In Steve Pikiell's first recruiting cycle at Rutgers, one in which he had a very late start to, he was able to retain previous commit Issa Thiam, the 6'9" wing, and also reeled in unheralded Canadian forward Eugene Omoruyi right before the school year began. While both played significant minutes as freshmen and had their moments, neither turned out to be consistent contributors or difference makers during Big Ten play. Thiam struggled with finding consistency from three-point range and was limited offensively otherwise. He did become one of the best defenders on the team, but was unable to be a solution to the shooting woes Rutgers had as a team. Omoruyi was also raw on the offensive end and played out of control in stretches. His work effort was first rate, but he struggled to adjust to the speed of the game. He was a useful defender and rebounder at times, but it was clear he was learning on the job.
Here is the good news. Both players got valuable experience and Pikiell has praised them for their improved development this offseason. The prevailing thought is that Omoruyi is the most improved player on the team and there is hope Issa will become a consistent threat from behind the arc in his second season. Both of their careers have bright outlooks and they are essential in rebuilding the program. However, they need help from other young players on the roster as well, in order to build for the future as a team.
The even better news is that the three freshmen on the roster this season all seem more developed and better prepared to contribute right away than the two rookies from a year ago. If Rutgers is going to make progress in the win-loss column this season, it will be in part due to the positive impact the three freshmen will have made on this team. There are legitimate reasons to believe that they can help in a major way, as each has elements of their game that are sorely needed.
Mamadou Doucoure is Pikiell's first 4-star recruit and first recruit from New York City, so that alone makes him an important player in the rebuild of Rutgers basketball. His belief in the coaching staff was key in that his commitment last December helped with future recruiting efforts. His pledge began to change the narrative that Rutgers could land impact players on the recruiting trail. In addition, his willingness to reclassify and join the program a year early helps this team tremendously.
As I wrote in discussing the potential for the defense to improve this season, Doucoure should be an upgrade at center on that end of the floor. The more he can learn from assistant Jay Young in how this team needs him to defend near the rim, the quicker he will be a factor in conference games. Listed on the official roster as 6'9" and 243 pounds, he is physically ready to go to battle in the paint against frontcourt players in conference play. He should be a steady rebounder and could be a true rim enforcer early on in his career. While his offensive game will take longer to develop, Doucoure will add much needed toughness and an edge in the frontcourt this season.
Geo Baker, a 3-star combo guard from the New England prep circuit, may end up being the best shooter on the team. He brings several skills that were lacking in last year's backcourt. A strength of Baker's is creating jump shot opportunities off the dribble and that should be an asset for the backcourt this season. He also will provide more versatility with his size, as Baker will be the tallest guard at 6’5”. His ability to pass and handle the ball is also sorely needed, two basic fundamentals that Rutgers wasn’t good enough with last season. While JUCO point guard Souf Mensah will be the primary ball handler leading the offense when Corey Sanders plays off the ball, Baker can help in that regard as well. He should have a lot of opportunities to be on the court this season and depending on how strong of an on the ball defender he can be in conference play, Baker could be a very valuable, complete player for Rutgers.
3-star big man Myles Johnson brings major size to the paint for the Scarlet Knights this season, as he is listed at 6’10 and 264 pounds on the official roster. How he holds up physically against Big Ten competition will ultimately determine his impact this season, but he could surprise on the offensive end early on. When Johnson committed to Rutgers back in May, I asked longtime scout Joel Francisco, who watched him play many times throughout his high school career, what stuck out about his game. Francisco raved about his hands, passing ability and high basketball IQ. Pikiell has spoken about Johnson’s shooting ability during camp as well. He could prove to be a real weapon when opponents play a 2-3 zone against Rutgers, something that occurred a good amount of the time in Big Ten play last year, in an effort to force more shots from the perimeter. With his big body, Johnson appears to have the potential to penetrate zone defenses with his passing ability and if he can shoot with some consistency at the top of the key, he could be very effective.
One point Steve Pikiell has made previously is due to all of the adjustments freshmen have to make going from high school to college, they inevitably hit the wall at some point during their initial season. While it’s likely Doucoure, Baker, and Johnson will have their ups and downs in their debut campaigns on the banks, their respective skill sets lend to having an optimistic view on their potential to make a positive impact this season. There were many improvements that Pikiell needed to make when he took over the program, but adding talent to the roster was a top priority. These three freshmen are the product of Pikiell’s first full recruiting cycle on the job and their potential to make a difference in the trajectory of the program moving forward is immense. In terms of this season, their strengths and abilities could help this team achieve the first winning campaign for the program in 12 years.