MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Oscar Tshiebwe doesn’t see his nomination as Big 12 preseason freshman of the year as proof that he’s about to take the league by storm.
Rather than giving himself a pat on the back, Tshiebwe has treated this week’s honor as a kick in the butt. There’s great expectations, and now he believes he’ll have to work even harder to live up to them.
“That really surprised me,” Tshiebwe said as he spoke to local reporters for the first time on Thursday afternoon. “To me, that’s more motivation to work hard to prove I can play great.”
Tshiebwe has always had to work hard to make up a considerable amount of ground. A native of Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, he grew up aspiring to be the next Cristiano Ronaldo. And then he kept growing.
At first, he stayed on the soccer pitch as a rather imposing goalkeeper. But the more he grew, the more it became obvious he was playing the wrong game. So in May 2014, Tshiebwe picked up a basketball for the first time.
“I wanted to stay with soccer, because it is more popular in Africa. I wasn’t really interested in basketball,” Tshiebwe said. “But my brother kept pushing me and pushing me.”
His knowledge of the game itself was limited to highlights he had seen of Kobe Bryant and “Mike Jordan.”
Tshiebwe arrived in the United States in 2015, getting in four years of high school and basketball before becoming only the second McDonald’s all-American to ever sign with West Virginia.
“A lot of people started playing at like, 6. He didn’t start playing basketball until late,” said teammate Taz Sherman. “For him to be this talented is a blessing.”
The thing that sets the 6-foot-9, 253-pound Tshiebwe apart is his speed. In addition to being one of the biggest Mountaineers, he is possibly the fastest as well. Of course, none of his teammates grew up with the benefit of Tshiebwe’s speed-training regimen.
He says he got fast because his father was a hunter, and Oscar was given the responsibility of chasing down and fetching his arrows after they were fired from the bow. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins has given the anecdote a more of a tall-tale feel by claiming Tshiebwe could beat the arrows to their target.
Tshiebwe laughs at that interpretation of his speed.
“Yeah, that’s what Coach Huggs said,” he said with a chuckle and a shake of the head.
This preseason, Tshiebwe has been refining his game beyond raw athleticism. In his senior year of high school, it was easy enough to average 23.4 points and 18 rebounds a game. Just practicing against Derek Culver and Logan Routt has taught him college will require much more.
“The biggest improvement is the post move is getting way better,” Tshiebwe said. “In high school, you just get low. I work on this all the time before practice. In college, you’re not going to just get the ball and finish. You have to have some post moves to make it and finish.”
It’s that attitude that has Huggins believing Tshiebwe can live up to lofty expectations.
“Oscar is a very level-headed kid. I think if anything, it’s made him hungrier to be better because he knows he’s behind in a lot of areas,” Huggins said. “His footwork’s not very good. But that’s a guy who has really only played a couple years of basketball here [in the U.S.]. He wants to learn and wants to get better.”