“There’s no such thing as freshmen anymore.”
This simple phrase has been repeated countless times by Penn men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue to his talented crop of ... first-years? Rookies? Novices?
Regardless of their distinction, his point is clear: Fifteen games into the season, it’s high time for this skilled class to lose the softening nomenclature.
Enabling and facilitating this de-branding process has been the class’s stellar play. Starting with AJ Brodeur, Donahue’s recruits have instantly made an impact. The forward has led the Quakers, averaging 14 points and 6.9 rebounds per game while never missing a start. As a result, he’s quickly morphed into a primary option on offense as well as a top priority on opposing scouting reports.
“Obviously, AJ has played a huge role for us, starting every game, scoring and rebounding,” Donahue said. “He’s been a presence right from the start, but the other kids are developing too.”
For fellow freshman Ryan Betley, that development was never more apparent than Saturday night’s contest against St. Joseph’s, when the sharpshooting guard exploded for 15 points in only 23 minutes of action. For the first time all year, Betley’s athleticism was on full display, as he was able to drive by defenders with ease.
Also contributing to the Quakers’ cause has been freshman guard Devon Goodman, who has started two games and played meaningful minutes in many others.
With those three potentially forming the nucleus of the future, Penn’s outlook is as bright as it has been in years.
Although Brodeur, Betley, and Goodman might be the guys who get the ball rolling, they’d all be quick to tell you that this freshman class has even more in store down the road.
“As far as guys who don’t play as much, [Jakub] Mijakowski stands out as a player that will make big contributions in the future because he’s a tall shooter,” Betley said. “He fits in coach Donahue’s system really well. I think he has a chance to be a very good player.”
According to coach Donahue, Betley’s assessment of the kid they call “Kuba” is on point.
“Kuba, coming from a different country, has had language-oriented issues, understanding terminology and communicating, but in terms of work ethic, size, skills, and athleticism, Kuba has everything you need to be a really good Ivy League player,” Donahue said.
Along with Mijakowski, there seems to be a consensus that Ray Jerome will perform an important role down the road.
“Ray has been sick, which has hampered him, but he’s been really good at times,” Donahue said. “I’m really confident that all these freshmen will end up making an impact on our program.”
A major reason for the successful cultivation of production from this talented class has been the atmosphere in which these freshmen operate.
“We’re all really great friends. We hang on and off the court. We can talk to each other about anything,” Goodman said. “We get advice from each other and give advice to each other. We really are a family, and that will show on the court as we move on.”
The nightly dinners and constant companionship reflect the culture that coach Donahue is attempting to build, a culture that the freshmen have absorbed and spearheaded.
“The kids have done a great job buying in,” Donahue said. “They all work really hard. They’ve all had great academic first semesters. They’re really learning what college is about, and they’re doing it together.”
The cohesive nature of the group will play a crucial role as the rookies begin their first experiences with the physical and emotional gauntlet that is Ivy League play. Their talents have allowed for Donahue to throw them into the proverbial fire, an experience that should only strengthen their bond as well as their play.
As far as future accomplishments for the class, Donahue was hesitant to speculate, but it is apparent that these freshmen have major aspirations.
“I want this class to be one of the very best to come through Penn,” Goodman said. “I think we have the talent to do it.”
Pairing that abundant talent with a familial environment just might be the winning formula for this program, and these freshmen have the next four years to prove it.
Perhaps Donahue put it best: “It’s a class that could help us hang another banner here.”
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