Caleb McConnell carved himself out a valuable role as a defensive stopper and glue guy for the Rutgers basketball program.
Now he’s going to see if he can do it on the next level.
The 6-foot-7 senior guard announced he will enter the NBA Draft process Monday, five days after fellow senior Ron Harper Jr. did the same. Both have a fifth year of collegiate eligibility remaining. Unlike Harper, who is definitely moving on, it’s possible that McConnell could decide to return to college. He said in a social-media post that he will maintain the option to return.
McConnell averaged 7.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game this past season as the Scarlet Knights finished 18-14 after making a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance for the first time since the mid-1970s. With an ability to defend four positions, point guards through power forwards, was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He led the league in steals with 70.
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“Caleb McConnell has been the ultimate ambassador for our program on and off the court,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “I want to congratulate Caleb on what he has given the Rutgers program in his four seasons as a Scarlet Knight. He is an unbelievable person and has one of our best all-around players on both sides of the floor. He chose Rutgers and has helped our program become what it is today. I have watched him grow from a freshman to an elite defender on any level. I truly believe he is not only the best defender in the Big Ten Conference, but the best defender in the country. I wish Caleb and his family the best in exploring the 2022 NBA Draft process.”
At the moment he doesn’t project to be drafted.
Though his defense is up to NBA standards — twice this winter he harassed projected first-round pick Johnny Davis of Wisconsin into poor shooting performances — McConnell shot just 39 percent from the field and .271 from 3-point range as a senior, figures that mirrored his career averages (.388 and .280). He did perform best in the biggest games, logging 13 points and 10 rebounds in last year’s NCAA Tournament win over Clemson and 23 points (on 10-of-12 shooting) with 11 boards in last week’s Big Dance loss to Notre Dame.
At Rutgers, McConnell’s contributions always went way beyond what showed up in the box score. Lightly recruited coming out of Ohio, he was a model teammate and consummate hustle player from day one on the banks. Content to let Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. dominate the headlines and highlights—and take the lion’s share of the shots—he was the third leg of the three-legged stool that served as the foundation for Rutgers’ rise from the ashes.
He also overcame a slew of injuries, including painful back problems that dogged him until midway through last season. This season, finally healthy, McConnell put the full range of his defensive acumen on display. His come-from-behind transition block at the end of Rutgers’ home rally past Ohio State in February enters the Scarlet Knights’ pantheon as the symbolic play of his time here.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.