PISCATAWAY — Derek Simpson is well aware of the comparisons. They’ve come up on multiple occasions during his first summer on campus with Rutgers basketball.
“I’ve had football players come up to me, and say, ‘What’s up Lil’ Geo?'” he said. “I’m like, ‘My name’s Derek.’”
He said it with a smile after Monday’s 90-minute, full-team workout. You can’t blame someone for seeing the similarities to Geo Baker, who just concluded one of the most impactful careers in program history. The 6-foot-3 freshman was an all-state guard at Lenape High School, but like Baker, he flew well under the national recruiting radar. He possesses a good deal of Baker’s mien on and off the court. And he’s wearing No. 0.
“It’s been cool to be recognized,” Simpson said. “To be compared to somebody like Geo is blessing because he was a great player who wore No. 0 here.”
Baker made an immediate impact as a freshman in 2017, in part because Rutgers was building from scratch when he committed. Simpson faces much more competition in the backcourt, but his performance Monday certainly was up to the task. He made shots, exploded to the rim and pestered the defense.
“As you saw, he’s one of the most athletic guards we’ve had since Corey Sanders,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “He’s above the rim, he shoots the ball effortlessly, has a good feel for the game. Now he’s just kind of learning our defenses and things we want him to do. But his ceiling is tremendous and he’s been very coachable, which I really like.”
In a one-on-one full-court drill Simpson paired against Cam Spencer, a sharpshooting transfer guard from Loyola-Maryland who projects to start, and more than holds his own. For the record, the other pairings were Paul Mulcahy vs. Jalen Miller, Mawot Mag vs. Aundre Hyatt, Antwone Woolfolk vs. Oskar Palmquist and Cliff Omoruyi vs. Dean Reiber (transfer forward Antonio Chol is due to arrive later this month and Pikiell is allowing postgrad guard Caleb McConnell to spend some time with family in Florida).
“It’s been nothing but learning,” Simpson said. “It’s a totally different experience, especially on defence. In high school you’re getting screened by 6-2, 6-5 guys. Now I’m getting screened by 6-10 guys every day.”
The early returns are promising. Pikiell singled out Simpson to take the first “pressure” free throw of Monday’s workout, about 30 minutes into the action. Miss it, and everybody runs wind sprints.
He made it.
1-Cliff Omoruyi is building out his range.
The junior center is as forceful as they come around the rim, and you could see him adding polish as last season unfurled. That progression continues. Omoruyi looks comfortable shooting from about 15 feet in. Pikiell said he’s giving the 6-foot-11, 240-pounder the green light to shoot jumpers.
Given his superb conditioning, look for Omoruyi to log 32-34 minutes per game, foul situation permitting (he averaged 28.7 minutes last season). He’ll often be the first option for Rutgers’ offense and will have a real chance to become the program’s first player to make first-team All-Big Ten.
2. Mawot Mag is poised for a big role.
Asked which teammate has impressed him most this offseason, Omoruyi cited junior forward Mawot Mag. Mag also was the first name out of Mulcahy’s mouth when talking about the supporting cast. Pikiell talks up all his players, but he’s mentioned Mag unsolicited numerous times this offseason.
Mag has suffered a series of physical setbacks during his career, from his ankles to his jaw to his eyes, but the feeling from Pikiell on down is that he’s ready to put it together as a reliable combo forward. He was one of the best players in Monday’s workout.
3. Jalen Miller made two head-turning hustle plays.
The sophomore guard got up, way up, to stuff Mulcahy (who is four inches taller) during the full-court one-on-one. He also knocked Omoruyi down, which is like topping a brick wall, during a screen-coverage drill. It probably would have been a foul in game action, but it was a window into the intensity Miller brings. He’ll have a role in the rotation.
4. Antwone Woolfolk looks the part
The 6-foot-9, 250-pound freshman from Cleveland has the build of a veteran Big Ten power player. He has much to learn — after playing football through high school, this is his first time hooping during this part of the calendar — but on a guard-heavy roster he seems physically advanced enough to have a role at the back end of the rotation. Although Pikiell is not opposed to redshirting a player for developmental purposes, the guess here is that Woolfolk suits up.
5. Who will step up to take the big shot?
A whole lot of points and leadership exited with Baker and Ron Harper Jr. It’s impossible to answer this question until later, and it certainly can’t be divined from watching one workout, but it’s always interesting to see how Pikiell orders the “pressure” free throws at the end of practice.
Pikiell calls on a player, who takes one free throw with the rest of the team watching from the baseline. Miss it, and everyone has to wind sprint to the other baseline and back. Remember, they’re pretty gassed at this point.
Here’s how it went down at the end of Monday’s workout, in order:
Those last two, spots often reserved for Baker and Harper in the past, could be a window into future endgames.
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at email@example.com.