore had a “minor procedure” and would be sidelined for “a couple of months” as he recovered. That statement came on July 18, which — if Calipari’s timetable holds — would put Onyenso back on the court about a month before Big Blue Madness and seven weeks before Kentucky’s season opener against New Mexico State on Nov. 6.
Such timelines can be tricky, however, especially when they involve post players and lower-body injuries. Onyenso has not spoken publicly since his injury, and Bradshaw has not yet met with reporters since arriving on campus nearly three months ago.
Amid the uncertainty surrounding those two players, the Wildcats signed another big man for the upcoming season: 7-2 center Zvonimir Ivišić, who has been playing professionally in Europe and is viewed as a possible NBA Draft pick in 2024.
“Big Z is a dynamic and modern big who has guard-like skills but can make a major impact around the rim,” Calipari said in a release a couple of weeks ago. “Defensively, he is an elite shot blocker who moves well for being 7-foot-2 and can impact the game from the outside-in because of his ability to make threes.”