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Who is MJ Rice? Revisited.

After his surprising debut at the Heritage Game, let’s review who he is, and what to expect

The team formally announced that highly rated Kansas transfer MJ Rice had signed with the Wolfpack on April 25, 2023. Some thought that, although he had been a lightly used freshman at Kansas, he was the highlight of the Pack’s seven man transfer class. In the seven months since that time, he’s maintained a low profile. There were no pictures of him published during the summer training and team building activities. He missed the days they filmed the player intros and in-game videos. He was not available on September 26 when team practice officially started. In fact, according to the Coach, he has only recently begun practicing with the team. So when he showed up Tuesday at the Heritage game dressed, and participated in the shoot around, we did not know what to expect.

It didn’t take long for him to make a statement. In just 10 total minutes, he scored 11 points on 5-6 shooting from the field, including 1-1 from the 3PT arc, and 6 rebounds. He did show some nerves, he was out of position a few times and lost the ball twice. But, for his first game, and with limited practice time, I think we were all thrilled. And especially with that final, coast to coast, punctuation mark!

Many of us who follow basketball more closely recognized his potential and have been waiting to see how it was going to play out, but many other Wolfpack fans are reacting as fans will do ….“Who is this guy?” …”Where did he come from?” …”Why hasn’t he been playing?” …“Will he be starting?” …“If he can score 11 points and grab 6 rebound in 10 minutes, why not play the whole game and average 40+ points and 20+ rebounds?” …“We’re going to win the National Championship!!!!!!!!!”

Who Is This Guy?

Based on his high school recruiting rankings, MJ Rice is the highest rated player Coach Kevin Keatts has ever had play on a team in his head coaching career. He played in the prestigious 2022 McDonald’s All-American game. Looking at the recruiting sites today, Rivals ranked him at #29, and five stars. The 247 and ESPN sites only had him as 4 stars but ranked him #37 and #33 respectively. He grew up in Henderson NC. He comes from a basketball family, his father played pro ball in Europe, his older brother Quinton played college ball. He is 6’ 5” and has a very large frame, currently he is listed at 215 lbs.

In 2021, recruiting analyst Brandon Jenkins described him as, “Rice is a powerfully-built wing who is a true matchup nightmare in the high school game. He has the physical build of a Mack truck but combines his powerful frame with a great amount of athleticism and skill. He is simply a strong-bodied wing who can score at all three levels.”

Coach Keatts recruited Rice out of high school (along with 8 other ACC schools, and a bunch of other yahoos), but when Kansas came calling, the lure of the blue blood was too great, and Rice was off to Lawrence to become a Jayhawk. Rice struggled with back problems most of the season limiting his playing time, plus he was coming into a very strong starting lineup that was coming off a national championship and expecting to compete for another. (they didn’t)

After his freshman season, Rice decided to transfer closer to home. He had a pre-existing good relationship with the Wolfpack staff and decided to run with the Pack last spring.

Where Has He Been?

Rice has taken some time away from the team to take care of some private matters while maintaining his academic status. Admirably, Coach Keatts has supported him and has not provided any information publicly, only stating repeatedly that there was no set timeline and that Rice would rejoin the team when he was ready.

What Should We Expect?

After the Heritage game, in the post-game media press conference, Coach Keatts talked about Rice in the same vein as Dennis Parker, Jr. He described both as talented players and he is excited about their future as Wolfpack players, but cautioned that since Rice didn’t play a lot last season, both are in a similar place on the learning curve. But he did give us a peek at the future when he mentioned possibly playing them together with Parker at the wing and Rice at power forward.

What did MJ do at Kansas? – He only played in 23 games, averaging 7.5 minutes a game. In 13 of those games, he hit 0 field goals, in 7 he hit 1. The last time he hit more than 1 basket in a game was December 1, 2022. In 12 of his 23 games last season, he did not get a rebound.

To Put It In Perspective …

In his Pack debut:

  • He played the 8th most minutes he has ever played in a college game,
  • He scored the 2nd most points he has ever scored in a college game
  • The 6 rebounds was his career high
  • The five made baskets is tied for his second most in a game (he hit 6 once).
  • The 1 made 3PT shot is only the third game in which he’s hit a 3PT shot (he hit 2 once).

In that context, you realize that MJ had an outstanding first game.

Summary

MJ Rice is likely to start his career in the red and white like Dennis Parker, Jr, who had 18 points and 9 boards against Vanderbilt, and then just a few nights later, had zero points and just 2 rebounds against Ole Miss.

Both of these players are going to be very good. We’ll see flashes of brilliance (like Rice at the Heritage game, or Parker at Vanderbilt), and then be frustrated they don’t do it nightly. We need to be patient, but there’s no reason to think they won’t get there. It’s obvious they both get along well with their teammates. They have good examples to play with, and the staff is good at helping players develop. And if you squint hard into the future, and find yourself a four-leaf clover or two, next year we COULD return 6-7 players from this year’s rotation and add Kam Woods, Trey Parker, and Paul McNeil, Jr to it. The future looks bright. (possibly)