Princeton’s freshman class of ‘hidden gems’ is ahead of the curve
Four of Princeton's top 10 contributors are true freshmen whose talents have translated to Division I in a hurry. Coaches dish on Caden Pierce, Deven Austin and more.
PRINCETON – Harvard managed to keep Princeton at bay for much of the second half of Saturday’s Ivy League season opener. Chris Ledlum was scoring from all over the court, and the Crimson had forced Princeton star Tosan Evbuomwan into a couple bad shots. By the under-12 timeout, Harvard clung to a 46-44 edge.
To complement another highly efficient shooting day from center Keeshawn Kellman, the Tigers needed others to step up. Caden Pierce was the first to answer the bell.
On their first play out of the timeout, the Tigers swung the ball around to Pierce in the left corner for a 3-pointer. The starting wing had scored just one point before burying the shot. After Kellman scored again, Pierce poked a Harvard pass loose and was home free for a dunk that thrilled the Jadwin Gym crowd of nearly 3,000.
Before Harvard could stop the bleeding, Pierce was left open in the same corner for another triple. The 10-0 run gave Princeton an eight-point lead – at that point, the largest of the day.
Harvard charged back to within 69-66 in the final five seconds, at which point the Crimson had a chance for one last heave. Princeton coach Mitch Henderson trusted not one but two freshmen, Pierce and Deven Austin, to play defense in that moment. Sam Silverstein’s ¾-court pass to Ledlum was wrestled away by none other than Pierce.
“He’s a winner. Comes out and makes winning plays,” said teammate Blake Peters, who led Princeton with 13 points. “This is definitely not his first rodeo.”
Princeton could have had a difficult time reloading after starters Jaelin Llewellyn, Ethan Wright and Drew Friberg graduated from last year’s regular-season Ivy champion team. But the Tigers have not faced the doldrums of a rebuild, chiefly because four of their top 10 contributors are true freshmen whose talents have translated to Division I basketball in a hurry.
The full class of five rookies – Pierce, Austin, Xaivian Lee, Jack Scott and Vernon Collins – has tackled first-year college life as a unit, sticking together between practices, classwork and meals.
“We’re always hanging out, so I feel like we got really close off the court,” Lee said. “… We have a lot of chemistry when we’re on the court. I feel like that’s because we’re so close off the court too.”
Their effectiveness also can be credited to a coaching staff that believes it’s found ideal fits for the program and doesn’t see a reason to apply training wheels. I asked Henderson if he approaches coaching a freshman-heavy team any differently.
“Not at all,” Henderson said. “In fact, I would be doing them a disservice if I changed, in my opinion. I think it’s important we treat them like players. If I told them that they were freshmen all the time, they’d start to rethink what they’re doing. There’s guys their age playing in the NBA, killing it across college basketball, and why not?
“Play. You’re sophomores now. Play.”
Glenbard West High School, a public school in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, had a 2021-22 season to remember. The Hilltoppers’ only loss came to Sierra Canyon (Bronny James’ school) on a buzzer-beater; they blitzed their local competition and won the Illinois Class 4A state title.
On a team starring Braden Huff, the state’s Mr. Basketball who’s now at Gonzaga, and featuring other players headed to Illinois and Davidson, Caden Pierce was “the heart and soul, the glue guy,” coach Jason Opoka told me.
Pierce’s 6-foot-6 frame gave him versatility to play at the point, on the wing and in the post for Glenbard West. “And what people really loved about him was his knack defensively and his ability to offensive and defensive rebound,” Opoka said.
That last asset goes a long way to explain why Pierce was so attractive to the Tigers. Wright and Friberg were tenacious rebounders on both ends of the court. Pierce has picked up some of that slack. He’s already had 11- and 10-rebound outings, averaging 5.4 per game to go with 6.4 points and 39.5% shooting from three.
With Matt Allocco and Ryan Langborg elevating into Princeton’s starting lineup, the only preseason question mark in the starting lineup was who’d join them in the backcourt. Once Pierce got in Princeton’s gym in the fall, he filled in that blank.
“(Princeton) thought he could be seventh or eighth man. That was our early conversations,” Opoka said. “But now, once fall hit, it’s like ‘Coach, we’ve got him starting.’”
One common thread running through these freshmen’s stories was a high school junior year altered or erased by the pandemic. The junior season is the most important in a player’s evaluation and college recruitment, but in 2020-21 players like Scott and Austin had to play dramatically abridged seasons, with fewer opportunities for scouts to get a look.
On the other side of the equation, it didn’t make Brett MacConnell’s job any easier either.
Princeton’s associate head coach has also served as recruiting coordinator since 2015. It was a challenge for MacConnell and his fellow coaches to get allowance into gyms to watch workouts in person. Zoom calls were ubiquitous, and after a time, tedious for everyone involved.
At the same time, he saw an opening. As major-conference programs focused on using the transfer portal and retaining veterans gifted an extra year of eligibility, some high schoolers were going overlooked.
“We really felt like there was an opportunity for us to take advantage of a time when some of these kids weren’t being recruited as heavily or evaluated in as much depth or detail as they had been in the past,” MacConnell told me. “We really felt strongly that these guys … were underrecruited and hidden gems in a way.”
Lee, a Toronto native, couldn’t play in Canada in 2020-21 and began looking for an American prep school. Cordell Llewellyn – Jaelin’s father and a basketball icon in Ontario – had passed Lee’s name along to MacConnell, who in turn recommended him to Thomas Baudinet, head coach at Perkiomen School in Pennsylvania. There wasn’t much to appraise besides Lee’s sophomore tape.
“Even when he was little, like the sophomore year film – and he looked like a total baby out there, he was probably 5-7, 110 pounds – he really knew how to play,” Baudinet said. “He wasn’t scared of pressure. He was actually playing against a Division I guard and was handling the pressure and was able to make some plays off the bounce.”
Lee, who had a growth spurt during his lost pandemic year, committed to Princeton in 2021. The original plan was for him to reclassify and spend two years at Perkiomen, but Princeton watched him play during the June 2022 live period and decided it wasn’t necessary. He’s already flashed breakaway speed that few in the Ivy League possess.
Austin played with brothers Kyle and Matt Filipowski (now at Duke and Harvard, respectively) at Massachusetts’ Wilbraham & Monson Academy. Austin spent four years there without reclassifying, unusual at the prep school, and thanks to a July birthday was young for his age. He earned the school’s Phil Shaw Award for best male athlete, which included character and academic components.
Wilbraham coach Mike Mannix saw Austin’s basketball IQ and cutting ability up close.
“That’s why I always thought Princeton was gonna be a great option for him, because of what Mitch does and because of who Princeton is offensively,” Mannix said. “This kid is so good without the ball in his hands. … He’s gonna have more dunks over guys than maybe anybody that Princeton has had in the last couple years because of his ability to move without the ball and finish up at the rim.”
Against Harvard, Austin blocked two shots and turned a steal into transition points. He corralled the ball and hesitated just for a moment in order to hit Evbuomwan for an easy two.
MacConnell sees Ivy Defensive Player of the Year potential in Austin’s future. “His ceiling is sky-high. He’s just got all the tools,” MacConnell said.
Jack Scott is a unique case as the son of Joe Scott and Leah Spraragen Scott, who both played at Princeton and coached for the Tigers. Joe Scott, currently the head coach at Air Force, led Princeton from 2004-07.
The younger Scott starred at the Hun School of Princeton and was known as a high-energy workaholic, Hun coach Jon Stone said. He’s flashed as a passer in a few extended runs against Division III Cairn and Monmouth.
Rounding out the group is Collins, who’s played the least among the rookies in part because of a broken nose. Collins is the second-tallest player on the team at 6-foot-10, with MacConnell seeing him in the mold of Kellman and Richmond Aririguzoh, who “worked their butts off every day” to get better down low. With Evbuomwan, Kellman and Jacob O’Connell all seniors, Princeton has precious little depth at forward, so Collins’ development will be important.
“We have high expectations for what they can and what they’re learning to do,” Henderson said of the freshmen. “I think the other part about that is, by the time you figure out how to win all the time, you graduate. So playing young guys is really good for us because it helps build the program for years to come.”
Princeton hasn’t had trouble recruiting great individual players in the past decade-plus, from Amir Bell and Devin Cannady to Llewellyn, a four-star and top-100 high schooler in his class, and Evbuomwan, whom MacConnell flew to England to scout. The 2022 freshman class doesn’t have one standout head and shoulders above the rest, but a balanced group whose contributions Langborg called “irreplaceable” as soon as early December.
But scan the recruiting class rankings by 247Sports, a popular resource in the sport, and you’ll find six Ivies mentioned – including Dartmouth (one commit) and Columbia (two) – but no Princeton.
Why the discrepancy? There are a few points worth noting. Coaches at the high school, prep and college levels don’t consider online recruiting outposts the be-all, end-all. It’s a tool, but an imperfect one, because there are far more players throughout the country than evaluators available to watch them more than once.
And when you’re recruiting for an Ivy League program – with elite academic standards and no athletic scholarships at your disposal – a player’s fit becomes the guiding principle, as with Pierce and his rebounding or Austin and his off-ball movement.
“Princeton does a really good job of spending a lot of time recruiting a kid and not giving a quick offer, and so they make sure that they fit with what they do,” Baudinet told me.
The freshmen have seen their share of speed bumps. They got extended minutes on Dec. 23 against Kean, a hard-nosed Division III team; Austin, Lee and Scott committed six turnovers apiece before Princeton hung on 88-70. “That’s the beauty of watching sports. There’s growing pains right in front of your eyes,” Henderson said.
Proving their mettle against league competition is the next step. But these freshmen were selected for this moment for a reason.
“I think I’ve been around long enough, and Coach Henderson, that we just really know what we’re looking for,” MacConnell said. “And we don’t compromise on it.”
Happy New Year, and as always, thanks for reading. This one was in the works for several weeks and I appreciate all the coaches who got on the phone with me just before the holidays.
Let’s clean the glass with other notes and observations around the state:
Purdue will remain No. 1 in the country when this week’s AP Top 25 poll is released later today, so for the second year in a row, Rutgers has a chance to hand a top-ranked Boilermakers team its first loss of the season. You remember what happened last time. There are two key differences this year: Not only must Rutgers leave the comforts of home and face Purdue in West Lafayette, but it’ll also see a lot more of Zach Edey. The 7-foot-4 national player of the year candidate was still splitting time with Trevion Williams on last year’s Purdue squad and only played 16 minutes in the loss to Rutgers.
Rider is also playing Monday – at noon, due to a scheduling change because of the blizzard in Buffalo. The Broncs were scheduled to make the MAAC’s Western New York swing to Canisius and Niagara on Friday and Sunday. The Canisius game was pushed back to Saturday and moved to Niagara’s campus because of the weather (Rider held off Canisius, 66-64), meaning the second game had to be postponed as well. Rider joins Iona and Siena as the only 3-0 teams in MAAC play.
I wrote Seton Hall off on Thursday. Not a tournament team, I said. Then the Pirates finally put together not just a winning effort, but a dominant one, thumping St. John’s 88-66 Saturday for their first Big East win. They needed Al-Amir Dawes to drain five threes and both Kadary Richmond and Tyrese Samuel to put up near-double-doubles, but with everything clicking at the same time, the result was enticing. I was wrong about my high hopes for St. John’s, which is now 1-3 in the Big East.
The Princeton women’s team lost to an Ivy League opponent for the first time since Feb. 8, 2019, falling to Harvard 67-59 Saturday. It was the Tigers’ first Ivy loss under coach Carla Berube, and it ended the longest active conference winning streak in men’s or women’s college basketball. Up next is a visit Friday from Columbia, the best team in the league not named Princeton. It will be the Tigers’ second straight game on national cable TV (ESPNU).