Coming into this season, it wasn’t clear how much — if at all — freshman guard Adou Thiero would factor into the Kentucky basketball team’s immediate plans.
Thiero was billed as a long-term prospect for the Wildcats, a late-bloomer with intriguing upside but zero expectations to make an impact in his first year of college. He didn’t join UK’s recruiting class until May and hadn’t been on the Wildcats’ radar for very long before that.
The regular season is still three months away, so it won’t be known until November exactly how Thiero fits into John Calipari’s outlook for this UK team. What’s clear after two exhibition games in the Bahamas, however, is that Thiero might be ready to chip in right away.
One thing’s for sure. The 18-year-old isn’t shy.
After playing less than 10 minutes in Kentucky’s Bahamas opener Wednesday night — but looking impressive in the process — Thiero got the starting nod from Calipari in Thursday’s matchup against Tec de Monterrey. The freshman took the court alongside four seniors, but he didn’t defer to the older crowd.
Thiero let fly as soon as he touched the ball, putting up a three-pointer 17 seconds into the game and another less than two minutes in.
Neither went down, but the tone was set.
Thiero had a nice drive for a bucket a couple of possessions later and completed an and-one finish in transition a couple of minutes after that.
None of this was supposed to happen. Not this quickly.
Calipari said before the game Thursday that he remembered Thiero — the son of one of his former Memphis players, Almamy Thiero — as a 5-foot-8 middle-schooler who used to attend his UK basketball camps.
When the Kentucky coach started recruiting the teenager earlier this year, seeing him as a 6-5ish, electric guard was a “wow” moment. The more he watched, the more he liked.
Calipari acknowledged that Thiero needs to learn to play off the ball — he was an undersized point guard when he began his high school career — and he’ll need to get better defensively.
“But his instincts are so good,” Calipari said. “And because he’s played on the ball, when he does get it, he can make plays. And he’s big.”
Big, and growing.
Thiero is apparently a couple of inches or so taller now than he was when he visited Lexington as a recruit a few months ago. Folks around the Wildcats’ program have said he’s grown since he arrived on campus in June. Kentucky lists him at 6-6, but he might have already surpassed that, and Thiero said a few weeks ago that doctors have told him his growth plates indicate he could get to 6-11 by the time he’s finished. And he’s retained guard skills that were good enough to lead his high school team to the state title game and garner scholarship offers from major college programs.
All that growing has caused some aches and pains in his short time on UK’s campus. That’s led to some missed practice time. And low expectations, even from his coach.
In his meeting Thursday with reporters who traveled for the Bahamas trip, Calipari said Thiero’s more limited participation in practice dug him a hole early on. He came to the Bahamas on a limited minutes count, but he looked so smooth in that first game — seven points, three assists, three blocks and two steals in a little more than nine minutes — that eyebrows were raised.
Thiero played 22 minutes against Tec de Monterrey on Thursday night. He finished with 13 points, six rebounds, two assists and one blocked shot. After he missed those two threes in the game’s opening minutes, he went 5-for-5 from the floor, knocking down a three in the second half.
Asked a couple of weeks ago if anyone had surprised him in summer practices, UK assistant coach Chin Coleman pointed to Thiero, saying he still had a ways to go but that — physically and athletically, especially — he was a lot better than originally thought.
“Now I think everybody is seeing that,” Coleman said Thursday night. “This is a young kid. Like deer in the headlights — he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s just trying so hard. He’s playing with a ton of energy, a ton of passion. He’s going to make mistakes. But when you make mistakes — as long as your effort and energy is right — then you can make plays. So he’s making plays. I’m happy for him.”
Thiero’s father obviously reached a high level of college basketball, and his mother, Mariam Sy Thiero, was a WNBA draft pick. So he has the genes to succeed. When or whether his upside will be fully realized is the question.
These are just two summer exhibition games against woefully overmatched competition, but it sure seems as if Thiero will leave the Bahamas looking more like a possible piece of Kentucky’s 2022-23 puzzle than he did when he arrived.
UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua said Wednesday night that he couldn’t recall taking a recruit quite like Thiero — a player with such mystery around both his short-term ability and long-term potential — while at Kentucky. “I don’t know if we have,” he said.
They have one now. What happens next will be well worth following.
“He’s a kid that’s earned the right to be at Kentucky,” Antigua said. “Led his high school team to a championship game. So he’s been a part of winning. He’s got a great basketball tradition and family. And he’s a kid who’s grown up wanting to be at Kentucky. He’s living out his dream. And we’re challenging him and pushing him. And every day, he’s going up against other really good players. And so you are forced to get better. And he’s doing that.”