Palmquist’s journey from Sweden helped him find a second family at Rutgers
"I'm not one of those guys who's gonna bounce around. I'm loyal to my team and the people who believed in me," Palmquist said in October.
Oskar Palmquist’s parents, Johan and Maria Palmquist, were visiting the country early last month to see their son play Division I basketball. They could not have chosen a better time.
The 6-foot-8 forward from Sweden did not play a single minute for Rutgers in the month of January, as the Scarlet Knights kept a tidy eight-to-nine-man rotation as they dug into Big Ten Conference play. On Feb. 1, last-place Minnesota was sticking around on Rutgers’ home floor, closing with 22-18 before Steve Pikiell called a timeout.
Among his substitutions, Pikiell sent Palmquist in the game looking to create a spark. And Palmquist delivered, making the first 3-pointer he attempted before going on to score a career-high 13 points.
I asked Palmquist if he felt the coaching staff had repaid him for his loyalty to the program, after he’d bided his time on the bench for that long.
“I don’t really look at it that way,” Palmquist said. “They got to make the decision that they believe can win the game. When my number is called, I’m gonna be ready. I’ll do anything for this team. I’m just trying to win.”
That same night, Paul Mulcahy said Palmquist had been “freaking awesome” as a team leader.
“Oskar may have not gotten the minutes he would like, but he comes to practice every day competing. That takes a lot, because dudes could check out and he doesn’t,” Mulcahy said. “I’m so happy he had a game like this.”
On a Rutgers team that has preached the joy of unselfish basketball, Palmquist has been a textbook fit. Pikiell is quick to praise the junior for what he brings in practice, for how he stayed ready for his moment. Now, due to the unforeseen circumstance of an injured teammate, Palmquist is playing the most minutes he’s seen in his college career, and his lefty 3-point shot might need to be an X-factor for Rutgers this March.
Palmquist’s journey to reach this moment required a leap of faith to cross the ocean, belief in the coaches who believed in him, perseverance during a global pandemic and patience as he grew his game away from the court.
Both Johan and Maria played basketball, but Oskar says it wasn’t his first choice. He idolized Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic and wanted to play soccer (the nearest ice hockey rink was too far from his house to be an option).
He tried out for basketball in the third grade and doesn’t remember why he didn’t like it back then. He returned as a fourth grader, and before he knew it he’d fallen in love with the game.
Palmquist’s height and athleticism soon made him a useful member of Sweden’s U-16, U-18 and U-20 national teams in FIBA competition. The development of his game still had a ways to go, and he set his sights on high-major D1 basketball as his next destination. He made his first trip to the States in fall 2019 for a prep year at Central Pointe Christian Academy outside Orlando.
It took less than two months for Palmquist and his nifty 3-point shooting stroke to garner D1 attention. Pikiell and Rutgers chief of staff Stephen Hayn made him his first offer, and before the end of the week he was taking an official visit to Piscataway.
Schools like Florida, Iowa, Cincinnati, Vanderbilt, Kansas State and Western Kentucky also offered Palmquist, but he’d already fallen in love with Rutgers and enrolled early in the spring semester of 2020.
We all know what happened a few months later. After making the leap to a new school in a new country, Palmquist’s freshman year was interrupted before he could get fully used to it all.
“Once COVID hit I traveled back to Sweden,” Palmquist told me last preseason. “There was some family stuff going on, so I had to go back home. But I wasn’t sure if I wanted to because I didn’t know if I could get back. That whole summer, I was just in the gym working but I didn’t know when I could get back. Literally the day that they opened up (borders) again, I just left (Sweden).”
Palmquist’s per-game averages in 2020-21 and 2021-22 look meager, but he was restricted by nagging injuries throughout those seasons. He’d be the first to admit it was hard playing behind Ron Harper Jr., who averaged 34.3 minutes per game last year. Yet Pikiell and his staff felt Palmquist would always give them something when they subbed him in, be it a 3-pointer, a rebound or an energy play. “He has the best feel for our program and what we’re trying to do,” Pikiell said in October.
“Being a glue guy, I’m trying to do a little bit of everything,” Palmquist told me then. “Move the ball, fight for loose balls, rebound. But also being in the second unit, being a leader for the freshmen. That’s something I’m taking a lot of pride in during the preseason. I’m just talking to them all the time, teaching them hard stuff.”
One game after Palmquist dropped 13 on an admittedly bad Minnesota team, Mawot Mag went down with a knee injury at Madison Square Garden against Michigan State. Now there was no question Palmquist would be given more minutes – Rutgers had no other choice.
Rutgers finished out that win over the Spartans but has gone 2-4 since. Neither Palmquist nor Aundre Hyatt have been able to match the defensive capabilities of Mag, and Mag was a much different type of scorer than Palmquist, who gets going from the outside and hasn’t driven to the hoop much yet this year.
But on a team making just 32.4% of its 3-pointers, Rutgers has sorely needed someone other than Cam Spencer (42.4%) to step up and make them a more dangerous offensive group in March. Palmquist is second on the team, humming away at 40.7%, and could be in position to take clutch shots whether off the bench or with the starting five.
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After Palmquist received the first two starts of his Rutgers career, Hyatt returned to the starting power forward role against Penn State. Coming off the bench, Palmquist hit two crucial 3-pointers early in the second half to aid Rutgers’ comeback from 19 points down for a 59-56 win.
I asked Pikiell whether that position would be matchup-dependent from here on out.
“We need everybody,” Pikiell said. “We love Aundre. … Aundre has been really good for us. We can move Oskar around to a lot of different positions, too. They’re very versatile guys. We need everybody on the roster. The next game could be Dean Reiber’s game. It could be someone else.”
Palmquist has another year of eligibility remaining, but because he’s finished his degree he will participate in Senior Night festivities on Sunday when Rutgers hosts Northwestern. Johan and Maria won’t be in attendance but have recorded a video message to Oskar for the occasion.
It’s destined to be another moment that unites Palmquist’s blood family in Sweden and what he’s called his second family, his basketball family in Piscataway.
“That’s what I was looking for, too, during my recruitment,” Palmquist said. “I’m not one of those guys who’s gonna bounce around. I’m loyal to my team and the people who believed in me. Transferring was never an option for me. I’m committed to this program and I really appreciate Coach Pikiell for giving me an opportunity to come here, Coach Hayn who recruited me. It’s my second family here, my teammates, my coaches. It’s an amazing experience being here.”
Welcome to March!
Thanks for stopping by and reading on this Thursday. It’s going to be fascinating to see how Palmquist contributes to Rutgers’ mission down the stretch and how Pikiell rotates him and Aundre Hyatt. I think we could see instances of Palmquist playing the three, if Caleb McConnell is ever in foul trouble, for example.
We’re just 10 days from Selection Sunday, so here’s what else is going on around the state, in a notes-and-observations section I like to call Cleaning the Glass:
Rutgers superstar freshman Kaylene Smikle scored 21 points in the first half of Wednesday’s first-round Big Ten tournament game against Northwestern. Yeah, Northwestern was the worst team in that league this year, but 21 in a half doesn’t come along often in women’s basketball. I don’t know how she didn’t win Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Smikle finished with 26 points, five rebounds and four steals in 31 minutes before fouling out, and without her available down the stretch Rutgers still hung on for a 63-59 win. The 11th-seeded Scarlet Knights face No. 6 Illinois today, and a win would set them up against Maryland, one of the top teams in the country, on Friday.
Seton Hall is locked into the seventh seed in the Big East tournament following Tuesday’s close loss to Villanova. In the first round at MSG next Wednesday, the Pirates will face DePaul, which seems just about as incompetent as Georgetown at the bottom of the league these days. Shaheen Holloway was clearly torn up about the Pirates not being able to win on Senior Night, saying he’d lose sleep. From the outside, it’s still fair to say his first season in charge of the program met or surpassed expectations. They had a couple of fun wins, finished seventh in the conference after being picked seventh in the preseason and possibly could earn an NIT invite. There’s room to grow off that foundation.
Fairleigh Dickinson advanced to the Northeast Conference semifinals by beating St. Francis Brooklyn, again, 83-75 in Hackensack last night. (I say “again” because they just ended the regular season by beating the same opponent on the same court – but you already knew that if you read the last edition of the newsletter. If not, well, consider this a plug.) Ansley Almonor – who won the conference’s Most Improved Player award – shot 7-for-11 and 4-for-6 from three to score 18 points.
From one St. Francis to another: The Knights will host St. Francis (PA) in the semis on Saturday. If they win, and if Merrimack beats Sacred Heart in the other semifinal, FDU is going dancing no matter what happens next due to Merrimack’s ineligibility for the NCAA Tournament.
I’ll write a broader conference tournament preview early next week, but two more New Jersey men’s teams besides FDU are starting before that. Monmouth tied with Hampton for last place in both teams’ first year in the Colonial Athletic Association; they’ll square off Friday to tip off the CAA tournament. NJIT, as the No. 8 seed in the America East, travels to No. 1 Vermont Saturday night with its season on the line. Hard to rate either team as having much of a chance to make it far, but look: The impossible and the improbable are what March is all about.