Making the transition from high school to college as a normal student is a major life transition. Doing it as a student-athlete is even more so. Jaden Jones made the jump into the Big Ten in the middle of a global pandemic last January as a mid-year enrollee at Rutgers. So it made sense that head coach Steve Pikiell was careful in how Jones was integrated into the team. He played 11 total minutes over four games, scoring 3 points and dishing out 3 assists.
With last year’s experience behind him, Jones was able to hit the ground running with his development in the offseason.
“It helped me a lot,” said Jones at media day last month. “Getting in and seeing these guys in what they do, all the plays. I able to soak in a lot.”
Jones continued, “It helped me prepare. Getting in the weight room with my trainer and getting stronger. Training with the guys on the team. Forming a bond with my teammates off the court. I feel like the offseason has helped a lot.”
One thing that did help in Jones’ transition to college ball and Rutgers was doing it alongside a familiar face. His former high school teammate, Mawot Mag, had joined the program months earlier as a true freshman. They played one season together at high school powerhouse Prolific Prep, who were ranked No. 1 in the country at one point when they both played there. Both were key contributors to that team.
In joining Mag at Rutgers, Jones explained, “It’s cool having an old friend here. We hang out a lot together off the court as well, so we are very close. Having him on the team is very good and I think we are going to have a lot of fun playing together. We are going to be very good together.”
Mag was effusive in his praise of Jones, stating “It’s great. I love playing with Jaden. He’s a phenomenal player. He can shoot the ball. We are two big guards and I can’t wait to play with him.”
Rutgers fans should be excited about the potential of both players, who are expected to come off the bench as part of Steve Pikiell’s core rotation this season.
“Jaden’s going to be really good. He can really score. Like any freshman, he is playing against veterans every day. He has days when he is really good. He can pass the ball, has great size. His stand still three’s, he can shoot the ball as good as anybody. There is always that learning curve. You don’t go from high school to playing Purdue without having a learning curve. But he is getting better and better. The weight has helped him too. He’s become more durable.”
Jones said that the 20-plus pounds of muscle he has put on in the offseason has helped him mentally as well. “Getting stronger has helped me get more confident because in college, everybody is strong,” said Jones. “I think that I’ve gotten a lot stronger and it’s helped me a lot on the court.”
As for how the 6’8” Jones expects to contribute this season, he said, “I feel that I’m a two-way player that is versatile. I can score and am also a very good defender. I can guard 1 through 3 and I can help us win.”
I’ve said multiple times since his arrival that I believe Jones is the most talented basketball player Pikiell has brought to the program during his tenure. His potential is immense, but patience will be needed in his development. With that being said, Jones has the ability to be an impact player on both ends this entire season. He plays with a certain confidence and fluidity that stands out on the court.
As for Mag, Pikiell said that “Mawot has been our best defender along with Jalen Miller.”
Mag was in line to be part of the core rotation last season, but an early season injury with only four non-conference games limited his development time and opportunities came less often during Big Ten play. He ultimately played in 12 games last season, averaging 2.0 points and 1.1 rebound in 5.6 minutes per game.
The 6’7” wing said, “I’m going to do whatever it takes to help my team win. Rebound, score, defend, whatever it takes. When I go into the game, I want to bring energy.”
Mag’s ability to defend multiple positions will be key from a matchup perspective once Big Ten play begins. While he didn’t see big minutes as a freshman, his limited experience and a full offseason along with also gaining a lot of muscle should help him take the next step this season.
A key difference with this season’s team is that unproven players like Jones and Mag will be needed to contribute from the opening tip of the first game. With a core rotation last season that was comprised of every player having been with the program for multiple seasons, it’s essential that the younger players step up.
Ron Harper Jr. praised the work ethic of the younger players in the program and explained how they have been a positive influence on the entire team.
“Cliff (Omoruyi) and Mawot, their roommates. Jaden Jones and Jalen Miller are roommates. Those four guys meet each other in the gym early in the morning, late at night. They’re always doing the right thing in the classroom and on the basketball court,” Harper Jr. commented.
He continued, “It motivates me to be better and motivates everyone to be in the gym. We are hard workers. We’ll have a two-plus hour practice, have a lift and then you’ll see guys afterwards putting up shots for an hour. That’s something you rarely saw my first few years here. It’s a hard working group. They know what their goals are and they want to get there”
One characteristic about this team that multiple players and coach Pikiell have spoken about heading into the season is the great team chemistry that exists with this group. The veteran players are leading and the younger players are learning from them. Accepting roles has been a major focus.
“I’ve had a lot of veteran guys that have helped me and we will make me successful this season,” said Mag. “I feel like they’ve done a good job helping me improve my skills.”
Jones echoed that sentiment, stating, “They’ve helped a lot. Ron and Geo are always giving me advice. Telling me to watch film and also helping me with stuff off the court too.”
While Cliff Omoruyi’s development at center is the biggest key and Paul Mulcahy’s impact on the offense is crucial, an underrated storyline is the importance of the Rutgers bench this season. Pikiell can’t afford to play Geo Baker, Ron Harper, Jr. and Caleb McConnell 35 minutes or more per game in Big Ten play. He has to rely on the bench for production during the gauntlet they’ll play in the conference schedule.
New role players for this team are going to have to contribute in a significant way. Aundre Hyatt is a proven veteran who can help this team in many ways. Ralph Agee might be the best big man on the offensive end of the Pikiell era and he’ll need to be productive off the bench as well. However, how Jones and Mag perform with the lights on in key spots off the bench will also have a major impact on this season. How high the ceiling for Rutgers ultimately becomes will be determined in part to their development. They have the talent and the work ethic. Now it’s time to do it. Their first chance is November 10 in the season opener vs. Lehigh.
Our season preview podcast episode is here: