There have been a lot of roster changes for the Rutgers men’s basketball program since Steve Pikiell took over in April. With the graduation of Greg Lewis, Omari Grier, and Bishop Daniels, as well as the transfers of D.J. Foreman and Justin Goode, Rutgers had just seven scholarship players remaining after the season. After inheriting a team with just over half of the full amount of scholarships filled, Pikiell and his coaching staff have made five roster additions since.
The first recruiting class of Pikiell’s regime includes incoming freshman Issa Thiam, Matt Bullock and Eugene Omoruyi, as well as JUCO transfer Candido Sa and graduate transfer C.J. Gettys. This group adds size, depth, and versatility to a 7 win team from last season that was in desperate need for all of those qualities in this class. There is potential here and these additions will help in Pikiell’s mission to vastly improve the rebounding and defense of Rutgers next season. They currently have the most size of any Big Ten team.
With that being said, in my opinion, the most important newcomer on the court for the 2016-2017 season will be guard Nigel Johnson. The Kansas State transfer was part of the program last season, but had to sit out due to transfer rules. Now that a new school year has begun, Johnson is ever so close to making his Rutgers debut on the court. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining and should be a key player moving forward.
There is reason to believe Johnson can help elevate the play of the Rutgers backcourt, joining star point guard Corey Sanders and junior Mike Williams. He is a slashing, athletic guard that is also a strong defender. There are legitimate hopes of Johnson developing a dynamic 1-2 punch with Sanders, as their individual games should compliment each other well. It appears the two are close and are determined to combine as one of the best backcourt’s in the Big Ten this season.
Johnson averaged 5.2 points, 1.7 assists, 1.6 rebounds, and 1.0 steal in 17.9 minutes per game his sophomore season at Kansas State in 2014-2015. He shot 39.8% from the floor, 33.9% from three-point range, and 67.2% FT from the free throw line that season as well. Not eye popping numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but Johnson had some big moments, including starring in victories over ranked teams near the end of his last season with Kansas State. He scored 20 points and on 8-11 shooting from the field, including 4-5 from three-point range, to lead the Wildcats to a 70-63 upset over in-state rival #8 Kansas in late February of that season. He came off the bench as well in the following game, again leading his team to an 70-69 upset of #12 Iowa State with a 17 point, 9 rebound, 4 assist performance. His potential is obvious, but Johnson needs to bring consistency to Rutgers this season.
Another important quality that Johnson brings to this team is his experience and not just on the court. With the exception of graduate transfer C. J. Gettys, who is brand new to the program, there are no other seniors on the roster. Johnson is entering his fourth year of college, so his maturity and all that he has learned from his journey to get to this season should hopefully make him a leader for this team.
We all have high hopes for the Steve Pikiell era and we are just two weeks out from the start of practice. Hopefully, the new staff will reap the rewards of a possible gem that former head coach Eddie Jordan left them on the roster. Johnson played for Jordan on the AAU team DC Assault before he went to college, so that relationship is what brought Nigel to the banks. With a thin backcourt and many new players on the roster, Johnson has the potential to play big minutes this season. If he can be a compliment to Sanders and both of their games are elevated in the process, Rutgers will have the ability to compete at a higher level this season. The skill set of Johnson should also help free up Mike Williams and allow him to focus on his strengths this season. Johnson also could be the best backcourt defender on the team.
Let’s hope Johnson can fulfill his potential and help this program take a big step forward this season. As important as all the roster additions have been, Johnson should have the biggest impact. Here are highlights of Johnson at Kansas State and a recent clip from Rutgers promoting the beginning of a strong partnership in their backcourt. And that is something to be excited for!