Wednesday marked the beginning of the early signing period for college basketball and it has been a busy couple of days for Rutgers. As expected, 3-star wing Ron Harper Jr., highly touted JUCO forward Shaq Carter, and 4-star guard Montez Mathis have all signed their national letters of intent with the program. This is an impressive class in just the second full cycle on the recruiting trail for head coach Steve Pikiell at Rutgers.
The fact that all three players made it official during the early signing period is a big step forward for the program. In recent years, Rutgers typically had multiple scholarships still open for the current class in late spring and summer. It was an issue with former head coach Eddie Jordan, while it was more a reality of rebuilding the program for Pikiell before this fall. However, now the 2018 class is already signed and if any spots do become available after this season (no open scholarships as of now), the staff will have flexibility in how they proceed. There isn't any pressure of having to fill out a class this cycle because all three recruits signed early. It gives the staff the opportunity to put most of their energy in recruiting the 2019 & 2020 classes. This is major progress for a program still rebuilding.
The 2018 class is a balanced group, as all three players bring different skill sets to the program. Here are the newest members of the Rutgers men's basketball program.
Ron Harper Jr.
Harper Jr. led Don Bosco Prep to its best season in decades last winter, as the Ironmen won their first non-public A title in 47 years and made it all the way to the Tournament of Champions Final. In perhaps the best game of his career, Harper Jr. had 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 blocks in the TOC semifinals in an upset of Linden, the best public school team in New Jersey.
The 6'6 wing averaged 10.1 points last season, but had a breakout summer. Harper Jr. was named a standout performer at the Oladipo Skills Academy in July. Rutgers offered him soon after and despite holding offers from Nebraska and Miami (OH), the alma mater of his father, Ron Sr., who was an All-American there before a 15 year pro career in which he won five NBA titles, Harper Jr. verbally committed to Rutgers in early August. He is rated a 3-star recruit by Rivals, but not by any other services. However, Harper Jr. is still developing his game and his body. His versatility and family pedigree, (in addition to his father, his mother was a great player at the University of New Orleans), give credence to him having a lot of upside and hope that he develops into an impact player on the banks.
From the Rutgers press release:
"He's been great for us in his progression as a player, on and off the court," said Don Bosco Prep Head Coach Kevin Diverio. "I think his best days are ahead of him. I don't think he's near the kind of player that he will end up being. I think that potential was what Rutgers saw in him that some other people missed out on. He comes from a great family, with both his mom and his dad being Division I players. His game has evolved since last year. He's been a leader on our team and someone that we look to score, rebound and defend. He's really embraced his role and run with it. "His versatility is his biggest strength," Diverio continued. "He can play and score both inside and outside, he has great court vision. He passes the ball well. He's not one dimensional, I think down the line he'll be able to guard multiple positions. His teammates love him. He is a great teammate and I think that goes a long way in creating team unity. I can't say enough about him as a person."
Ron’s versatility & skill set made him an ideal target for us. He’s a winner, a worker, and his best Basketball is ahead of him. Very excited to officially add him to R program. https://t.co/LqRA4J6BaG— Steve Pikiell (@CoachPikiell) November 9, 2017
The 6'9" power forward was recently named one of Street & Smith's preseason JUCO super sophomores, as Carter enters his second season at powerhouse Eastern Florida State. He averaged 9.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks while shooting 56.6% from the field in helping his team reach the JUCO national championship game last season. The 6’9” Carter took official visits to Rutgers, Xavier, Washington State, and Middle Tennessee State in the past six weeks and held over a dozen mid to high major offers. They include Purdue, Auburn, Iowa State, LSU, Wichita State and Memphis, according to 247 Sports. Carter committed last month soon after former pledge, Mac McClung, changed his mind and ended up committing to Georgetown, where he signed his letter of intent on Wednesday. Shaq actually fills a bigger need than McClung would have, as he is a natural replacement for Deshawn Freeman and could be the best frontcourt scorer on the roster next season.
From the Rutgers press release:
"First and foremost, Shaq is an unbelievable person, not just a great basketball player," said Eastern Florida State head coach Jeremy Schulman. "Rutgers is getting just a person with great character and personality. Shaq is an unbelievably hard worker, he's tough, and he's incredibly coachable. He also has immense upside since he hasn't been playing basketball that long. He has the strength, the physicality and the toughness to make an impact in the Big Ten from day one. I think he's an outstanding, ready-made pickup for Rutgers."
Shaq checks all the boxes. Winning pedigree, terrific player, even better person. Thrilled to officially welcome him to R family. https://t.co/iu1s0h3eJS— Steve Pikiell (@CoachPikiell) November 9, 2017
Mathis is ranked the 78th best prospect in the 2018 class and 16th best shooting guard, according to 247 Sports composite rankings. For perspective, Corey Sanders was ranked 81st and former Rutgers great Myles Mack was ranked 83rd in their respective classes. Pikiell and staff worked hard in recruiting Mathis, who was their number one priority in the 2018 class. Their persistence and Pikiell’s genuine approach paid off, as Mathis verbally committed in August, surprising most analysts in choosing Rutgers over UConn in a hotly contested recruiting battle.
With the addition of Mathis, Rutgers will also feature guards Geo Baker and Quinnipiac transfer Peter Kiss next season, as well as point guard Souf Mensah. Even if junior point guard Corey Sanders leaves after this year, which is undetermined, Rutgers will have plenty of talent in the backcourt next season and Mathis could be the most athletic of them all. His slashing ability, willingness to defend, and shooting touch make him a very intriguing and exciting prospect within the program.
From the Rutgers press release:
"Montez is a super tough kid," said The John Carroll School Head Coach John Zito. "He can really score the ball from all over the floor, from all three levels. He's gotten much better over the last two years. He can really get to the basket, he can finish through contact, and he's really good in the open floor. He's a really good defender. His size and athleticism, along with his skill set allow him to do some things that a lot of guys can't. "He's just a great, great kid," Zito continued. "He's a little more on the quiet side, but is a really funny kid. He gets along really well with all his teammates. He's very respectful and just a pleasure to be around."
Overall Class Assessment
This class is a big win for head coach Steve Pikiell and the staff. Mathis has the game and mindset they are looking for, as well as the reputation as a national recruit that helps change perception of Rutgers by signing him. Carter is a perfect replacement for Deshawn Freeman and gives Pikiell an older, more experienced player to mix in with a roster that will be young next season. Harper Jr. gives the program a local player with major upside and shooting ability. All three have big game experience. Mathis played in some highly anticipated AAU games this past summer and shared a backcourt with 5-star point guard Immanuel Quickley. Carter plays for the preseason #5 JUCO team in the country and played in the national championship game at that level last season. Harper Jr. was the second best player on Don Bosco, which surprised the entire state in making the Tournament of Champions Final.
All three of these players are winners. That fact alone is huge in rebuilding a program like Pikiell is with Rutgers. One of Pikiell’s sayings this preseason has been instilling the mindset of “we before me” and he has commented how all three players are highly coachable, which is another important trait. Most importantly, all three have legitimate talent and offer different skill sets from each other, making this a balanced class.
If a player on the current roster ends up leaving after this season, the staff only have to worry about filling that spot and have the security of having Mathis, Carter, and Harper Jr. already signed. That helps tremendously in stringing together multiple impact recruiting classes, as the staff can focus on future classes, particularly the 2019 class. The biggest takeaway from all three 2018 recruits signing the past two days is that the program got better before the new season even tipped off. The rebuild continues, but progress is certainly being made.