When Issa Thiam first picked up a basketball at age 6, even he never forsaw the journey that followed.
Now, on the precipice of his freshman season at Rutgers, Thiam approaches his college debut. He remembers the basketball influences from his father, Assane, who played for the Senegal national team and introduced him to the game.
“I would play ball every single day,” Thiam said. “I only know basketball. I sleep with a ball in my bed, everything. … This is my life and I work — keep working every single day. I go to my house, out, playing ball, playing ball, playing ball, working hard. … I keep that in my mind.”
A tireless work ethic and unconditional love for the game brought endless opportunities for Thiam.
He most recently played at Jacksonville (Fla.) Arlington Country Day, but his time in Europe at Las Palmas (Spain) Canarias Basketball Academy put him on Rutgers’ radar.
When Thiam was 15, he met Rutgers assistant Greg “Shoes” Vetrone.
“When I was a little guy when I was in Spain, (Vetrone) was there,” Thiam said. “I only know him. I love him, a good coach — a big reason why I came here.”
Thiam built a strong relationship with Vetrone and committed to Rutgers midway through last season. The ties to Shoes kept Thiam on board when Rutgers fired Eddie Jordan in March, even after other programs tried to flip him.
“The other schools wanted me to go, but I chose (Rutgers) because I only know Shoes,” Thiam said. “I think of Shoes like my father. I can come to him and play on the team and play my best basketball.”
Under the direction of first-year Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell, Thiam hopes to make an early impact. With a 6-foot-9 frame and unique skillset, he brings a versatile asset to the rotation.
Thiam gives Rutgers a shooter it desperately needed. He showcased his ability from three-point range at MidKnight Madness last month.
“I like shooting the ball,” he said. “… When I go outside on the court, I take everything outside and go focus and win this game, play hard like we do. Play hard and shoot my shot because the team needs me. They need me for making shots.”
Despite the size of a post player, Thiam grew up a natural ball handler.
“I handle the ball and go,” Thiam said. “If I take a rebound, I can dribble and go. Back in Senegal, I was playing the one. I only played point guard. I would dribble the ball and go and help my team playing because I was working ball handling every day. I dribbled a tennis ball, dribbling every day. But here, I can dribble. I can dribble every move an d get the ball.”
Listed at 190 pounds, Thiam said he hopes to crack 200 next. He credited David VanDyke and the strength and conditioning staff for the early progress after he arrived at 180 pounds.
“They help me get up my weight,” Thiam said. “I’m working every day — practice and go to weight room, go do everything. They have a good coach in the weight room. They help me — how to double up my body and everything.”
Aware of how Rutgers fared last year, Thiam said he hopes to help propel the program in the right direction.
“This year, I just want to get it started,” he said. “I will do my best and I will win and do my best for helping the team win. I’m ready and excited for the season to start to do my best to help this team win.”