Out of Africa: Freshman from Senegal gives Rutgers a shooter
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) Corey Sanders' expression is a dead giveaway.
Mention the name of freshman Issa Thiam and Sanders grins widely, his eyes lighting up. Sanders, Rutgers' leading scorer last year, needs help, and Thiam may be the shooter the team needs. After all, the Scarlet Knights shot just 41.8 percent last year.
''He takes a lot of pressure off everybody, and that makes him very valuable,'' said Sanders, who averaged 15.9 points as a freshman. ''When we're not having a good night, we're going to look for Issa to hit those big-time shots and he's shown he can. We had a scrimmage against Monmouth and he was like, five-for-seven-from three. He shows it every day at practice. He's a pure shooter.''
Rutgers fans get their first look at Thiam on Friday when the Knights begin anew with coach Steve Pikiell by hosting Molloy.
The 6-foot-9 wing player can hit 3-pointers and make defenses have to respect Rutgers on the perimeter for a change.
The Scarlet Knights are coming off a 7-25 season in which it was last in the Big Ten in 3-pointers, 13th in scoring (67.7 points) and 12th in 3-point percentage at 32 percent (161 of 503).
A native of Senegal, Thiam was first seen by Rutgers assistant Greg Vetrone at the Canarias Basketball Academy in Spain. He averaged 14 points and eight rebounds at Arlington Country Day in Jacksonville, Florida, last season, and gave a commitment to Eddie Jordan in February. When Jordan was fired but Vetrone retained, Pikiell officially signed Thiam in May.
''If you saw Issa in the first scrimmage, you would say he's the best shooter in the gym,'' Pikiell said. ''He's another worker who can shoot the ball. That's been an area of concern here. Any time you get a 6-9 guy that can really shoot the ball, it just brings a different dimension. And he's high energy. He's in the gym all the time and he's helped build a little bit of in-the-gym culture.''
Thiam, who speaks five languages and is still honing his English, prides himself on being a gym rat. He credits his father, Assane, for instilling that work ethic.
''My father tells me `You're going work hard every single day,'' Thiam said. ''When I was a little kid I was working hard every single day. I'd wake up at 5 a.m., go to the gym and work hard.
''Basketball is my life. Everything I do in my life, I only know how to work hard. I know working hard is what makes you better.''
What he did not learn from Assane, he picked up from watching Golden State's newest superstar.
''I like Kevin Durant, he's doing all that stuff, working hard,'' Thiam said. ''I watch every move and he does everything over and over again. Kevin's always played hard. I take that play-hard (attitude) from him, and keep trying to do even more.''
Thiam's propensity for practice has not been lost on Pikiell, who sees the freshman in the gym on weekends, early in the morning, and late at night.
''I shoot every day,'' Thiam said. ''I'm in the gym, shooting a lot of shots before I go home. And 5 a.m. comes, and I come here (to the gym) and shoot first because then I have to go to class.''
Thiam, however, does not wish to be known as a one-dimensional player who can just hit a jumper. He says he works equally hard on his defense and rebounding.
''A week ago I went baseline and shot a dunk on him and he blocked it, so that kind of stood out to me,'' Sanders said. ''He can block shots, rebound the ball. He's got long arms and can play defense so we'll try to use him every way we can.''