On Thursday, Caleb McConnell was one of 15 players named to the 2023 Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year Watchlist. He was one of ten that made the cut as a semifinalist last season. Of course, he was ultimately named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He’s having just as big of an impact defensively this season as well.
“Caleb McConnell is not only the best defender in the conference, but the best in the whole country,” head coach Steve Pikiell said earlier this season. “I can do so much more defensively with McConnell’s ability to guard positions 1 through 5. People always want to talk about scorers in this league. They should be talking about the amount of points Caleb takes off the board for the other team. He is paramount to our team’s defensive success night in and night out.”
“It’s an honor to be named to Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Watchlist along with some of the greatest defenders in college basketball,” McConnell said. “My defense is something I take extreme pride and effort in, and I appreciate the recognition. There is much more work to be done and I look forward to continuing to help my team win games as we look to take Rutgers basketball to new heights this season.”
Helping Rutgers win games is exactly what McConnell has done his entire career. However, this season he’s become a more complete player. As a result has made an impact in more ways. His defense remains elite, but he’s having his most productive and efficient season on the offensive end as well.
McConnell is shooting a career best 48.6% from two-point range, which well ahead of last season’s 44.4% mark. After a rare year off from the foul line last season when he shot 66.7% from the charity stripe, he’s back to his career norm at 78.1% this season.
Scoring wise, his average of 9.9 points per game is by far the highest of his career. He’s scored in double figures in nine of fifteen games this season so far. Last season, he scored in double digits eight times in 32 games.
Another aspect of his offensive game is he’s getting to the foul line in Big Ten play at a much higher rate then last season. He has a free throw rate of 27.4% in conference play, more than doubling last season’s mark of 13.7%. Getting to the foul line more often and being more efficient there is a big reason Rutgers is on pace to shoot over 74% from the charity stripe for the first time in 51 years.
His assist rate is 18.4% and he’s averaging 3.2 assists per game. Both are up about a third from last season. His turnover rate is 5% less than last season at 19.4%.
McConnell’s rebounding average of 5.5 per game is just 0.2 higher than last season. However, his offensive rebounding rate in Big Ten play is 6.8%. That is 20th best in the league.
It was apparent as soon as McConnell made his season debut after missing the first five games due to a knee injury suffered in the preseason that he was improved on the offensive end. Here is the video I made detailing the ways McConnell was contributing offensively in a positive way in his first few games back in December.
Of course, defensively he is still the best defender on a Rutgers team that is currently No. 2 nationally in defensive efficiency. While the entire rotation is near the top of the Big Ten for player defensive ratings, McConnell remains at the top. He routinely defends the best player for the opposition. His defensive display in shutting down Jalen Pickett down the stretch in the win over Penn State was the latest example. However, McConnell also had six points and 4 rebounds to go along with a block and steal in the final 12 minutes of the 20 point victory over the Nittany Lions.
While he has struggled with shot selection and three-point shooting, as well as making a couple of mistakes in key spots this season, McConnell has proven to be even more valuable to Rutgers than ever before. McConnell’s coachability and desire to be the best player he can be is his driving force. His leadership and poise are intangibles that can’t be quantified. However, those aspects of him as a player have contributed in a major way to the connectedness and team chemistry this season. It has helped propel this team near the top of the Big Ten standings.
The fact that McConnell is contributing at such a high level in so many ways is even more impressive when realizing he routinely faces some of the most difficult individual matchups in college basketball. This advanced data from Even Miyakawa shows that McConnell ranks No. 9 nationally in regard to going head to head with the toughest competition this season.
Ever wonder which players have played against the toughest competition?
Here are the players who have faced the strongest opposition, based on the average Bayesian Performance Rating of opponent players faced on each possession👇 pic.twitter.com/7Z1T6Bi7Sp
— Evan Miyakawa (@EvanMiya) January 26, 2023
In speaking with Pikiell on Thursday by phone, he explained how much of an impact McConnell is making for the team this season.
“He gets all the attention for his defense but he passes the ball, he rebounds the ball, he brings it up, plays a lot of different positions, he scores for us, he makes free throws,” Pikiell stated. “He’ll block shots obviously. We all know what kind of steals guy he is. He’ll guard one through five too. He’s a winner and does a lot of things now to stuff the stat sheet. His game keeps evolving and he is truly a worker. He works at it, embraces film, he embraces practice. He’s a great example for the younger guys too that just work.”
The fact that McConnell has battled numerous injuries throughout his career also makes what he is accomplishing this season all the more impressive. He’s been through a lot and has gotten stronger from it.
McConnell will always be counted as a revered forefather of the rebirth of Rutgers basketball along with Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. However, it may end up that his greatest individual impact is helping this current team to the best season for the program in a very long time. Rutgers fans need to appreciate what the skinny, under recruited 3-star recruit from Florida has become. He has made a huge difference for this program. Regardless of how this season ends, it seems likely it will be his best individual performance in a Rutgers uniform. Whether McConnell repeats as Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year or earns national accolades remains to be seen. However, his positive impact will be felt within this program for years to come.
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