Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
With one big recruiting coup, Rutgers has landed two big men from the state of New Jersey.
Greg Echenique, a 6-foot-9 center from St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, on Monday chose Rutgers over Duke, Maryland, Villanova, Creighton, Notre Dame, Miami and Penn.
Twenty minutes later, Austin Johnson, a 6-7, 190-pound junior forward from Blair Academy, called Rutgers head coach Fred Hill to commit. A native of Cheltenham, Pa. who plays for the Paterson-based Playaz Basketball Club, Johnson will make an unofficial visit to Rutgers Tuesday with his mother.
“That’s a fantastic frontcourt that they’re getting,” Blair coach Joe Mantegna said by phone. “The two of them complement each other perfectly. I don’t think they could’ve hoped for a better scenario than this.”
Echenique, ranked No. 45 in the Class of 2009 and No. 5 among centers, averaged 11.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.3 blocks last season, when the Gray Bees finished 24-1 and No. 2 in several national polls. He will play next year for the St. Benedict’s fifth-year prep team because he already completed his freshman year of school in his native Venezuela.
Johnson averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds and was a first-team All-League selection in the Maple League. He chose Rutgers over Seton Hall, Boston College, Virginia, Fordham, Temple, St. Joe’s and other Atlantic 10 schools.
Echenique and his parents, Jose and Maria, decided after visiting Rutgers last Thursday. The parents were visiting from Venezuela.
“Since I came to this country with my parents, I felt a connection with the coaching staff,” Echenique said in a statement. “They were the first school to offer me a scholarship and they have been there watching me develop throughout my high school career.
“Coach Hill and Coach (Jimmy) Carr have always been there for me. They are people that I have been able to develop a great relationship with, and depend on as mentors. A big part of my decision was the belief that Coach Hill and his staff have in me to help them take the program to a higher level. The future is bright at Rutgers and I look forward to being a member of the school community.
“By going to St. Benedict’s Prep, New Jersey has become a second home to me. I want other players to believe in Rutgers the way I do. What has always impressed me about the RAC and the Rutgers fans is that they love the basketball team and are supportive whatever the circumstances. Coach Hill and his staff and have convinced me and my family that the balance of academics and athletics is a perfect fit for me. In the long run, what convinced me most was not the fact that they play in the Big East or the facilities, but it was the people who make up the program.”
Echenique’s parents said: “They have shown interest in Gregory since the beginning, not just as a player, but a young man. We trust Coach Hill and staff will treat him as a member of the family.”
Echenique is the first player from St. Benedict’s to pick Rutgers during Dan Hurley’s seven-year tenure at the school.
“The combination of it being a quality university, the Big East conference and an opportunity to control his own destiny on the court, and his relationship with the staff there, namely Freddie, Jimmy and Darren (Savino), makes it a great fit,” Hurley said.
“This is a big recruit because of the other schools involved with him, Duke, Maryland, Villanova,” recruiting analyst Tom Konchalski of the High School Basketball Insider said. “The symbolism of getting a Greg Echenique even exceeds his tangible contribution on the court. It shows that Rutgers can be successful within the state. This is a major recruit for them.”
Johnson, who teams with Rutgers recruit Mike Rosario with the Playaz, told Justin Young of Rivals that he committed after he heard Echenique had.
“I was about to commit about a month ago but I wanted to wait until after the season was over just to clear my head,” Johnson said. “I was going to take a visit there tomorrow to tell them. When I heard Greg committed, that was just the icing on the cake.”
“I think it’s a great fit for Austin and Rutgers is getting a guy who’s a late bloomer and a guy with tremendous potential,” Mantegna said by phone. “He’s an inside-outside four man, a real versatile four.
“He’s lost 25 pounds. His confidence is sky high. His game has just gone leaps and bounds. He’s a whole different player than most people have seen out on the AAU circuit.”
Rutgers has a three-man recruiting class lined up for next year led by Rosario, the McDonald’s All-American who plays shooting guard for Dan’s father, Bob Hurley; Pat Jackson, a 6-6 wing from Brooklyn Boys & Girls; and Christian Morris, a 6-8 post from South Kent (Conn.) Rutgers also has a commitment from Dane Miller, a 6-7 wing from Rush Henrietta High outside Rochester, N.Y. Rutgers still has two scholarships left for the Class of 2009.
Konchalski said Echenique is exactly what Rutgers needs.
“He’s a big strong kid that knows who he is,” he said. “He doesn’t try to be a finesse player and loft 3’s. With (Corey) Chandler and Rosario, they have really good perimeter players, and they’ve goto to get some inside players, and that’s what he is. That’s the first step in anything, to know what you are.”
“You just hope that with guys like Gregory and Mike Rosario, and kids in the future, if you get enough of these types of guys, you just want it to be exciting around March Madness time,” Dan Hurley said. “The universities in New Jersey are great and the high school basketball in New Jersey is great and there’s no reason why kids shouldn’t continue their careers locally.”
Echenique and his parents made trips to several schools with St. Ben’s assistant coach Scott Smith, who lives in Ridgewood.
“It’s a big jump on (Greg’s) part and he really believes that (Rutgers) can get it done with the players that they have and Mike Rosario,” Smith said. “And hopefully this will persuade other kids to stay in state. This is a dream and he really wants to make this happen for the state.”
(Photos courtesy Brian Kelley, Rivals)
Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.