Penn State men's basketball freshmen will have opportunities to make early contributions

Penn State men’s basketball freshmen will have opportunities to make early contributions

Micah Shrewsberry‘s first Penn State men’s basketball team was a veteran group with more than half of its scholarship players in either their fourth or fifth years of college basketball and zero true freshmen.

The complexion of the roster in Year 2 for Shrewsberry will look much different. There are still a number of experienced veterans on the roster — the Nittany Lions will have five fifth-year players in 2022-23 — but Shrewsberry and his coaching staff are welcoming a five-man freshman class this summer that figures to be a foundational group for the program.

The group—guard Jameel Brownguard Kanye Claryforward Demetrius Lilleyforward Evan Mahaffey and forward Kebba Njie — will arrive on campus later this summer to begin the Penn State offseason program. It’s the start of their college careers, and it’s a base for Shrewsberry to build off of, both in the Bryce Jordan Center and on campus.

“I think first and foremost, they got to get familiar with school, with the surroundings,” Shrewsberry said last week at the Penn State Coaches Vs. Cancer Golf Tournament. “They got to start off well in their classes so they get six credit hours where they’re ahead. I think that’s one of the most important things, and then from there, really getting ingrained in our culture of how we do things: Where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there. Little things like that, small details that will help them be successful in college, first and foremost, before they even step on the court.”

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The quintet, which was ranked No. 27 nationally in the 247Sports Composite rankings, will be joined by a trio of graduate transfers in guard Andrew Funk (Bucknell), forward Michael Henn (Denver) and guard Camren Wynter (Drexel).

Shrewsberry emphasized that all five freshmen will have the chance to earn playing time and carve out roles within the Nittany Lions. But the roster construction features a need down low that Lilley and Njie could both have the opportunity to fill.

Lilley stands 6-foot-10, while Njie checks in at 6-foot-9. Lilley would have been the tallest player in the 2021-22 Penn State roster, while Njie would have tied with John Harrar and Greg Lee as the tallest player on the team. Harrar and Lee, though, are gone, along with the 6-foot-8 Jalanni White and 6-foot-7 Jevonnie Scott, who’s departure was confirmed earlier this week. Forward Caleb Dorseya junior, was the tallest returning player at 6-foot-7.

Henn, who also played for Portland, Cal Baptist and UC-Davis, in addition to Denver, also adds some size at 6-foot-8. Mahaffey, a four-star prospect from Archbishop Moeller (Ohio), also adds some size and length at 6-foot-7.

But Lilley, a three-star from Lower Merion, and Njie, a three-star from La Lumiere (Ind.), not to mention the rest of the freshmen, will face a steep learning curve in an occasionally rugged Big Ten.

“You want your guys to be ready right away and it’s on us to make them ready,” Shrewsberry said. “I think there’ll be some growing pains like with any freshman, but there’s also opportunity as well. When you see that, when you have young guys that are hungry, young guys that want to produce, the opportunity is out there. Everybody wants to play. When you don’t have as many barriers in front of you, you have more of an opportunity, then it shows how bad you really want it. So it’s all about us as coaches getting them ready. This will be a big summer for us.”

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Harrar’s departure leaves a notable void in terms of leadership and intangibles, but his impact on the field can’t be discounted, either. He was one of only two players in the Big Ten to average a double-double last season — the other being star Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn — with 10.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Harrar also averaged 3.65 offensive rebounds per game, and he proved valuable in getting Penn State second chances while the Nittany Lions played at a slower tempo last season.

The ability for Penn State to hold its own on the boards next season will be significant, but Shrewsberry also emphasized that he’s going to play only players who can help the team. If someone isn’t there yet in their development, he won’t play, and Shrewsberry proved himself to be flexible and malleable with his lineups and philosophy last season.

“You guys know I’m not traditional anyway, so if those two big guys aren’t ready, we’ll just play five small guys,” Shrewsberry said. “I’m just going to put whoever out there is going to help us win in the best way, and it’s my job to figure out how to beat people.”

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Shrewsberry will have a potentially fun roster at his disposal this season. The freshman class provides an infusion of youth and talent. veterans Jalen Pickett, Myles Dread and Seth Lundy are back after occupying key roles last winter. And Funk and Wynter are two scorers who are transferring up to a team where they won’t necessarily be the focal point for opposing defenses.

It’s an intriguing mix. But Penn State will need those freshmen to take the right steps in their development this summer into the fall.

“We want to get them better,” Shrewsberry said. “It gives me a chance — even though we had a chance to recruit them, this gives me a chance to really get your hands on them. You think you know what you have, but you don’t really know until you get a chance to work with them. We get them in our own setting, in our own environment and try and see what they really can do and then put them into our system and make them the best players that they can be for us this year.”

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