Entering the 2019-20 season, the Texas Longhorns will have to replace the production of forward Dylan Osetkowski, who finished second on the team in minutes played per game (28.8) and points per game (11.1), and led the team in rebounds (7.2).
Unless head coach Shaka Smart opts for a smaller lineup or 2019 signee Kai Jones quickly emerges as a legitimate option at one forward position, the first player with an opportunity to step into Osetkowski’s role is sophomore Kamaka Hepa, a 6’9, 225-pound forward from Alaska. He’ll compete with another talented 2019 signee, Austin Westlake product Will Baker.
Hepa came to Texas as a top-60 prospect nationally who was heavily recruited by Gonzaga, his other finalist, before committing the Longhorns in October of 2017. When Hepa got to Austin, he was a three-time Gatorade State Player of the Year in Alaska and Oregon and possessed a diverse offensive game highlighted by a pure jump shot.
Smart called Hepa’s physical transformation through his first two months on the Forty Acres the most significant on the team, but there’s still work to do in that regard for Hepa, who sometimes struggled to maintain his position defensively as a freshman. Overall, Hepa averaged less than two points and 10 minutes per game in his first season, but he did provide a significant glimpse into his potential when Osetkowski missed a game against Baylor in Waco in late February.
During that overtime loss, Hepa played 39 minutes, scoring 11 points on five shots and adding four rebounds and two blocked shots. He made all three of his three-point attempts, his best shooting performance of the season.
After shooting 31 percent overall from beyond the arc as a freshman, the most extended playing time of Hepa’s career was a look at what he could begin to accomplish as a sophomore.
“Kamaka makes a lot of shots,” guard Courtney Ramey said during the NIT. “He’s a shot maker. He brings a lot of energy, too. DO likes to go out at him when he’s guarding him and he’s getting better at guarding him. I feel like his shot making is something that you guys don’t see and I’m hoping he gets to show that next season.”
After attempting 1.5 three-point shots per game last season, Hepa’s volume of attempts was so low that it was difficult to get a strong feel for his upside, but he was an excellent shooter in high school and always looked consistent during pre-game warmups. He can also create some for his teammates despite only 10 assists as a freshman.
“He’s a great passer, too,” Ramey said. “He made a pass a couple weeks ago, a behind-the-back spin move — that was a good pass.”
The biggest key for Hepa, who surely benefited significantly from going against the physical Osetkowski in practice, is to continue to add strength and explosiveness working under Daniel Roose.
“He’s a good basketball player,” Ramey said. “He can put the ball on the ground. I think he can get a little more athletic and that’s going to come with time, but his biggest thing is his shot making.”
As the physical growth happens during this offseason, Hepa may be able to improve his defensive rebounding rate, which was roughly the same last season as Elijah Mitrou-Long, a guard listed at 6’1, at 13.9 percent. Jaxson Hayes, who is now off to the NBA, had a defensive rebounding rate of 16.2 percent as a freshman, a reasonable goal for Hepa next season.
If Hepa can clean up on the glass, improve from aware to effective defensively, and start translating his offensive skill into production while gaining athleticism, he has a chance to earn a significant portion of the minutes that went to Osetkowski last season.
The flashes were pretty brief for the lean Alaskan as a freshman, but there’s still reason to believe that he’ll emerge as an effective and significant for the Longhorns. The question is whether that happens next season or as a junior.