Qudus Wahab– The 6’11 senior joins the Penn State basketball team with one year of eligibility left after an up-and-down first 4 years. After his second stellar season at Georgetown where he averaged about 13 points and 8 rebounds a game he decided to transfer to Maryland, but things didn’t go as planned. He played just 19 mins a game and struggled with the more physical play of the Big Ten at times. He entered the portal again after that season and decided to go back to Georgetown. This time around however the team was worse and more dysfunctional which led to pretty much everyone on the roster struggling at times including Wahab. Wahab now returns to the Big Ten as the projected starter for the Penn State basketball team. He is your traditional center, physically imposing, almost all his buckets come at the rim, and he loves to block shots. He sometimes plays overly aggressive and gets himself out of position on defense and on offense he’s got a little back-to-the-basket game but most of his points will be assisted. On paper he seems like a really nice fit with Ace and Kanye, being a big-bodied screener that can allow those two to get downhill and attack the opposing teams big.
Favour Aire– On the opposite side of the spectrum is Favour Aire, a 6’11 freshman who comes to Penn State with 3 years of eligibility left after playing just 38 minutes total for Miami as a freshman. Favour was a top 120 prospect in the 2022 high school class according to the 247sports composite ranking. He was ranked 119th nationally and he was the 22nd-ranked center, one spot below former Penn State basketball big man Kebba Njie in both categories. Aire is another inside-scoring big man, but he does it more with his athleticism and length than his physicality. He was profiled as a very good defender in high school, using his length to erase shots at the rim with solid switch ability thanks to his athleticism. He looked very raw in his limited minutes at Miami but the sample size is so small it is impossible to really determine anything from them. This is an upside pickup but with the potential to also contribute this year.
Demetrius Lilley– The 6’10 freshman center from Philly is the third and last player from last year’s roster returning and he played just 14 minutes in total for the Penn State basketball team this past season. Lilley was a 3-star recruit in the 2022 recruiting class and ranked as the 276th player nationally and the 38th-ranked center. He’s a more physically dominant player that bangs with guys down low and plays hard. He needs to work on his skill in the post and his defensive IQ and awareness down low and defending the pick and roll. Despite not playing much last year Lilley could be looking at a more prominent role this year with the backup spot behind Qudus Wahab looking to be a competition between him and Favour Aire.
How it all fits:
Coach Rhoades and the rest of the staff worked hard to get depth at every position and make this a strong overall team and I think they accomplished that goal. This depth does however make it a bit difficult to project how all the pieces will fit together. I am going to start out with what I think the best starting lineup would be and we will go from there.
PG- Ace Baldwin
SG- D’Marco Dunn
SF- Zach Hicks
PF- Puff Johnson
C- Qudus Wahab
The PG and center spots are easy. Ace Baldwin is a true star that has played with coach Rhoades back at VCU. He will be relied on to lead this team on and off the court and set the example for what is expected. Wahab has spent his entire career in the Power 6 conferences and brings immense experience to the position. Even besides his own ability and experience the two other centers on the roster, Favour Aire and Demetrius Lilley, have combined for under 100 minutes played total in their careers making it very unlikely either one can take the job from Wahab. The other three spots are a lot harder to lock down. I picked D’Marco Dunn to ultimately win out in the shooting guard battle because I believe he will show the best mix of shooting and defense and be the best fit next to Ace. Hicks gets that start at the small forward spot but will likely be moved around a lot in different lineups. Nick Kern, who started most of the season at VCU last year, is absolutely in play to start but I just feel he does not shoot well enough to fit with the rest of the starters. Puff Johnson gets the start at PF in a relatively easy decision after slotting Hicks at the 3. Puff brings the defense, hustle, and intensity you want at the 4 spot with the potential for an expanded offensive game with more minutes and opportunity.
As mentioned before, I think whether he starts or not Nick Kern will have a huge role on the team. The defense and athleticism he brings will be huge when trying to shut down an opposing team’s star. Another player I expect to factor in heavily is Kanye Clary. Clary is arguably the second-best player on the team and while I do think he and Ace would make a great pair, more on this in a bit, they are both just too small to start together. Ace is listed at 6’1 and Kanye at 5’11 and while both are intense and feisty defenders, Ace even having a DPOY to his name, their height just makes them an easy mismatch for the bigger guards and forwards of the league. While they likely do not start together I still expect Ace and Kanye to play a good amount of minutes together. You obviously want your best players on the court as much as possible but even beyond that, I think they fit really well on offense together. Ace is already a decent shooter but his catch-and-shoot numbers are through the roof compared to his overall 32% from deep. Having another PG that can help set him up in Kanye could be huge for his scoring and having both out there to just relentless pressure the rim will put opposing defenses in a tough position.
RayQuawndis Mitchell should also have a decent role off the bench bringing a nice scoring and shooting punch to the offense. Leo O’Boyle should slide into that backup power forward role and add the three-point shooting many lineups will likely need. I have my worries about him on defense in the big ten but there is no doubt he is a fantastic shooter. Ultimately I’m picking Favour Aire to win the backcourt center role because he brings a lot more athletically to the position than Demetrius Lilley and even Wahab. Jameel Brown also has an opportunity to earn himself a nice role with his outside shooting and his on-ball potential that he has not got the opportunity to show off yet. Bragi will probably get some garbage time minutes, but ultimately I expect this year 1 to be mainly about development for him both physically and with his decision-making.
The high-intensity defensive system run by Rhoades makes the depth of this team even more important. The starters won’t be able to play the whole game as we saw from Pickett and Lundy at times down the stretch. The bench will be really important in determining how far this team can ultimately go.
Overall, I like the look of this roster. Ace is the key and if he keeps up his play this team could go far. On defense the outlook is great. The team is filled with long athletic players that should be able to get turnovers at a great rate and really up the pressure on opposing offenses. The question marks for the Nittany Lions come on offense. Beyond Ace, a lot is up in the air. You obviously hope guys like Dunn and Puff excel with an expanded role and guys like Hicks and Mitchell are able to make a nice transition to a higher level and up their efficiency with better teammates to set them up similar to what Funk was able to do last year. We just won’t know those answers till this team actually gets out on the court, but despite a few misses in the portal, the staff did about as good as they could have in building basically an entire roster from scratch. With most of the team having eligibility beyond just this year Penn State basketball is positioned well for this season and beyond as they look to kick off the Rhoades’ era at PSU with a bang.