When head coach Steve Pikiell took over the Rutgers men’s basketball program in April 2016, he had a lot of work to do in regards to filling out the roster. With several players transferring out and not much of a recruiting class left behind by former coach Eddie Jordan, Pikiell ended up finding players from the JUCO ranks, a grad transfer, and two unheralded high school recruits near and far from New Jersey and Canada. However, it seems that the gem of Pikiell’s first recruiting class at Rutgers is a player that Jordan initially brought to the banks and whom he ultimately convinced to stay with the program.
Issa Thiam was a 3-star recruit who committed to Rutgers in February 2016, but reopened his commitment once Eddie Jordan was fired. Greg "Shoes" Vetrone was the lead recruiter for Issa and stayed on him during the entire coaching change process. Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell retained Shoes in a support role and his connections with the Canaris Basketball Academy and relationship with Issa paid dividends for the new coaching staff.
The 6’9” wing came to the program with a reputation as a sharp shooter from deep who could also defend. While Thiam had an up and down freshman campaign, there were plenty of moments that demonstrated the vast potential he has as a player. Coach Pikiell spoke several times about the wall that freshman typically hit in their first collegiate season and Thiam certainly was no exception. However, it should be noted that the adjustments he made last year was so much more than just basketball.
The native of Senegal had barely lived in the United States before this past year, spending time at CBA in the Canary Islands before finishing his high school career in Jacksonville, Florida. Issa was still getting comfortable with the English language this past year and one can imagine all the other aspects of daily life that he was learning in the states. All of that was on top of adjusting to the academic rigors of college, as well of the increased demands of playing basketball in the Big Ten.
All things considered, Thiam had a solid freshman campaign. While his overall season stats were modest (3.9 points & 1.7 rebounds in 18.4 minutes per game), he experienced more ups than downs. He started off his college career averaging 5.8 points and 2.0 rebounds in 21 minutes per game in his first eleven contests. He made multiple three-pointers in seven of those first eleven games and was 18 of 50 for 36% from behind the arc. Unfortunately with a little over a week before Big Ten play began, Thiam got the flu and it set him off track for awhile. He played just 3 minutes in a win over Fordham and didn’t play against rival Seton Hall. Issa ended up only playing double digit minutes in just three contests during a span that lasted over a month and covered ten games. He was just 1 of 12 from three-point range and scored just 9 points total in that ten game period.
It wasn’t until the last Saturday of January at Madison Square Garden that Issa became a factor again, playing a solid 15 minutes off the bench in a game that Rutgers lost in overtime to Wisconsin. He only scored 2 points, but it was his defense that stood out. As much as Issa got minutes based on his shooting at the start of the season, it was his play on the defensive end from this point on that earned him valuable time down the stretch. With a long wingspan and a willingness to play hard and fundamentally sound on that end of the floor, Issa became one of the best defenders on the team. It was plays like these two that show how scary he can become for opposing guards looking to pass the basketball around the perimeter:
That is certainly a sight Rutgers fans can get used to. While Issa was only 6 of 28 from three-point range and averaged just 3 points during the last ten games of the regular season, he played almost 24 minutes per contest and was on the floor during key stretches at the end of games. This was mostly because of his defensive play, while still being one of the best deep threats on offense on the team. In the regular season finale at the RAC, in which Rutgers defeated Illinois, Thiam played 34 minutes. Despite not scoring and taking just one shot, his defensive effort, especially in the second half, was tremendous and he played a key role in the victory.
Issa’s hard work throughout his freshman campaign was rewarded during the Big Ten Tournament. He looked like a different player on the offensive end, hitting big shots in the win over Ohio State and coming back the next night with another solid offensive effort in the season ending loss to Northwestern. In the two games, Issa scored 17 points combined and was 5 of 10 from three-point range. It was more than his shooting, as Issa looked the most confident and comfortable on the court than he had the entire season. Finishing his freshman year in such strong fashion had to do wonders for his confidence moving forward.
There are several things that Thiam needs to work on this offseason, which i covered along with the rest of the current roster here. He needs to bulk up his wiry thin frame to better hold up physically during the season. Issa needs to work on creating his own shot off dribble and being effective making shots from 10-12 foot range. He only took 30 two-point shots all of last season and needs to become more than a one dimensional threat on offense. Of course, he needs to also hone his strength and become more consistent from three-point range as well.
I’ve said it before, but Issa reminds me of Iowa star Peter Jok on the offensive end. Jok led the Big Ten in scoring last season. With Thiam three inches taller, I think he has the potential to become a dynamic offensive weapon like Jok, who averaged just 4.4 points as a freshman before posting just under 20 points per game as a senior. While Jok preferred shots from behind the arc, like Issa, his development of a mid-range jumper in the paint elevated his offensive game tremendously. With his height, quickness, and shooting ability, there is no reason to think Issa can’t develop the same way. The real key is Thiam’s attitude, as he has embraced the vision that Pikiell and the coaching staff have for both him individually and the team. He is a workhorse and truly loves the game of basketball, something Pikiell relishes in his players.
I think Issa is setting up to have a major impact next season and should be entrenched as the starting wing for the next three seasons. His versatility, defensive effort, and offensive potential are reasons why I think he has the highest ceiling of any Rutgers player on the roster. That’s not an insult towards Corey Sanders, but rather how much potential I think Issa has in his Rutgers career and beyond. There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the future of Rutgers basketball under Steve Pikiell and Issa Thiam should be near the top of the list as to why.