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How will Rutgers replace Ron Harper Jr.?

With the star forward officially staying in the NBA Draft, how the program aims to move forward with the frontcourt is worth evaluating.

Lehigh v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

As the beginning of summer approaches, more questions than answers remain for Rutgers men’s basketball in regard to the roster for next season. This timeline was to be expected with three players exploring pro options and the deadline to withdraw from the NBA Draft on June 1, along with the constant spinning of the wheel that is the transfer portal.

Before this week, two major questions had been answered. Rutgers found a competent and intriguing replacement for Geo Baker in Loyola-Maryland transfer Cam Spencer. And not one current player entered the transfer portal. This is a rarity as over 1,400 players are currently in the portal and Rutgers was one of just over a dozen teams out of 351 to not have anyone enter.

Now we have clarity on one of the three players to enter their name into the NBA Draft. All-American Ron Harper Jr. signed with Roc Nation this week and confirmed with Jon Rothstein that his intention is to stay in the Draft. He is currently competing at the NBA combine and was projected as a late second round pick or as an undrafted free agent signing prior to this week. Hopefully, he can improve his stock with a strong overall combine performance.

While it was expected that Harper Jr. would not return, the coaching staff wisely kept a spot open for him in case he changed his mind like Trayce Jackson-Davis did for Indiana on Friday.

In addition, the staff is holding a spot for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Caleb McConnell. After not receiving invites for either the NBA Draft combine and the G League combine, his pro options are likely to play internationally at this stage. It’s possible McConnell could chose to go that route. However, there is hope he returns and the program posted a video of him at the APC where he thanked Rutgers fans for their support as he received his DPOY trophy.

As for Jaden Jones, all signs are pointing to him remaining in the NBA Draft despite not being invited to either combine. He reportedly worked out for the Charlotte Hornets, it seems most likely he will attempt to play in a pro league outside the states next year. Like McConnell, he has until June 1 to officially decide as that is the deadline for early entrants to withdraw. Jones never entered the transfer portal, so if he returned to college it would either be at Rutgers or he’d have to sit out next season if he transferred elsewhere. It seems unlikely he will explore either path.

To review, Steve Pikiell has eight scholarship players set to return next season and welcomes incoming freshmen Derek Simpson and Antwone Woolfork. That leaves three open scholarships. With McConnell and Jones still able to return until June 1, let’s focus on the biggest question to result from this week’s news.

How will Rutgers replace Ron Harper Jr. next season?

It’s certainly a question the coaching staff has pondered since March in knowing it was more likely Harper Jr. would not return. Replacing Ron Harper Jr.’s production will not be easy, let alone the impact he had as a leader. He led the team in scoring the past two years, shot 40% from three last season and was the second best rebounder the past two season’s as well as a good defender. He didn’t always get as much credit as he deserved but his defensive stop of Aamir Simms with the game on the line was crucial in the NCAA Tournament victory over Clemson in 2021. It was the signature defensive moment of his Rutgers career as it helped deliver the program’s only March Madness win of the last four decades.

It’s certainly possible Rutgers will add a power forward from the transfer portal. However, despite so many players available in the portal, finding a big man that is Big Ten ready is not a given. We know Pikiell continues to evaluate options in the portal due to hosting St. Bonaventure point guard Kyle Lofton last week. He ultimately chose Florida, but Rutgers was all in with pursuing Lofton. So with him no longer an option, a potential McConnell return and Harper Jr. officially out of the picture, you would think Rutgers is evaluating potential contributors up front that are available in the portal.

That being said, I strongly believe that Pikiell has always planned on counting on returning forwards Aundre Hyatt and Mawot Mag next season. Both players showed flashes of being really good at times last season, but they struggled with consistent production and were non-factors too often. Their development this offseason, along with Dean Reiber, is likely going to be one of the biggest factors in whether Rutgers is able to have a winning season and make the NCAA Tournament. The trio was unable to score at all in both postseason games last season, so it’s fair to be concerned. However, those that bemoan the likely loss of Jones and his potential on the offensive end, the reality is that he was unable to beat out McConnell, Hyatt or Mag for minutes with all three having limitations offensively.

Hyatt averaged 12.8 minutes and Mag averaged 11.7 minutes last season, respectively. Both had challenges. Hyatt adjusted to a full-time roll off the bench after starting 15 games at LSU the season before. Mag dealt with multiple injuries including a reoccurring one with his jaw.

With Harper Jr. gone, they are both primed to get more playing time next season, even if Rutgers adds a big man from the portal. Remember, both have multiple years of eligibility remaining, Hyatt with two and Mag with three. That’s clearly a signal that Pikiell is all in on them becoming greater contributors next season and beyond. He’s invested in them and believes they will step up, even if fans have their doubts. Giving up on them or thinking they won’t progress would be shortsighted.

Even so, adding a power forward to the mix would improve depth at a minimum.

Perhaps Rutgers thinks that Antwone Woolfork can contribute next season, but that might be asking a lot of a player who was considered a football first prospect before he decided to focus on hoops at the collegiate level last year. The 6’7” freshman is raw but has a physical presence that could make him serviceable off the bench right away from a defense and rebounding perspective. However, I respectfully think it’s a big risk to count on any production from Woolfork in year one. I do think he has potential to develop into a capable big long term, but any contribution he makes next season should be viewed as a bonus.

Depending on what Rutgers does with the portal, they could also potentially move Dean Reiber to a stretch 4 role. He displayed his potential as a shooter away from the basket, along with his passing ability, hustle and basketball IQ. His deficiencies were on the defensive end and on the glass. Part of his developmental plan could be to bulk up Reiber to better prepare him to battle inside. He really is the only option to guard true centers other than Cliff Omoruyi, which is a concern based on last year’s results.

Adding quality big men off the portal is easier said than done. Rutgers missed on their two top targets last offseason with John Harrar staying at Penn State and Pauly Paulicap choosing West Virginia, where he was a non-factor. There are plenty of big men in the portal, but Rutgers hasn’t been publicly linked to any so I’d rather not speculate with so many possibilities existing. I would be completely shocked if KC Ndefo, a popular player that fans have clamored for, doesn’t ultimately rejoin his former head coach Shaheen Holloway from St. Peter’s at his new destination Seton Hall.

While I think it’s likely Rutgers is prepared to lean on their existing frontcourt on the roster, I also expect the program to add a big man still this offseason in some way. It could be a player added another way through another avenue outside of the portal. Ralph Agee was a late pickup out of the portal last year and it didn’t work out from a basketball standpoint. RU could look to add more of a developmental big if the staff has confidence in Woolfork being able to fight for minutes early on.

The focus on player development will always be a priority for Pikiell and this offseason requires significant progress in the frontcourt. It’s unfair to expect Hyatt, Mag, Reiber and Woolfork to come close to making the same impact individually that Harper Jr. did over the last few seasons. However, collectively this group needs to be relied upon to produce next season.

As of now, I think there is a good chance that Hyatt and Mag rotate at the 4 primarily. Reiber is likely to continue to back up Cliff, who should be expected to progress even more this season. What Woolfork can contribute remains to be seen. Rutgers does like having rotational flexibility and Hyatt can play the 3 or 4, while Reiber can play the 4 or 5 so if McConnell did return, Pikiell could tinker with several lineup combinations next season.

As the days gets longer, the wait until next season gets shorter. There are plenty of questions remaining but how effective Rutgers is at replacing the production of Ron Harper Jr. is as big as any for the program this offseason. Whether it comes internally or externally, doing so competently is vital to having success next season. It won’t be easy as Harper Jr. leaves a legacy as a Rutgers all-timer. This situation is one that fans have to put their trust in Pikiell and the staff to effectively manage one way or another. That’s what good programs do.