There are a lot of things to be encouraged by from the first two games of the season for the Rutgers men’s basketball team. It’s obvious there is more talent on the roster, the defense and rebounding is much better, and the coaching staff is proving their worth early on. However, one major development so far has been the terrific bench production over the weekend. Rutgers has gotten a huge lift in both games from players coming off the bench and impacting play in a positive way. Head coach Steve Pikiell was pumped about it and said this in the Drexel postgame presser:
Obviously, our backcourt was great, but I love how we’re developing into a team with a deep bench. Guys come off the bench and contribute. We got in foul trouble tonight and played through…We never flinched. Candido [Sa], Mike [Williams] and Nigel [Johnson] came off the bench and did some good things. It was a great team win. It’s another step and we have a long way to go.
Overall, Rutgers has scored 173 points through two games, but 75 points have come from the bench, which makes up 43.3% of the total scoring. That’s a fantastic contribution, but it has been more than just points off the bench, as they have impacted other areas of the game as well.
In fact, both games were close for significant portions, until a player off the bench asserted themselves, sparking the team to go on a big run and take over the contest. Let’s take a look at the players who have gotten the most minutes off the bench through two games and how they have positively impacted game action.
The start to Johnson’s Rutgers career has been nothing short of spectacular. Aside from his production, he has been a steadying force on the floor, running the offense with purpose and picking the right spots to impose his will on the game. He has averaged 14.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1.5 steals in 24.5 minutes per game. Nigel is 8-17 from the field for 47% and 12-17 from the free throw line for 70.6%.
The one area he has struggled in is from three-point range, making just 1-7 from behind the arc. However, he is shooting 70% from 2-point range and has ran the offense with purpose and poise. He drew three fouls and connected on six consecutive free throws during the 13-0 run at the end of the half against Drexel that sealed the game for Rutgers.
The transfer from Kansas State had to sit out all of last season, but has made the most of his opportunities so far. Whether he continues coming off the bench remains to be seen. Either way, he is proving the wait for him to play was worth it and is fulfilling the potential that made me think he would have the most impact of any newcomer.
The 6’9” JUCO transfer has impressed in the first two games of his Rutgers career, flashing athleticism and a mid-range shot. He followed up 6 point, 4 rebound performance in just 14 minutes in the opener with an 11 point, 6 rebound, 3 block game in 23 minutes against Drexel. When I spoke with Sa during Rutgers media day, I asked him what part of his game would surprise people the most. He had this to say:
Definitely my versatility. People don’t really know, but I think I’m a good shooter. I can do a little bit of everything and I’m excited to get started.
After two games, Sa is shooting 50% from the field, making 8 of 16 attempts. He even made a three-pointer against Drexel, displaying his long range potential. We knew his reputation as a rim enforcer coming to Rutgers, but Sa has proven to much more than that so far.
Mike started almost every game the first two seasons of his career and averaged 12.3 points per contest last year. It was fair to wonder how Williams would react to coming off the bench at the start of this season under a new coaching staff. He wasted no time making a huge statement in the opener against Molloy, hitting several big shots when the game was close. He led Rutgers in scoring with 17 points on 5-8 shooting from 3-point range.
While he struggled from behind the arc against Drexel, missing all five attempts, Williams was still productive in contributing 4 points and 5 rebounds off the bench. He is becoming a veteran presence on this team, providing valuable experience and scoring punch off the bench. If he can contribute even when his shots aren’t falling, like he did yesterday, he will see plenty of game action moving forward.
While the Canadian freshman hasn’t produced as much as the other three players mentioned previously, there is certainly a lot to like about his potential. He has a Big Ten body already, has long arms, and is a defensively sound player. He flashed his own versatility in the opener, when his stat line consisted of 6 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 steal in 15 minutes of action. Omoruyi was also a perfect 4-4 from the free throw line, on a night Rutgers only shot 58% from the charity stripe on 36 attempts.
Although he only played 6 minutes against Drexel, which Pikiell said in the postgame was based on matchups in personnel, he still contributed with 2 points and 2 assists in very limited action. However, his attitude and toughness are what I like the most. He seems fearless and is willing to play physical, whether it’s diving on the floor for a loose ball or banging in the paint for a rebound. I think he will improve steadily as the season progresses and will be an asset on the defensive end in conference play.
It’s not what he has produced yet, but what he has to offer long term that is intriguing. The 7 footer is still working back from missing all of last season due to injury. Pikiell praised Doorson for losing over 50 pounds since April and that he has embraced all the changes within the program. Although he was rusty and fouled twice in his only minute of action in the season opener, Shaq was rotated in more frequently against Drexel, logging 15 minutes and grabbing 2 rebounds. Pikiell said in the presser after the win that Shaq came out Saturday and had a great practice. That shows what a positive attitude he has, after surely being disappointed in the little playing time he got in the opener.
Although he hasn’t exactly filled up the stat sheet yet, he offers a viable option off the bench and allows Rutgers to maintain their size in the paint when replacing Gettys or Sa. It will take a bit for Shaq to shake off the rust and learn how to play with his new body, but his potential to be a strong defensive presence this season is there.
Will Any Of These Players Eventually Start?
Nigel Johnson is the most likely to move into the starting lineup, but that doesn’t mean he necessarily will. Pikiell may like to keep things the way they are for now. And really, it doesn’t matter. Issa Thiam started at the 2-guard spot and played 13 minutes, while Johnson led the team with 28 minutes played. I do think that Nigel starting in the backcourt may help Corey Sanders get into a better rhythm at the start of games, after struggling to get going offensively so far. On the flip side, it may benefit to have Issa come off the bench as well, after struggling to make much of an impact as a starter. However, either way, if Nigel continues to produce the way he has on the court, starting the game is unimportant. We know he will be on the court for this team at the end of games and that’s really what matters.
Candido Sa also has the ability to start over time, but having him come off the bench behind CJ Gettys and Deshawn Freeman is proving to be a real luxury. He has a long way to go in his development, but he has proven early on he can play for extended stretches when Gettys or Freeman struggle or are in foul trouble.
I don’t see Mike Williams, Eugene Omoruyi, or Shaq Doorson having an opportunity to start at the moment, but again, it really doesn’t matter. The fact that Rutgers has a legitimate rotation of ten players that can all make a positive impact on any given game is the real story.
This team is a work in progress, but their versatility and ability to play multiple lineup combinations based on their opponent will prove to be a major asset this season. They have a coach that wants them to play extremely hard, battle on defense and for rebounds, which results in giving a lot of players a chance to play. Here is more from Pikiell in the postgame presser:
I want to play a lot of guys. We didn’t get into our full-court pressure as much tonight. We had to rotate for foul reasons. I want to play guys. I have a lot of faith in Eugene. Eugene [Omoruyi] didn’t play as much tonight as he did the other night, but there are different games and matchups for both of them. Adding Shaq to the rotation which is another big body. As the game dictates, I have confidence in our guys and want to play everyone. That’s the kind of program I want to have.
Thursday night’s game at DePaul is another test for this team to prove they are making progress on the court and are nothing close to the team that went 7-25 last season. This team has a long way to go and must continue to improve during non-conference play to have any chance of making some noise during the Big Ten season. The hope with this team is that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, as Aristotle famously said. Rutgers may lack multiple 4-star & 5-star recruits that other conference opponents have, but their ability to commit to “One Agenda” and buy-in to what the coaching staff wants them do is the key to their success. If that happens, the bench production will continue to be a positive storyline throughout this season. At the end of the day, winning trumps who starts, because its how they finish that really matters.