Rutgers men's basketball coach Steve Pikiell and his coaching staff continue to work towards completing the roster for next season. While they are working the transfer market hard, let's take a look at the current roster as of today. We know depth is an issue, as there are currently just ten scholarship players expected to be on the roster as of now. However, what Rutgers lacks in depth, they make up for in size and versatility in the frontcourt. Adding JUCO transfer Candido Sa and 3-star wing Issa Thiam are big additions and improve Rutgers in both of those areas.
Sa is a 6'9" shot blocker who will help repair the black hole that was the Rutgers defense in the paint last season. His defensive presence alone will be a major benefit. However, Sa has the potential to create a mismatch on the offensive end, as he has the ability to shoot the mid-to-long range jumper. That will force his defender out of the paint and potentially create more opportunities for offensive rebounds for the rest of the team.
Issa is a 6'9" wing whose skill set is more so of a guard than a big man. He can shoot the three, guard the passing lanes, and is a fundamentally sound passer. Jerry Carino wrote this profile on Thiam today, speaking with MaxPreps basketball writer Jason Hickman, who saw Issa play multiple times last season. Here are two quotes that were revealing on the type of player we can expect:
"I don't know if he's a great shooter or scorer at this point, but he's a good passer, a good facilitator," he said. "He was impressive operating from the elbow and the short corner."
"Canarias was a very big team; he was playing alongside kids who were 6-10, 6-11 and that allowed him to play small forward and guard even, as a secondary ball-handler," Hickman said. "Defensively I'm sure he could guard three or four different positions depending on what type of system he's playing in."
It's very important to have wing players that can help run the offense and get big men and shooters the ball in a position to score. It's something Rutgers hasn't had very often over the years. With time, Issa could develop into that type of player.
The Big Ten Player of the Year this season was Denzel Valentine, who had the ability to be effective on the perimeter, while also able to score in the paint. Although he was the Big Ten scoring champion, Denzel was also an excellent passer and averaged 7.8 assists last season. He also shot a stellar 44% from three-point range. Valentine was also effective in finding his teammates for open looks along the perimeter, as Michigan State coach Tom Izzo ran the offense through him. The Spartans led the league in shooting 43.4% from behind the arc, as Valentine was a catalyst in creating open looks for teammates.
I'm not saying to expect the same type of skill and production from Issa, but even if he can offer this type of versatility to a lesser degree, it would add a new element to the Rutgers offense. His size creates an automatic mismatch with his defender. It will be a challenge for a big man to cover Issa on the perimeter, while a guard will be undersized. Development will take time, but the staff have a project to work with in Issa that has major potential. Coach Pikiell has had strong three-point shooting teams in the past and over time will likely look to make Rutgers the same.
The versatility of both Sa and Thiam becomes even more intriguing when looking at the overall size of the Rutgers frontcourt for next season. Back from season ending injuries are resident trees Shaq Doorson and Ibrahima Diallo, who stand at 6'11" and 6'10" respectively. Add in the pair of 6'9" newcomers, and all of a sudden Rutgers has Big Ten worthy size. In fact, after reviewing the rosters of all 14 Big Ten teams last season, only Purdue and Maryland had four or more players who stood at 6'9" or taller. Add in 6'7" Deshawn Freeman, also back from a season ending injury, and rising sophomore 6'6" Jonathan Laurent, and Rutgers has legitimate size and versatility in the frontcourt.
Scoring is still an issue, as Freeman and Laurent are the only natural scorers in the bunch. Sa and Issa have ability to contribute offensively, but they have potential to make a big impact on the defensive end immediately. Couple them with Doorson and Diallo, and that makes for a formidable front line in the paint. Laurent and Issa can guard multiple positions as well, with the ability to cover guards and wings on the perimeter.
Rutgers now has the potential to have major size on the floor for the majority of the game. This is a program that went a long stretch last season with just one player on the active roster at 6'9 or above, senior center Greg Lewis. Now there can be periods where coach Pikiell can have three players at 6'9" or taller on the court at the same time. This will allow for Rutgers to show multiple defensive looks. That's a major step to add along with a detailed defensive approach that Pikiell and longtime assistant Jay Young will implement. Progress should be made, it's just a question of how much.
The staff desperately need to add a guard to next season's roster, as Corey Sanders, Mike Williams, and Nigel Johnson are talented but need help. Incoming freshman Matt Bullock could and offers a big, wide 6'4" frame that also adds versatility to the backcourt. However, after little Division I interest prior to Rutgers, there is now way to know if he will be ready to contribute much next season.
The good news is Rutgers has a frontcourt ready to compete in the Big Ten next season. They are raw and need a lot of refinement on both ends of the floor. Hope is present though, as the new coaching staff have the chops to develop the big men into a solid unit next season.