For any Rutgers fan that's been to the Barn this summer looking for a sneak preview of coming attractions later on this year, one of the most encouraging sights has got to be seeing Byron Joynes out on the court playing basketball again. The oft-injured big man sat out all of last year recovering from a broken foot, while playing the previous year with a multitude of injuries, the most serious of which was a separated shoulder that routinely popped out of joint throughout the season and would eventually require surgery.
But now big Byron is back. I spoke with him last Tuesday, and can tell you that Rutgers starting center is soft-spoken, polite, and accommodating - even as I reluctantly asked my first question. "Byron" I said, "I know you're probably getting tired of being asked this every where you go around campus, but how are you feeling? How's your recovery been going?"
He smiled a reassuring smile and said: "Everything's coming along real well. I've been working out, doing a lot of things with the team, basically everything. I just watch out for myself. Actually, I haven't even been thinking about it. Everything's been healing real well; everything's been fine so far. I'm just trying to work myself back into game shape." That made it slightly easier to ask my next question.
"I heard that your hip was bothering you a little bit. How is your hip?" He said, "My hip is all right, it is getting a lot better. The only reason that it is bothering me is that when I first came back and started playing, I was favoring my right foot and kept landing on my left leg, and I got a left hip pointer. Every thing has been fine lately, it's going good now. A little sore, but I've been getting treatment and everything is coming along okay."
I mentioned to Byron that in one man's opinion, what was often overlooked about last year's team was that in addition to missing Quincy Douby and his nearly 26 points per game, the team was also without him (in spite of being virtually a one-armed player, he still led the team in rebounding), and thus Rutgers last year was missing it's leading score and it's leading rebounder.
Byron was very modest in his take on that: "I've never really thought about it like that. I just wish that I could have been there for my team last year. I just learned a lot from Coach Hill. I'm just here to do whatever I can for my teammates, for the freshman coming in so they can learn what Coach Hill wants. I'm just trying to have a good year for the team so we can win games.
He went on: "We had a bad season last year. It's not like we were getting blown out by teams, a lot of the games were close. It's just the little things as a team that we have to work on and that is what we are doing in the summer right now".
When asked about how he feels he's progressed throughout his career, he replied: "I fill really good about what I did over the years playing through injuries and getting down to Big East playing shape. I fill that I will be a big factor for this team, being a big presence inside with my physical abilities. I've been working on a few things with the coaches. I think that I have to keep working on my game and the little things that are going to help me as a person and the team to succeed".
I told him that some of the guys now I barely recognize, the obvious result of new strength and conditioning coach Phil Dyer. "He one of the best strength coach that I have ever had", Byron said. "He's a good guy and he used to play basketball, so he knows what we need. He knows the level of strength and conditioning that we're going to need to compete in the Big East. I'm glad he came aboard and came to work with us. He's thought of and shown us a lot of good things that I'd never heard of before".
Byron was then told that the work he did in practice last year was considered enormously instrumental in helping Adrian Hill develop and have the year that he did. Byron was then asked about working with the player who seems to have developed the most from Phil Dyer's regimen so far - Hamady N'diaye. He had this to say: "I think that he is progressing along well. He has been working a lot on his game in the off season especially in the weight room".
He went on: "He changed his eating habits and he is trying to put on weight. I've just been telling him to eat the right way and eat enough food so he can keep his weight on. He's been doing a lot of camps lately and working out and progressing more and more, especially in the weight room. He's still got to keep working at it, he is still young. He hasn't been playing basketball for that many years. He has the longest arms I've seen in a long time. He just has to keep working, and I'm going to keep working with him and make him a better person and a better player".
I said to Byron that he had mentioned the freshman before. What does he feel they bring to the team? "I love all the new guys and what they bring to the team. They came and started working right out with us and no complaints about anything, they just go out there and work hard and do what they supposed to do. They have to keep working to improve they game just like everyone else".
Rutgers goes into this season minus Marquis Webb, a player they might miss off the court even more than during games due to his tremendous leadership. Byron was asked about possibly having to assume that role now, as he is the clear elder statesman on this year's team. He said that, "I learned a lot from Marquis and right now I feel that I am the leader. I have to be more vocal with my teammates and let them know what to do, and the right things to do and just keeping a positive head. We just have to go out there and play".
Finally, he was asked about going into the Big East this year with currently just himself, Hamady and JR Inman up front: "We know what the Big East is like. So we just have to go in there and that is why Phil Dyer came here, to help us build our strength. We know we're small up front, and that there are a lot of big guys in the Big East. We just have to keep working and the team we have now, I love this team we have now. I think we're going to be a more fast-paced team this year, and I think that we are going to get gritty with it on defense".
If anything, the return of a healthy Byron Joynes gives the Rutgers basketball
team more reason for optimism than there has been for the past several years.