Unlv vs unr | franchise sports media
Photo Credit: Trisha LaCoste/Franchise Sports Media

FSM Feature: UNLV Men’s Basketball 2024-25 Roster Review

Franchise Sports Media

 

Now that UNLV has finalized its roster for the upcoming season, it’s time to go in-depth on every player suiting up for the team. I’ll review each player by category: Returner, Portal, and Incoming Recruit.

 

UNLV Men's Basketball 2024-25 Roster Review | Franchise Sports Media
Photo Credit: UNLV Athletics

Portal Kombat! I don’t know about you, but the Mortal Kombat techno music from the 90s film just played in my brain.

If it wasn’t before, I’m sure it is now. Yeah, let it ruminate between your ears for a second. Okay, enough of that. Between March 18th and May 1st of this year, the college basketball transfer portal brought the most exciting recruitment the sport has to offer.

The infamous portal has supplanted the “one and done” as the sexiest way to compile a roster. Add to that the even more infamous NIL, and that six-and-a-half-week stretch has become nothing short of a free-agency bidding war. 

The Rebels did well in the portal. Their coup wasn’t exactly Mortal Kombat techno music exciting, but they did manage to land a couple of difference makers and a couple of depth pieces that filled out areas of need. Before the portal even opened, Coach Kruger and his staff also added 247 Sports’ number one overall recruiting class for the MWC. More importantly, Kruger and Co. made a valiant and successful effort to retain core pieces from the previous roster that had them on the cusp of the NCAA Tournament. 

All in all, Kruger has in place his most talented, deepest, and most cohesive roster to date.

 

Returning Runnin’ Rebels: 

 

UNLV Men's Basketball 2024-25 Roster Review | Franchise Sports Media
Photo Credit: UNLV Athletics

DJ Thomas- There were some tense moments in this portal cycle where UNLV fans held their breath, waiting for Thomas to be poached. In the era of the NIL, it’s always a real possibility that a P4 program with a ridiculous budget can come in and lure away almost any player with a lucrative enough offer.

To Kruger and UNLV’s immense credit, they were able to re-recruit Dedan Thomas Jr and keep him home playing for the hometown Rebels. Because of this momentous achievement, UNLV will have one of (if not) the best point guards in the entire country running their offense this upcoming season.

Thomas is masterful, to put it lightly. His ability to run an offense at the highest levels is nothing short of incredible. His instincts are like a padawan Jedi apprentice: he knows inherently when to score the ball and exactly how to get his teammates involved. He won Co-MWC Freshman of the Year honors after averaging a team-leading 13.6 ppg and 5.1 apg. Thomas also played Iron Man-esque minutes at 34.9 per contest while shooting a respectable 36% from 3-point range.

All this when he was supposed to be a senior in high school back at Liberty High in Las Vegas. Rebel fans can and should expect a sizable uptick in Thomas’ production this season. It’s widely known that there is a giant leap from freshman to sophomore year. Being on the young side, Thomas will have benefited massively from his trial-by-fire introduction to college basketball. 

Probably the most beneficial thing for Thomas and his development was his intense battles with rival San Diego State. UConn has been the only real thorn in SDSU’s side in the last couple of seasons. Besides the two-time reigning National Champions, not much has been able to stump them. Then along came DJ Thomas. He was so good as a frosh that he beat the ranked Aztecs on a last-second step-back jumper at the Thomas and Mack towards the end of the regular season. He almost single-handedly duplicated the feat a week later in the MWC Tournament.

Thomas hit a circus shot layup to force overtime in that game and almost hit a half-court buzzer-beater in the extra session to topple them in heartbreaking fashion yet again. In 3 games against SDSU last season, Thomas averaged 20.3 ppg and 4.3 apg. That’s herculean against one of the best defenses in the entire nation. 

Thomas flourished in a Mountain West that boasted 6 NCAA Tournament teams. He also participated in postseason basketball with an NIT run, including two wins and battles against ACC and Big East opponents. One could argue that UNLV could have danced instead with a healthy roster surrounding the phenomenal freshman. Coach Kevin Kruger only had a full complement of players at his disposal who were bereft of injury for a startling 14 minutes all season.

When you consider Thomas’ inevitable evolution as a player, his natural maturation physically, and a new team around him that goes two deep at every position, it’s tough to imagine UNLV not taking that next step into the March Madness bracket on Selection Sunday with him at the helm in 2024-25.

 

Robert Whaley Jr- Every superhero needs a sidekick. Except DJ Thomas doesn’t have Robin at his side; he has the Hulk. Whaley is an intangible guy with a nasty streak, freakish bounce, and brutish strength. His dunk highlights in a Rebel uniform are up there (pun intended) with Derrick Jones Jr and the late, great Jarvis Basknight. When coaches get together in the offseason and discuss roster construction, they all desperately want a Rob Whaley Jr on their team. This is why major kudos need to be handed out once again to Kruger and his staff’s ability to prioritize and re-recruit this essential piece. 

After Jalen Hill went down with a terrible knee injury just seven games into the season, I’m sure some thought that, at the very least, multiple players would be needed to fill his invaluable shoes. As it turned out, it created a next-man-up mentality and a pleasantly surprising resiliency with the 2023-24 Rebels. No one was readier or more capable of stepping into Hill’s role than Whaley. The JUCO product ended up with averages of 7.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, and 61% shooting from the field.

Whaley put in just over 20 mpg of game action last season, but that number is about to go way up, considering how reliable and electric the senior-to-be is. 

 

Jalen Hill- The offseason before, when Hill decided to transfer from Oklahoma to UNLV, it was as if the prodigal son had returned. The former Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year at Clark High School had been recruited to come to UNLV, but Hill opted for the Big 12 instead, where he became one of the best glue guys in the league for three seasons. So, when Hill (mentioned above) went down with a season-ending injury, it was doubly heartbreaking for UNLV fans and Jalen as well.

He finally was able to suit up as a hometown hero, but a devastating setback derailed his season. Instead of him being the Swiss Army Knife type of contributor he was capable of being, 

With almost a full season and an entire offseason to rehab and recuperate, everyone hopes Hill can return to the form where he put up 10.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, and a steal per game in limited appearances for UNLV. When healthy, Hill can guard the 1-4, score inside and out, crash the glass, hit 85% of his free throws, and generally affect the game positively in every single facet. 

On a side note, I believe Hill will be in the position battle of the offseason to monitor most. If he can’t return at 100%, I believe DePaul transfer Jaden Henley could earn the starting small forward position over him. 

 

Brooklyn Hicks- Hicks is my nominee for breakout performer of the 2024-25 season. His numbers last season weren’t anything to gush over, but I firmly believe his 2.6 ppg, 1.4 RPG, and 0.7 apg resulted from having a short leash. There’s nothing more challenging for a young freshman to go through than playing sparse, inconsistent minutes and sometimes not seeing the floor. It hinders their development, and it hurts their confidence and psyche. 

That being said, it could be implied that Hicks simply wasn’t ready for the limelight that early in his career, but I beg to differ. Watching the NIT game on the road against Seton Hall, it was abundantly clear that UNLV was getting bullied. They were unable to match the toughness, physicality, strength, and grit that the Pirates brought to the proceedings. The two exceptions to that were Rob Whaley and that’s right, Brooklyn Hicks

For those who are still suffering from the PTSD of that shellacking in Bruce Springsteen Land, I apologize for making you relive that evening in Seton Hall’s multipurpose room of a gym. But on a night where even DJ Thomas was shaken, Hicks showcased what I believe he will ultimately become as a Runnin’ Rebel. In just 14 minutes, Hicks had 9 points and three rebounds on 4/6 shooting. In a game filled with timidity by UNLV, he attacked the basket with fervor, defended with tenacity (something he did all season), and looked like one of the only Rebels who belonged on the court with a Big East team that should have been in the NCAA Tournament and won the NIT

 

Isaiah Cottrell- No one has more to prove on this roster than big man Isaiah Cottrell. Coming out of local powerhouse Bishop Gorman, Cottrell was a 4-star blue-chip prospect with offers from Kansas, UCLA, Virginia, and many other top-flight programs. When it was all said and done, he decided to go play for coach Bob Huggins and his rough-and-tumble West Virginia teams. Between injuries and perhaps falling out of favor, he never really got it going in Morgantown. Looking for a new landing spot, Cottrell, like some of his Rebel teammates, decided to try the hometown hero approach by signing with UNLV. 

In his first season for the Rebels (2022-23), Cottrell was hampered by yet another injury and only appeared in one game. It was a disappointing turn of events, considering the UNLV staff considered him a starter and an impact piece. Fast forward to the 2023-24 season, Cottrell was fully healthy and primed to showcase why he was so coveted out of high school. That never came to fruition. On a team badly in need of size and an impact big to pair alongside the Boone twins, Cottrell was relegated to the bench and spot minutes. 

It would be generous to call Cottrell’s contributions of 3.5 ppg, 2.4 RPG, 0.4 bpg, and sub-40 % field goal shooting modest. In fact, I’ll call it for what it is: head-scratching. At the very least, Cottrell has all the tools to be a starter and an impact role player. He has a solid spot-up 3-point shot. With DJ Thomas feeding him the ball in the far corner, he could make a comfortable living as a knockdown perimeter shooter. He also runs the floor like a track athlete at 6’11 and has good shot-blocking instincts.

Can Cottrell become the player his prep rankings indicated he could be? This upcoming season will tell that tale. 

 

Jacob Bannarbie- Bannarbie might be the most intriguing player on the roster. He redshirted last season as a true freshman, which is pretty standard. Bannarbie was the final addition to a highly-rated recruiting class, and he had a lot of talent on the depth chart in front of him. It made a lot of sense for him to develop in practice and keep him in reserve for future use. 

However, when you look at Bannarbie’s footage, you see some exciting flashes. He’s 6’9 and built like a grown man, but he’s also super versatile and athletic. In his highlight packages, you can watch as he initiates the fast break by himself after corralling a defensive rebound. Not only that, but he makes the proper reads and can dish the ball while he’s in full gallop. There aren’t a lot of bigs that can do that at this level of basketball. Bannarbie is also an aggressive rebounder and a solid defender on the block.

I won’t make any predictions, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds himself earning minutes at some point during conference play. 

 

Portal Players: 

 

UNLV Men's Basketball 2024-25 Roster Review | Franchise Sports Media
Photo Credit: UNLV Athletics

Jailen Bedford- Shooting and star power were the number one and two areas of need for UNLV at the shooting guard position this offseason. Jailen Bedford checks both of those boxes. If you look at Bedford’s stat line in and of itself, you would come away impressed. He put up 14.6 ppg, an astounding 6.4 rpg (he’s 6’4, mind you), and shot an efficient 37% from beyond the arc. But his overall season stats don’t really do him justice. 

We’ve all seen those players who seem to shine when the lights are brightest. They call it big game ability. That’s the exact type of player UNLV is getting with Jailen Bedford. Oral Roberts is considered low to mid-major, but they played a very tough out-of-conference schedule. There were eight games where Bedford competed against P4 or NCAA Tournament opponents. In those eight contests, he had averages of 16.5 ppg and 6.1 rpg and shot 48.6% from 3-point range on 5.6 attempts per game.

He played his best basketball of the season in games against Kansas State and Texas Tech. Playing the Wildcats, he torched them for 23 points on 5/7 shooting from 3. He also hauled in 9 rebounds for good measure. When Oral Roberts matched up with Texas Tech, Bedford scored a season-high 26 points, shot 6/8 from distance, and pulled down six rebounds. 

Bedford sports a 40-inch vertical leap and rebounds like Josh Hart from the Knickerbockers. He’s multifaceted and athletic, and when you put that kind of asset around a point guard like DJ Thomas, you’re looking at a backcourt that has a chance to be the best in the entire West, not just the Mountain West. 

 

Jaden Henley- UNLV will be Henley’s 3rd stop in as many years. He started at Minnesota as a freshman before heading to Chicago to play Big East basketball for DePaul. Despite the Blue Demons being one of the worst basketball teams in the nation a year ago, Henley was a bright spot for them (perhaps their lone bright spot). Henley averaged 8.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg, and 1.3 apg for the season, but he led DePaul in scoring in Big East play at a little over ten ppg.

To finish the season out over his final 11 games, he upped his scoring average to 12 ppg. It might not seem like much, but you saw an uptick in production from a young sophomore in what many consider the toughest conference in all of college basketball. That’s no easy feat. 

On the downside, Henley shot a porous 27% from beyond the 3-point line this last season. On the other hand, as a freshman in Minnesota, he shot a more than respectable 38% from deep. So, why the disparity? When you break down Henley’s game, you’ll find that as a spot-up shooter, Henley is very adept. Where he struggles is creating his shot off the dribble. At Minnesota, he wasn’t tasked with scoring the ball like at DePaul. At UNLV, you can see his shooting percentage climb back towards respectability because he won’t be the focal point of defenses in the Big East. As a Rebel, he’ll be a 4th to maybe even as low as a 6th option. 

Look for Henley to be a possibility to start at the small forward spot this upcoming season. I’m told the staff is excited about how multi-skilled he is. At 6’7, he brings a lot of length, defensive tenacity, and a growing scorer mentality. With the way Henley kept getting better and better every night in the Big East, he should be able to grow as a player even more in a league like the MWC

 

Julian Rishwain- Fondly referred to as “Swishwain” while playing productive minutes at the University of San Francisco, Julian Rishwain enamored and excited the Dons fanbase with reliable 3-point shooting. A couple of years ago, USF was a contender in the WCC. That’s a league where Gonzaga (usually) and (sometimes) Saint Mary’s reign supreme. That’s why Todd Golden is now the head coach at Florida. That’s also why Rishwain followed his former coach to the SEC

On those rather good USF teams, Rishwain was a relatively solid contributor. As a sophomore, Rishwain (in about 17 minutes of game action a night) averaged eight ppg and three rpg and shot 37% from 3. His scoring was similar as a junior at 7.4 ppg, but his 3-point percentage skyrocketed to 43%. Rishwain also played in the NCAA Tournament that year. But his following season was cut short because of a knee injury. Even more unfortunate, after transferring to Florida, his knee never properly healed up, and he only played in 8 games for the Gators. 

The 6’5 sharpshooter from Los Angeles has now been granted a 6th year of eligibility. If he can get back to what he was able to provide for USF a couple of years ago, then UNLV might have found themselves a sneaky good get in the portal. 

 

Jace Whiting- Depth is an integral part of any roster. Look no further than last season when the Rebels were decimated by injuries, NCAA waivers, players missing games for personal reasons, etc. UNLV was in contention for an MWC regular season championship until the final few games of the season despite having to rely on literally all 13 scholarship players to play impactful minutes. Playing all 13 guys like that isn’t ideal, but it is a rare, albeit pleasant, surprise when it doesn’t adversely affect the bottom line, which is winning. 

Whiting is one of those depth pieces UNLV will be glad to have if similar circumstances occur this next season. As mentioned above, DJ Thomas played around 35 minutes per game this last year. Yes, he’s a young player in great shape, but I don’t care who you are; that kind of workload can wear anyone down, especially over an 18+ game MWC slate where rotations are typically trimmed down. That’s why having a backup to Thomas and a secondary ball handler will be crucial. 

Whiting is familiar with the MWC. Coming from a Boise State program consistently in the top half of the standings every season, he’s no stranger to the rigors this league offers. Whiting has played about 15 mpg in his two seasons there but was efficient in his limited role. For his career, Whiting is a 45% field goal shooter and a 40% marksman from deep. Last season, he was remarkably accurate, hitting 48% from the floor overall and 50% from distance. 

UNLV can now give DJ Thomas a little rest and keep him fresh, knowing they have a 6’3 shooter with MWC experience as an insurance policy. 

 

Incoming Runnin’ Rebels:

 

UNLV Men's Basketball 2024-25 Roster Review | Franchise Sports Media
Photo Credit: UNLV Athletics

Bear Cherry- There’s a negative stigma attached to JUCO basketball nowadays. Granted, the talent pool might not be what it once was, but Junior College Basketball still produces talent.

Among that talent, Bear Cherry is considered the number one overall center recruit and the 15th-best JUCO player overall. I’m not saying Cherry will rise to the same heights as Jimmy Butler or Dalton Knecht, but UNLV fans don’t have to look much further than the Rebs’ own Robert Whaley Jr to appreciate the kind of player that can be nabbed from that level of basketball. 

Out-of-high school programs like San Diego State and Grand Canyon saw enough in Cherry to offer him then. Out of JUCO, UNLV had to beat Florida State and Mississippi State for his services. Last year at New Mexico Junior College, Cherry had solid averages of 11 ppg, seven rpg, and 1.3 bpg in just 20 mpg. At 6’11 250 lbs, UNLV’s staff likes that he is physical and can play both ends of the court. In his highlight package from NMJC, you can see him knocking down hooks over both shoulders, performing multiple chase-down blocks, finishing on the break, demonstrating soft hands, throwing down vicious dunks around the basket, and blocking/altering numerous shots as a rim protector.

Come November; I fully expect Cherry to play like his Bear namesake and earn the starting center spot. 

 

Pape N’Diaye- N’Diaye epitomizes the word upside. Not to say the 7’0, 4-star shot blocker is only coming to UNLV based solely on his potential, but it can be said that N’Diaye could become an NBA-level rim protector when it’s all said and done. That’s why schools like Kansas, Arizona State, Miami, Colorado, and Xavier offered him scholarships. As it stands, N’Diaye is still relatively green. He’s only been playing basketball for four years and has been stateside since 2022. His offensive game is a work in progress, but his ability to block and alter shots is already elite. 

For N’Diaye to see the floor regularly as a true freshman, he must add strength and weight to his lanky 195 lb frame. But his work ethic is off the charts, and he gives it his all on both ends of the court without fail. Effort can make up for a lack of polish, and in N’Diaye’s case, that’s why I see him getting time as a frosh. What he brings to the table is unique and can help the Rebels win games. 

 

James Evans- UNLV is an epicenter for players like Evans, it seems. Guys who are comfortable making regular appearances on the SportsCenter Top 10. Whether it’s JR Rider, Derrick Jones Jr, or Stacey Augmon, the Rebels have a knack for getting human highlight reel types to suit up in the Scarlet and Gray. Evans is a Top 150 recruit and a 4-star prospect, according to ESPN.com, but he has a ways to go before being truly compared to those NBA stars.

However, when you look at his dunk contest-style airborne antics on social media, it’s hard not to get excited about him flying through the air with the greatest of ease at the T&M

Evans does have a lot going for him. At 6’5, he’s a strong wing with good bounce and athleticism in spades. On the other hand, Kruger has been proven to rely heavily on veteran players and doesn’t give freshmen not named DJ Thomas a lot of leash. With upperclassmen like Jalen Hill, Jaden Henley, and Julian Rishwain available at the 3-spot, Evans must set himself apart to take those available minutes.

If he can come in and be an absolute terror defensively like Luis Rodriguez was for UNLV, you could see him supplant some of those further up on the depth chart.

 

Get all your UNLV Men’s Basketball coverage right here at FSM. Thanks for visiting FranchiseSportsMedia.com for your Las Vegas Sports news today.

 

Franchise Sports Media. Las Vegas sports news about Las Vegas Sports teams.

– Jeff Waddilove – Franchise Sports Media

Follow Jeff on all social media: @jeffwaddilove

Follow The Franchise on social media

X

Instagram

Facebook

Subscribe to our Official YouTube Channel