As confidence increases for Issa Thiam, he shows his potential for Rutgers
"Today is my day," Issa Thiam said after scoring 16 points and becoming the catalyst that propelled the Rutgers men's basketball team to an unexpected and dominant 80-64 win over Iowa at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) on Wednesday night.
The sophomore wing from Dakar, Senegal still has a thick accent, but spoke with mature words in what was his first time talking to the media in his Scarlet Knight career.
Those 16, including four made three-pointers, were a career-high for Thiam against a Division I opponent and perhaps a look into the future for a player bursting with potential.
Thiam caught fire early in the game and stayed in a groove, hitting all four of his shots in the first half. He said that his teammates and coaches had been on him to shoot the ball more, as Rutgers currently ranks 313th out of 351 Division I teams in the three-point field goal percentage.
"Every day, (my teammates) say to me ‘You have to shoot. You have to be ready to shoot.’ I keep practicing that way to shoot," he said.
And when senior captain and guard Mike Williams went down with a serious ankle injury a week ago, it clearly had a huge affect on the team both on and off the court.
"All hands on deck," said head coach Steve Pikiell on the approach he has taken in wake of the injury.
That includes an increased role for Thiam, who has already made tremendous strides from a year ago.
“It’s so tough… If he’s hurt, I kinda go play the same (role) as him," Thiam said. "He plays (with) toughness, I have to take that and my toughness and play (that way) to help the team."
Last season, he was primarily a spot-up shooter and never really put the ball on the floor. He did not rebound, play great defense or have any other offensive skills besides standing in the corner and shooting threes.
But in his second year on the Banks, Thiam has raised his three-point percentage from 30.3 percent to 41.8, displayed an ability to drive to the hoop, make mid-range jumpers and has even developed into a solid rebounder.
Whenever Thiam has a strong game, Pikiell always seems to focus his praise on his rebounding — a cornerstone of Pikiell's rebuild.
"The team needs me. I’m 6'10" like that. I have to come and take the rebounds and go offensively," Thiam said.
Coming to Rutgers at 6 feet 9 inches, the 190-pound Thiam lacked the thickness to rebound the ball well. But he is now listed at 6 feet 10 inches and has added noticeable muscle to his frame. Most importantly, though, he has learned how to use his height better and is a much smarter player.
Thiam is one of those players who can catch fire in a game and when that happens, it seems like he cannot miss. Since he is still relatively young, the confidence and mental makeup is not yet all the way there for him, but he has looked more comfortable shooting the ball as the season has progressed.
It is also very easy for a player of Thiam's skillset to get deterred when shots do not go in. But he said on Wednesday that when he is focused and locked in, he knows he can play well.
"Confidence," Thiam said of what it takes to get hot. "Coach said in the locker room, ‘Way to shoot it. Way to go. If you focus, you will play good.’ And come the game, (I need to) do the same thing. Focus.”