The University of Kentucky’s newly-signed center Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso sees parallels between himself and Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose character he auditioned to play in the recently-released Disney+ film Rise.
Rise is the dramatised story of the Antetokounmpo brothers’ unlikely ascent to the top of the basketball world, despite having grown up undocumented in Greece as their Nigerian parents struggled to secure legal residency.
Onyenso, the youngest player ever to compete for Nigeria’s men’s national team, told ESPN that before signing for the Wildcats he had auditioned for the role of Giannis in Rise, though it eventually went to actor Uche Agada.
“I was in an audition for his movie. That gave me the opportunity to know more about him. It’s not just about basketball for me — I see [myself in] the younger him, the things he struggled to get through,” Onyenso told ESPN.
“Me and my family — we are ok, but we aren’t financially stable because of the situation in Nigeria… He [Giannis] helped his parents while they were struggling.
“I know I’m still growing; I’m still working to get to the league, but the things he did when he was young are the things I’m still doing… they’re similar.”
Onyenso, a 6-foot-11 center who was ranked No. 35 overall in the ESPN 100 for 2023, had offers from the likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Tennessee. He decided that Kentucky was the right fit for him on and off the court.
He explained: “I’m a fast player and Kentucky does that — my play and Kentucky’s [style of] play are the same.
“For me, it’s about bonding, if I don’t have a good relationship with the coaches and the players, I won’t be comfortable playing there. I looked into Kentucky. Their track record, it’s amazing.”
Now 17, he only began playing basketball in Owerri, Nigeria, at the age of 12, with the full endorsement of his mother, who suggested he transitioned from soccer to a sport which better suited his height.
Two years later, he earned his place at the NBA Academy Africa in Saly, Senegal. Onyenso never looked back, flourishing under technical director Roland Houston before spending the past season at Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut.
“One thing I can say is that my head coach [Houston] taught me about the way you carry yourself… Not everybody is going to make it to the league [NBA]. It’s either you work, or you don’t and hope that it just comes to you,” Onyenso said.
The youngster impressed on his Nigeria debut in November’s World Cup qualifiers despite D’Tigers losing 79-71 to Cape Verde. He had the chance to rub shoulders with seasoned professionals with NBA experience.
Onyenso spoke highly of the impact that veterans Ike Diogu and Ben Uzoh had on his mindset: “I felt I learned a lot from them, the way they carried themselves.
“Despite [the fact] that they played in the NBA, they were humble to the call. They taught me what to do and how to do it respectfully. That’s a lot to learn. I felt like that was a good step for me to go to the pro level.”
Uzoh, the former New Jersey Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors point guard, who currently plies his trade with Marinos BBC in Venezuela, told ESPN: “Ugo understood very quickly the expectations that we had going forward.
“The passing of the torch, the responsibility to represent and conduct yourselves as [representatives of] 200 million people in the country that are relying [on] and understand the importance of what we are trying to do.
“He has a great head on his shoulders. I think his potential is through the roof. He really has a great passion, but he has a great ability to develop at a high rate. I’m really excited for his future and his growth.
“I was talking about him with an executive in the NBA [the week prior to the announcement that Onyenso had committed to Kentucky]. He has a real chance [of playing in the NBA], so I’m really excited for his announcement and to see more success going forward.”