Lukas Harkins dives into five under-the-radar freshmen to note heading into the 2021-22 college basketball season.
Incoming freshmen are the ultimate “mystery box” in college basketball. While recruiting analysts and rankings do their best to project how newcomers will impact the sport, nobody is ever a “sure thing.” Even some five-star recruits don’t quite meet expectations. Additionally, there are players each year who come from seemingly nowhere to be huge contributors to their teams.
Those under-the-radar first-year players are part of what makes college basketball great; sometimes it just takes a chance.
Is it too early to call any incoming low-ranked freshman the “next Ja Morant” or the “next Damian Lillard”? Of course, the season hasn’t even started yet. Those two, however, are both examples of the phenomenon that is the unpredictability of freshmen contributors. It takes the right situation for a recruit to pan out according to plan, and there are booms and busts across the nation each and every year.
While highly touted transfers and five-star recruits garner most of the offseason headlines, there are always diamonds in the rough waiting to be uncovered. As the 2021-22 season looms, freshmen across the country are eager to get their first taste of college basketball.
Here are five potential under-the-radar recruits who could blossom into significant performers both this season and beyond.
Erik Reynolds II, Saint Joseph’s
Saint Joseph’s is just 11-41 (5-25 A10) in the Billy Lange era thus far. It has admittedly not been pretty. On the bright side, Jordan Hall’s return after both testing the NBA Draft and transfer portal waters should ignite some optimism. The arrival of freshman guard Erik Reynolds to pair alongside him in the backcourt should do the same. The 6-2 guard could start from Day 1.
Reynolds is a flat-out bucket-getter who should thrive in SJU’s up-tempo system. He previously held offers from Xavier, Seton Hall, and Georgetown — as well as a number of other A10 schools — before committing to the Hawks. Reynolds is shifty and quick off the dribble, and should immediately put pressure on college defenses with his shooting and driving abilities.
Reynolds’ 3-point shooting will be very important to monitor. Saint Joseph’s has been top-5 in 3-point attempt rate in each of the past two seasons but sub-280 in efficiency on those attempts. Coach Lange will continue to preach high-volume shooting from three, but the Hawks need to be more effective on those attempts.
Hall and Taylor Funk are going to be the leaders for Saint Joseph’s this season, but Reynolds could be the X-factor who helps them rise up the A10 rankings. Just a simple leap into the middle of the pack would be a welcomed sight after the last two seasons.
Jayden Taylor, Butler
Butler is returning 96.8 percent of its minutes from last season, which will inevitably make it difficult for freshmen to make immediate contributions. However, local product Jayden Taylor has quickly made it clear that he could warrant playing time from the onset of his career. The 6-4 guard out of Perry Meridian (Ind.) can be a necessary spark-plug scorer off the bench for the Dawgs and has received glowing reviews from the coaching staff thus far:
“Jayden [Taylor] is a combo guard with great size. He’s adjusting from high school to college but comes from a really good program and is well-coached. He’s transitioning, getting better, and will be a good piece for us moving forward.”-Butler assistant coach David Ragland
The Dawgs figure to be a defensive-oriented group but Taylor is an excellent shooter with solid self-creating skills. There are several reasons to believe Butler will shoot the ball better this season, and Taylor’s addition is among them. He averaged 25.5 points per game on .502/.376/.785 shooting splits as a high school senior last season. His shooting accuracy will be welcomed with open arms given Butler’s struggles at the stripe and beyond the arc last season.
Butler is a veteran-laden team this season, but the coaching staff might have a difficult time keeping Taylor off the floor. He is as smooth as they come and has a confidence about him that cannot be understated. The Dawgs run a pick-and-roll heavy offense that is at its best with high-scoring guards getting to their spots. Sophomore star Chuck Harris is poised to be the team’s leading scorer, but Taylor could be the guy to fill that role among the bench unit.
RJ Keene, Boise State
Boise State has ranked in the top-150 nationally in 3-point attempt rate in each of head coach Leon Rice’s 11 seasons at the helm. Spacing the floor and connecting from distance is a clear program staple at this point, and incoming freshman RJ Keene should fit like a glove. The 6-7 sharpshooter out of Texas boasts excellent size for the wing and is an absolute sniper. His 135 made 3-pointers as a junior ranked 12th among all recorded high school players in the country.
He shot a career 256-for-694 (36.9 percent) from beyond the arc over three documented seasons. More than just a shooter, he also dished out over four assists per game as a senior and is a solid athlete. Keene’s size and quick trigger make him a viable candidate to crack Boise State’s rotation early in his career. While the Broncos return 72.9 percent of their minutes from last season, their bench is quite shallow. This opens the door for Keene to make an immediate impact.
Boise State is mostly projected to finish in the second tier of the Mountain West this season behind the likes of San Diego State, Colorado State and Nevada. In order to compete for the conference title — and an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament — the Broncos need someone to emerge as a scorer off the bench.
Watch out for Keene to be a real threat to win Freshman of the Year in the league.
Ajay Mitchell, UC Santa Barbara
UC Santa Barbara has won 20-plus games in each of its first four seasons under head coach Joe Pasternack. This includes an NCAA Tournament berth this past year as a No. 13 seed. Guard play is paramount to success in the Gauchos’ system, and it feels like Ajay Mitchell could be the next star of the program. While perhaps not set to start as a freshman, the Belgian guard is a superb creator with great size.
Mitchell was a member of Belgium’s national team at the 2021 FIBA U20 European Championships this past summer. He averaged 11.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game while shooting 90.5 percent at the free-throw line. He struggled from the field but generally has a strong track record as a shooter. Above other characteristics, though, he has tremendous playmaking potential.
Adjusting to the cross-continental move and the college game may take some time, but Mitchell is a polished talent with a bright future.
“Ajay [Mitchell] is going to be a combo guard for us. He’s got great size for a point guard and excellent decision-making ability. He’s just getting acclimated to the American system right now. He comes from a great family in Belgium, has loads of experience, and should be a good piece for us.”-UC Santa Barbara head coach Joe Pasternack
Coach Pasternack noted that working to replace JaQuori McLaughlin, now of the Dallas Mavericks, will be a challenge taken on by a committee. Returning juniors Ajare Sanni and Josh Pierre-Louis, as well as transfer additions Calvin Wishart (Georgia Southern) and Zach Harvey (Cincinnati), will make up that group in addition to Mitchell. Cracking the rotation as a freshman will be a great start to what should be a great career in The American Riviera for Mitchell.
Jalen Blackmon, Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon is known for having one of the rowdiest student sections in the country. Since moving to D-1 in 2014, the Antelopes have also been the primary contender to New Mexico State’s stranglehold on the WAC. They were finally able to get over the hump this past season by snatching the league’s automatic bid and hopes are high for a repeat this season. The program has generally been defensive-oriented from a statistical standpoint, but incoming freshman Jalen Blackmon will provide an offensive punch that is hard to ignore.
Blackmon is an electric 6-3 combo guard who just knows how to fill it up. That is perhaps most evident in how he finished his high school career — the Indiana native put up 48, 52, and 55 points in his final three games at Marion (Ind.), respectively. His 33.5 points per game for the season ranked tops in the state. This came on the heels of missing most of his junior season due to an ACL tear. He finished his career ranked 18th in the state’s total points leaderboard even while only playing eight games as a junior.
Blackmon posted career shooting splits of .477/.385/.831 in high school. That is elite-level efficiency for the sheer volume at which he was shooting (1448 total field-goal attempts). This is especially true given that over half of those field goal attempts were from 3-point range. Blackmon is a hardwired scorer and could emerge as a valuable depth piece for Grand Canyon right away before blossoming into a starring role later in his career.
Header image courtesy of Butler Athletics.