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Rhode Island (9-9, 6-5 in A-10) remains a work in progress. The enigmatic Rams have shown the ability to convincingly beat quality programs like Seton Hall and VCU but squander opportunities to put away teams like UMass and Duquesne. Second half play has been an issue of late. Collective unevenness has been the season pattern.
The gelling process can be messy. But as we wait for this team to click as a unit there are bright spots. Look no further than the duo of Makhel Mitchell and Jeremy Sheppard. From paint to perimeter, the 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Mitchell and 6-1 senior guard Sheppard (both of whom can return next year because of COVID) are carving out paths of growth while carving up opponents. Let’s dig deeper.
When the Mitchell twins, Makhel along with brother Makhi, transferred from Maryland, most knew they were two kids touted at the high school level who possessed the God-given gift of length and height.
Beyond that the optimism was tied to promise. Makhi received more ink and more mins in the semester they spent at Maryland. Not as much was known about Makhel, who played just 6.8 mins a game a year ago. Who were the Rams getting in Makhel?
Just 18 games into his sophomore year Makhel is making it apparent. The Rams got a talented forward, a worker, and a true pivot presence they have been lacking in recent years and which few Atlantic 10 teams can boast. Makhel is averaging 8.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks (6th in A-10) in an increasing 21.7 minutes per contest.
He’s getting better by the minute. Offensively, his patience in the post is well beyond that of many bigs, much less those in their first year of significant play. He maneuvers with purpose on the blocks and his awareness of the operating room he has is wise. A willing passer, as he continues his natural progression in recognizing double-teams and passing out of the post, along with elevating his free throw percentage (.456), he’ll magnify his impact on his team and the game.
Defensively, his commitment to getting dirty underneath has been evident from day one.
His improving understanding of where to be and how to play effectively without fouling continues to mature. In the last five games, Makhel is up to 27.4 minutes per night and averaging just 2.4 fouls per game. That blend of performance and assertiveness is music to the ears of David Cox and staff. Moreover, it is plain to the eye that he’s neutralizing top opponent post threats (See Mitchell, Tre – UMass) which has a cascading effect on how a coach and staff can game plan.
It is worth reiterating Makhel is only a sophomore with this free year of eligibility to develop. Sunny times are ahead folks.
Sheppard took a circuitous route to Rhode Island, by way of East Carolina, then JUCO, before sitting and patiently waiting through last season. I caught up with him over the summer for a lengthy convo and it was clear his experience dressed him with a sense of appreciation for where the journey has taken him – along with the opportunity he had in front of him. He’s making the most of it.
Despite a long layoff from the rigors, competition, and speed of the D-1 game – all facets Sheppard had not directly experienced since 2016-17 – the slender senior guard has adjusted nicely. Second on the team in minutes per game at 29.6 to only Fatts Russell, Sheppard is averaging 11.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Over the past three contests, that scoring averaged has ballooned to 19 points per game.
For the second week in a row, Jeremy Sheppard is your @BankRhodeIsland Rhody Men’s Basketball Player of the Week! #TheRhodyWay pic.twitter.com/rzm87hygAi
— Rhody MBB (@RhodyMBB) February 2, 2021
Most impressive about Sheppard, however, is the shooting efficiency. The Richmond, Va., native is 16th in the A-10 in overall field goal percentage (.510), 13th in free throw percentage (.794) and 4th in three-point field goal percentage (.449).
Those are searing numbers, particularly when considering he is playing on a team still trying to find its cohesion. It leads to the next point: aggression. The past four games Sheppard has crested into double-digit shot attempts per night. He must maintain that standard level of aggression moving forward. The result will be a winning mix of production and spacing created for teammates.
His assist to turnover ratio is improving, a testament to his fit, familiarity and tireless work ethic. Sheppard has not had a negative assist-to-turnover ratio game since early January and he’s almost level (47 to 49) on the year. Continuing the upward trajectory is critical to team success. He could also do without the occasional early shot clock pull – somewhat of a nitpick but an important part of leading and recognizing time and score.
Universally there is so much to like about the way Sheppard impacts the game in measurable and immeasurable ways. There is even more to like about Sheppard’s perseverance, in life and basketball, paying off.
Chris DiSano, is an Atlantic 10 analyst and writer. He has served as the host of A-10 Live! at Men’s Basketball Media Day and founded the former College Chalktalk. DiSano, who was named an NBC Sports top Atlantic 10 basketball follow, can be found on Twitter at @CDiSano44