One of my favorite proverbs is this: “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” I think it’s especially true when applying this to sports or, really, any team in any industry. When the media covers sports teams, it’s natural that the stars and key contributors get the most attention. Just like the heads of companies do, they get the glory when things go well and receive the blame when their organization fails or falls short. However, every successful group needs every member contributing in a positive way, no matter how big or small.
College sports are different than professional sports in many ways, but one aspect I love are the many stories over the years of walk-ons making an impact in multiple sports. You hear more about players earning scholarships after walking on to play college football because the roster size is so much larger. It’s a great story when they do, especially when they become key players for their programs. Rutgers has had several very successful former walk-ons over the years, including Shaun O’Hara, Gary Brackett, Michael Burton and Paul James.
Rarely do college basketball walk-ons become scholarship players, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the potential to make a big impact. Two of the most famous college basketball walk-ons were Jeff Hornacek at Iowa State and Scottie Pippen at Central Arkansas. Hornacek ended up having his jersey retired at Iowa State and had a very solid 14 year NBA career. Pippen went on to win 6 NBA Championships, had his jersey retired by both Central Arkansas and the Chicago Bulls, was a member of the original 1992 Dream Team, is in the NBA Hall of Fame and was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history. Not bad for a former walk-on.
At Rutgers, the most famous walk-on for basketball that I found was actually Jim Valvano, who quickly earned a scholarship and became one of the best players in program history, as well as being named Senior Athlete of the Year in 1967. I never realized he was, to be honest, but how can I doubt the great John Feinstein. Or Jimmy V’s brother, Nick, who spoke about him walking on here.
In terms of the last few years, Khalil Batie was solid off the bench in his career and his best performance, a 6 point game against New Hampshire, helped avoid disaster and secured a 4 point win during the 2014-2015 season. Last year, Jake Dadika played in some big spots and proved to be a stabilizing force at times.
Regarding next season’s roster, there are four walk-on players, including Dadika. Let’s look at the backgrounds of each and what they offer the program on the court.
Luke Nathan - Freshman
The 6’10” big man is from Randolph high school in New Jersey, where he was a three year varsity starter and made First Team All-County and All-Conference, had back to back triple doubles in the state tourney as a senior and made the New Jersey North-South All-Star game. In the last victory of his high school career, he led Randolph to a North I Group IV Quarterfinal win over Morristown. Nathan had 24 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocked shots in avenging a state tournament loss from the previous season.
On the AAU circuit, he played for a time with Sports U on Nike EYBL circuit.
Nathan at a minimum, should be a valuable practice player and push the big men on the roster. He needs to bulk up his wiry frame and improve his footwork, but he is a solid walk-on who could develop over time. His high school coach Matt Tighe certainly thinks so, and told Chris Manderioli of Tap Into Randolph in this article that Nathan’s work ethic makes him a great fit for Rutgers:
“I think Luke has the chance to surprise some people this year and contribute immediately, and that was coach Pikell’s pitch for him to come to Rutgers. They are very limited with ‘bigs’ and Luke's desire to be better is something none of these scouting services can measure when predicting how a kid will impact a college program.”
“My advice to Luke was to be the best version of himself that he can be. Be attentive and trust what the coaches have laid out. I believe that coach Pikell and his assistants are as good as any staff out there at developing big men.”
Great endorsement for the staff and adding Nathan only helps build relationships within the state. Let’s hope Nathan, who was recruited some by Patriot & Ivy League schools, can help this team progress on the practice court this season and perhaps, provide some spot minutes in games.
Joey Downes - Sophomore
Downes is the all-time leading scorer at Sandwich high school in Massachusetts and was the 2015 CapeCod.com’s Player Of The Year. They called Downes one of the best athletes in the history of Cape Cod and here is a great profile on his high school career. He then played a post-grad year at Bridgton Academy in New England. While he is just 5’11”, Downes is known as a hard worker in practice and he helps push the backcourt. He also helps to run the opposition’s offense during game preparation during the season. Downes is a capable and useful walk-on to have on the roster. He didn’t play a game last season, but cheer for him when he makes his debut this year.
Aaren Smith - Sophomore
The 6’6” wing was a Second Team All-county selection at Mount Hebron high school in Maryland, before playing a post-grad year at Brewster Academy with uber-talented roster which included current UConn point guard Jalen Adams, former St. Anthony’s center Taurean Thompson, now at Syracuse, as well as the 13th pick in last month’s NBA Draft, Donovan Mitchell. While not highly recruited, Smith has the athleticism to provide a daily challenge in practice for his teammates. He only played in one game last season, so hopefully he gets a few more opportunities this year, which would give him some precious minutes on the court and likely mean that Rutgers is winning by a large margin.
Jake Dadika - Senior
If you watched Rutgers the past couple of seasons, you should already know Dadika. However, did you know he is the all-time leading scorer in Spotswood high school history, averaged 26.0 points per game as a senior? Now you do. He joined the program as a preferred walk-on and is a legacy, as his father Rick was an 1,000 point scorer for Rutgers back in the late 80’s.
I was a proponent for Jake to get more playing time than he received during the 2015-2016 season, with the roster riddled with injuries and he looked more steady on the court than a couple scholarship players. Last season, he quickly earned coach Pikiell’s trust, playing in 11 games and was the top walk-on on the roster. He knows his role and does a good job keeping the ball moving on the perimeter in the halfcourt offense. Dadika helped Rutgers upset Illinois in the last home contest of last season, dishing out two big assists on back to back Mike Williams three-pointers that changed the game. This is what coach Pikiell said about his performance after the game:
“He was great. Corey looked very tired. I wanted some great energy. I wanted to reverse the ball, I was tired of it not moving from side to side and I trust Jake. He does a great job everyday in practice. He got right in and did exactly what he was supposed to do and he was ready to play. Happy for him and I thought that gave Corey a blow for down the stretch, when he had to do some big things the rest of the game.”
Heading into his senior season, Dadika is a trusted player off the bench that Pikiell will surely call to spell guys and give the team a lift in certain spots. It’s invaluable for the program to have a walk-on like Dadika and he is a great example for the other non-scholarship players on the roster to learn from.
All four of the walk-on’s on the roster work really hard for the program and deserve our appreciation. They all had excellent high school careers and likely could have played more so at some other level of college basketball. However, they chose to walk-on at Rutgers and the program is fortunate to have them. They don’t get the glory, but they certainly play a key role in helping this team get better. When any of them do get in a game this coming season, make sure to give them an extra cheer. There is no doubt they’ve earned it.