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Roddyless But Not Rudderless: Commanding PG Isaiah Stevens Returns to Lead the Colorado State Rams in 2022-23

October 4, 2022

Hardly a day goes by when I’m not asked by a fellow Ram fan how the 2022-23 Colorado State Mens Basketball team will fare without the presence of David Roddy.

Legitimate question.

After all, Roddy had a season for the ages in 2021-22 as he led the Rams to a 25-win regular season and an at-large NCAA berth as a 6-seed, the highest in school history. Roddy was an Honorable Mention All-American, MWC Player of the Year, and an NBA first round pick, the programs first in 15 years.

But the Rams are not without as they return the talented and talismanic Isaiah Stevens, a Cousy Award Finalist in 2022 as one of the nation’s top point guards. He leads a solid group or returners and an exciting crop of newcomers as the Rams continue their journey at the top of the Mountain West Conference.

The journey began when CSU hired Niko Medved in 2018 as their head coach. A journey that has progressed from a 7-11 conference record in his first season to produce conference records of 11-7, 14-4, and 14-4. Now in his fifth season, there is every reason to believe that Medved and staff will keep the Rams competitive at the top of the conference.

The lineup in 2022-23 will look somewhat different as the Rams lost not only Roddy, but stalwarts Kendle Moore, Dischon Thomas, and Adam Thistlewood to the transfer portal and Chandler Jacobs to graduation. They do return veterans John Tonje, James Moors, Isaiah Rivera, Jalen Lake, and Baylor Hebb (returning big Jake Jennissen is out for the season with a knee injury). They add a talented group of transfers in Josiah Strong, Patrick Cartier, and Joe Palmer. And a solid group of freshmen recruits in Jack Payne, Tavi Jackson, and Kyle Evans.

The challenge for this team will not be how to replace David Roddy. Because there isn’t one player capable of doing that. Rather, it is how the newcomers can be integrated with the returning players to form a cohesive unit and hit the ground running. Its about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts through teamwork and chemistry. Its about making a fist out of five fingers.

A game that could be a bit of a foreshadowing for how this season might play out is last year’s season opener in Moby against Oral Roberts.

Early in that game, Senior guard Kendle Moore went out with a foot injury after only 8 minutes of play. And David Roddy went to the bench suffering from back spasms; Roddy would be limited to only 20 minutes and score only 7 points.

But up stepped the other players on the team. John Tonje with 31 points. Thomas with 16, Jacobs with 16, Rivera with 8, Lake with 8 in his very first D1 game.

So the challenge of playing without much help from Roddy was met for one night.

And you can see what the challenge for 2022-23 will be. First, how do you turn a one-off effort into success over 30 games. And second, how do you get the returnees like Moors, Rivera, and Lake to deliver more minutes at higher levels and newcomers to do the same?

It all starts with Isaiah Stevens running the show. Stevens has started every game for the Rams since he set foot on campus and by the time he’s finished his four years, he will go down as one of the all-time CSU and MWC greats.

Isaiah Stevens and family

His personal career numbers are solid. 14.4 points, 4.9 assists, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.0 steals per game. 50% shooting from 2-point range, 40% shooting from 3-point range, and 87% from the free throw line.

Stevens also possesses the uncanny ability to make winning plays at the end of games. He has scored game winners against Nevada,Loyola Chicago, and Buffalo. Game winning assists last season against San Diego State and Utah State. There is no one in the MWC more effective and dangerous in the end game.

He is also a winner, period.

Stevens has started in 39 MWC victories in his first three years. I haven’t completed all of the research but it appears he is on track to be the all-time leader in MWC winning starts. My preliminary research shows that Matt Mitchell made 48 winning MWC starts for San Diego State between 2018-21 and that SDSU’s Winston Shepard started in 47 MWC wins over the period from 2013-16. Once I get the research done, its a stat I will track as well as Stevens’ climb up all of the CSU career stat charts.

Will anybody on the roster make a leap in 2022-23 like David Roddy did in 21-22?

Doubtful.

Roddys growth in his third season was phenomenal, as he expanded his ability to score at all three levels. He improved his finishing at the rim, expanded his midrange game with a variety of one footed fallaways, and nearly doubled his career shooting percentage from deep.

But the one thing we have been able to count on in the CSU program is the year to year development of individual players. So it is safe to expect evolutionary improvement out of the players returning.

John Tonje

John Tonje gave a glimpse of what he can do with that 31-point outburst in the opener against Oral Roberts. He started too many games to win the MWC 6th Man of the Year Award. And he dealt with a meniscus injury that slowed him down as the season progressed. At one time shooting 23-48 beyond the arc, he only shot 9-40 post-injury. Tonje still managed to average 9.1 points and 3 rebounds. After beefing up to 220 pounds last season, Tonje enters the season at a sleeker 210 pounds and looks to be ready for an even bigger breakout season than the previous one.

James Moors looks to be on his way to earning the role as starting big in replacement of Dischon Thomas. Off-season foot injuries hampered his development last season and pushed him into a secondary role. He looks strong and healthy and ready to provide the requisite paint presence in 22-23. Moors averaged 4 points and 2.5 rebounds in only 12 minutes last season. Not only will he be expected to increase those numbers but some of the scoring will have to come from the perimeter as he looks to replace the loss of Dischon Thomas’ outside game.

Jalen Lake

Wing Jalen Lake will be looking to improve on a solid freshman campaign that saw him average nearly 4 points per game in 14 minutes of action. A promising start was derailed with some health issues that minimized Lake’s contribution as the season progressed. 17-39 from beyond the arc through the first 14 games and 5-30 over the final 17 games. Make no mistake about it, Lake is an elite shooter with solid defensive instincts and will be expected to play a much bigger role this season.

The same is true for wing Isaiah Rivera. He averaged 3.5 points in 12 minutes of action last season. 50+ % shooter from 2 and a 42% shooter from beyond the arc, he showed the ability to score when given more minutes last season. Look for increases in scoring and rebounding as his minutes increase.

Guard Baylor Hebb saw limited action last season after transferring from Loyola Chicago. He will be given every opportunity to earn the backup point guard position behind Stevens. Not a heck of a lot of minutes as Stevens typically plays about 35 out of 40. But important minutes for the Rams offense to run like a machine when Stevens is off the floor.

Transfers Josiah Strong, Patrick Cartier, and Joe Palmer were brought in to contribute right away..

Strong has the strongest resume of them, having averaged 11.5 ppg, 3.3 rebounds, and 2.2 assists over 33 minutes with Illinois State last season. He’s a big guard at 6’4” and 195 pounds and an elite 3-point shooter with 83 makes on 200 attempts last season, a percentage of nearly 42%. By comparison, the Rams were led last season by Roddy with 45 makes and Stevens with 42. While he wont be as quick as Kendle Moore, Strong will offer size that will help the Rams keep bigger guards out of the paint.

Cartier was a D-2 All-American at Hillsdale College where he averaged 22 points and 6 rebounds per game last season. He’s a very deft inside scorer and possesses a solid touch from the perimeter. Its too early to tell where he’ll fit into this years squad. I can tell you that I think he would have been a perfect fit on last years team, offering Roddy a greater chance to take advantage of his wing skills. I do look for Cartier to get minutes at the 4 and as a 5 in a small ball lineup.

Palmer is a huge X-factor. He comes to CSU from D-3 Augsburg College where he averaged 21 points and 9 rebounds last season. At 6’4” and 200 pounds, he is a raw, athletic scoring beast both inside and out He will be given every opportunity to play minutes this season and he alone will determine how big his contribution will be depending on how fast he grasps the concepts required to be successful on both ends of the floor at the D-1 level. He will be one to keep an eye on.

Given the depth and experience of the returnees and transfers, its unclear how much of a contribution freshmen Jack Payne, Tavi Jackson, and Kyle Evans will make.

Payne has the best chance to earn minutes as he offers up a Swiss Army knife array of talent on both ends of the floor. He can shoot, pass, rebound, run the floor, and defend.

Jackson is the heir apparent to Stevens at running the show but its unclear just how much of a chance he’ll get this season. He has the genuine goods that not many have in terms of skills and athleticism. The kid can flat out play. But integrating those skills into the framework of a top D-1 program and especially an offense with the complexity that CSU runs is easier said than done.

Evans is the rawest of the all. A late addition to the squad after Jennissen went down with injury, Evans offers athleticism and some decent shotmaking ability. At 6’10” and 210 pounds, he looks more like a stretch 4 than a typical 5 but may be asked to play some minutes here and there at the 5 position.

SO how does it all come together?

I’m thinking that 4 of the 5 starting positions are virtually locked in. Stevens, Strong, Tonje, and Moors. The last spot is up for grabs and really dependent on the direction the coaches choose in terms of size vs speed at the 4 position. I personally lean toward the size of a Cartier but I can also understand a lineup that may feature either Lake or Rivera instead. I’m most concerned about replacing Roddy on the glass and I think Cartier offers a greater chance of success at finishing off a defensive possession with a rebound..

Regardless of who starts, there will be plenty of opportunity for players to come off the bench as Medved and staff have shown the ability to successfully manage a rotation as large as 10. Whether they start of come off the bench, Cartier, Lake, and Rivera are sure to play large roles. Payne too. Jackson maybe.

And then there’s Palmer. I’ll go out on a limb on this one. If this kid can somehow force his way onto the floor, he’ll be well on his way to becoming the Chandler Jacobs of this year’s squad. An impact bench player AND fan favorite. There’s just something about this kid that I really like.

I’m also excited to see if and how the coaching staff is committed to fielding a small ball lineup that can be impactful and change games. SO much of that was predicated by the presence of a unique player like David Roddy but there are enough pieces on this years squad to make it a distinct possibility. Stevens, Strong, Lake, Tonje, Cartier – all guys who can run and shoot the three.

I think the fun part is the anticipation of seeing how this whole thing unfolds. Every season has growing pains regardless of how strong the team looks on paper. How many remember that CSU trailed Bradley at the half in the first game of the Paradise Jam last season? Or that they trailed Northeastern by 21 in the championship game!

You just hope there’s enough to hit the ground running at the start of the season and that the program is committed to ongoing improvement. I think that Medved and staff have earned that trust. And I think this will be another memorable season.

Something like 23-8, 13-5 in the MWC. And a shot at another NCAA At-Large.

Regardless of how it goes, get ready to strap on those seat belts. We’re only a month away!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. givemefletch permalink
    October 4, 2022 3:35 pm

    Strong had 83 makes on 200 3pt attempts last season? That is a very high volume! Can we expect him to be a streaky player? Someone who may go 0-7 one game and then 6-7 the next? Or a player we can count on to hit 2-3/game?

    • October 4, 2022 3:42 pm

      He had a 1-10 and an 0-9 last season. He also had 15 games with three makes or more including six games with 5 or more makes. I think most perimeter shooters are streaky. I’m guessing he’ll get fewer opportunities with CSU but better looks working with Stevens.

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