How will Rutgers replace Ron Harper, Jr.?

With the start of summer fast approaching, more questions than answers remain at Rutgers men’s basketball regarding the upcoming season’s roster. That schedule was predictable with three players exploring pro options and a June 1 NBA draft withdrawal deadline, along with the constant spin of the wheel that is the gateway to the transfer.

Prior to this week, two main questions were answered. Rutgers found an interesting and efficient alternative to Geo Baker in the Loyola-Maryland Cam Spencer transition. No current player entered the transfer portal. This is a rarity as there are currently over 1,400 players in the gate and the Rutgers were one of over ten teams out of 351 that no one entered.

Now we have clarity on one of the three players to have his name entered in the NBA draft. All-American Ron Harper Jr. signed with Roc Nation this week and confirmed With John Rothstein that his intention to remain in the draft. He is currently competing on the NBA group and was expected to be a late second-round pick or as an undrafted free signing agent before this week. Hopefully he can improve his stock with a solid overall performance.

While Harper Jr. was not expected to return, the coaching staff wisely kept a spot open for him in case he changes his mind as Trace Jackson Davis did for Indiana on Friday.

Additionally, the staff holds the position for Senior Defensive Player of the Year Caleb McConnell. Having not received invitations to pool NBA Draft and G League together, his professional options will likely play internationally at this point. McConnell will likely choose to go this route. However, there is hope that the program will return Post a video From him at APC where he thanked Rutgers fans for their support as he was awarded the DPOY Trophy.

For Jaden Jones, all signs point to him staying on the NBA draft despite not being called into the combine. He is said to have worked with the Charlotte Hornets, and it looks like he will most likely try to play in an out-of-state professional league next year. Like McConnell, he has until June 1st to officially decide because that’s the deadline for early entrants to drop out. Jones has never entered the transfer gate, so if he goes back to college, he will either be at Rutgers or have to sit out next season if he moves elsewhere. It seems unlikely that he will explore either path.

To review, Steve Pikiell has eight scholarship players due to return next season and welcomes new freshmen Derek Simpson and Antwone Woolfork. This leaves three scholarships open. With McConnell and Jones still able to return through June 1, let’s focus on the bigger question that will emerge from this week’s news.

How will Rutgers replace Ron Harper Jr. next season?

It’s definitely a question the coaching staff has been thinking about since March to find out that Harper Jr. will likely not return. Replacing Ron Harper Jr.’s production wouldn’t be easy, not to mention the impact he made as a leader. He has led the team in scoring for the past two years, hitting 40% of three last season and has been the second best player in the last two seasons as well as a good defender. He didn’t always get the same recognition he deserved, but his defensive stop for Aamer Sims when the game was on the line was crucial to the NCAA Championship win over Clemson in 2021. It was a defining defensive moment in his career at Rutgers as it helped him deliver the March Madness Program win. The only one in the last four decades.

It’s definitely possible for Rutgers to add strength forward from the carriage gate. However, even though there are many players in the gate, finding a huge guy who is ready for the Big Ten is not easy. We know that Pikiell continues to evaluate options in the portal due to hosting Saint Bonaventure goalkeeper Kyle Lofton last week. He eventually chose Florida, but Rutgers was after Lofton. So no longer an option with him, the potential return of McConnell and Harper Jr. officially out of the picture, you might think Rutgers is pre-evaluating potential contributors available in the portal.

However, I strongly believe that Pikiell has always planned to rely 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 in constant production and were often not factors. Their development this season, along with Dean Reiber, will likely be one of the biggest factors in whether the Rutgers are able to win a season and win the NCAA Championship. The trio couldn’t score at all in both games after last season, so it’s only fair to worry. However, those bemoaning Jones’ potential loss and his potential on the offensive end, the truth is that he wasn’t able to beat McConnell, Hyatt or Mag for minutes with offensive limitations on all three.

Life averaged 12.8 minutes and mag averaged 11.7 minutes last season, respectively. Both had challenges. Hayat was adjusted to the full-time bench after starting 15 games at LSU the previous season. The mag handled multiple injuries including a repetitive injury to his jaw.

With the passing of Harper Jr. , both are poised to get more playing time next season, even if the Rutgers add a big man out of the gate. Remember, they both have several years of eligibility remaining, a life with two and a mag with three. This is clearly a sign that Pikiell shares them all in becoming even bigger contributors to next season and beyond. He’s invested in them and thinks they’ll go up, even if fans have their doubts. Giving in to them or thinking they won’t progress would be shortsighted.

However, adding forward power to the mix should at least improve depth.

Rutgers may think Antwone Woolfork can contribute next season, but that could demand a lot from the player who was considered a top footballer before deciding to focus on league-wide rings last year. The 6’7-inch freshman is raw but has a physical presence that could make him immediately serviceable off the bench from a defense and rebound perspective. However, I respectfully think that relying on any Wolffork production in the first year is too risky. I think he has the potential to develop to a long and capable range, but any contribution he makes next season should be considered a reward.

Depending on what Rutgers does with the gate, they could also move Dean Reaper into an extended role 4. He demonstrated his potential as an off-the-basket shooter, along with his passing ability, basketball hustle and basketball intelligence. His flaws were on the defensive side and on the glass. Part of his development plan might be to gather the Reaper to better prepare him for the fighting inside. It’s really the only option to protect real positions other than Cliff Omoruyi, which is a matter of concern based on last year’s results.

Adding quality men out of the gate is easier said than done. Rutgers missed the two main goals off last season with John Harrer staying at Penn State and Paulie Policap picking West Virginia, where he wasn’t a factor. There are a lot of big guys in the gate, but Rutgers hasn’t been publicly linked to any of them, so I’d prefer not to speculate that there are a lot of possibilities out there. I’d be absolutely shocked if fan-demanded KC Ndefo doesn’t eventually join former coach Shaheen Holloway of St Peter’s at his new destination Seton Hall.

While I think it’s possible that Rutgers are ready to rely on their current front area on the roster, I also expect the program to add a big man who is still off-season in some way. One of the players can be added in another way through another path outside the gate. Ralph Agee was a late driver last year and was unsuccessful from a basketball standpoint. The RU can look to add a further major development if the staff has confidence in Wolfork’s ability to fight for minutes early.

Focusing on player development will always be a priority for Beckel and this off-season has required significant progression in the frontal area. It’s not fair to expect Hyatt, Mag, Reaper, and Wolfork to come close to making the same solo impact that Harper Jr. has made over the past few seasons. However, this group must be counted collectively for next season’s production.

As of now, I think there’s a good chance that Hyatt and Mag will basically spin 4. Reiber will likely continue to support Cliff, who is expected to advance further this season. What Wolffork can contribute remains to be seen. Rutgers likes to have rotational flexibility and Hyatt can play 3 or 4, while Reiber can play 4 or 5, so if McConnell returns, Bekele can mess with several line-ups next season.

As the days increase, the wait until next season gets shorter. There are still many questions, but how effectively Rutgers will replace Ron Harper Jr.’s production is as big as any show in this off-season. Whether internally or externally, doing so efficiently is vital to success in the upcoming season. It won’t be easy as Harper Jr. leaves. Legacy like the Rutgers all along. This position fans must put their trust in Pikiell and staff to manage effectively one way or another. This is what good software does.