We’re almost to the end of Notre Dame men’s basketball’s new additions to the 2023-24 roster, so let’s power through. Second among the transfers is Kebba Njie (from what I can tell, his last name is pronounced with a silent “n” and rhymes with “tie”). The 6-foot-10, 254-pound sophomore forward followed head coach Micah Shrewsberry to Notre Dame from Penn State this offseason. Let’s breakdown his game.
Like the previous subject of this breakdown series, Julian Roper II, Njie has apparently emerged as one of three vocal leaders of this Irish squad (Roper and senior forward Matt Zona being the other two). As I said with Roper, being a vocal leader is a bit of a vague distinction, but Njie has the most (and only) first-hand experience of Shrewsberry’s system which automatically bolsters his credibility. And, in any event, every team needs someone to set the tone, which leads into Njie’s second contribution…
A large swath of fans just let out a collective sigh of relief. If there has been one, identifiable trait that Notre Dame men’s basketball has been lacking for the last several seasons, it’s physical toughness.
To be sure, one physical player is not enough by itself, but if there’s a place to have one, it’s in the frontcourt. Hopefully Njie’s play-style can rub off his teammates, if not in the way they throw their bodies around then at least by instilling some more mental fortitude than was on display last season.
Lunch Pail Production
With all of that said, Njie still has a lot to prove in terms of his ceiling. He averaged just 14.3 minutes per contest during his freshman season and posted per game averages of 3.4 points, 3.5 rebounds, 0.2 steals and 0.5 blocks while shooting 52% from the field and 59.5% from the free throw line.
For context, Penn State had a relatively deep rotation last season. Nine different players played at least 29 games and eight averaged at least 10 minutes per game. That’s part of the reason Njie’s 3.5 rebounds and 0.5 blocks per game were the third best averages on the team. Njie himself played in 37 games and started 26, including the final 13 games of the year (i.e., he started two NCAA Tournament games; no other player on Notre Dame’s roster has even appeared in the Big Dance).
Regardless, the numbers are what they are. As far as his freshman season was concerned, Njie was simply a bruiser on the interior (notwithstanding one three point make in five attempts on the year). He’s all but guaranteed to start for Notre Dame this season, but how many minutes he’ll actually play is still unclear, because he can’t be a prolonged offensive liability on the court if he’s not also swatting shots or gobbling up rebounds like a maniac (but he is capable of doing both things, to be clear).
Of course, the term “offensive liability” is a bit unfair since Njie does shoot over 52% from the field in an admittedly limited sample size (although his free-throw percentage does certainly leave a lot to be desired). Perhaps the more appropriate word is “non-factor,” because absent an offensive leap this offseason, he will probably continue to be just an opportunistic scorer. Whether it’s putbacks on offensive rebounds…
… or when his defender collapses on a ball-handler…
… or slipping to the basket off a screen.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. You love to see a guy get rewarded for doing the dirty work. But the Irish need more on the inside, because they aren’t built to live and die by the three-pointer like the last several years (and even when they were, they did a lot more dying than living).
Freshman forward Carey Booth may certainly help in that regard, and having Njie to soak up some of the hits inside will probably benefit Booth’s development. Regardless, the more offensive threats there are on the court, the better. That’s the only reason last year’s Notre Dame team put any fear into opponents even while posting a losing record.
Finally, Njie needs to curtail his fouling as a sophomore. He averaged 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes last season. Notre Dame should rotate through its roster more this year than it did in a typical year under Mike Brey, but they don’t appear deep enough to be able to afford losing Njie late in a close game.
Player Comp: Steven Adams
Career stats (single season): 7.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 0.7 spg, 2.0 bpg, 57.1% FG, 44.3% FT
Author’s note: Steven Adams went to Pittsburgh?
This comparison is itself a bit of a projection. Adams was a first-round NBA Draft pick and has already stuck around the league for a decade. I’m not insinuating that Njie is going to do the same thing, because, again, he needs to log more minutes.
Still, of note here is the fact that Adams only played 23.4 minutes per game in his lone collegiate season and still averaged 2.0 blocks per game while averaging just 1.6 fouls per game. To be fair, college basketball has changed a lot in the last decade, with floor spacing and three-point shooting at a premium. Also, Adams has a couple of inches on Njie, for whatever that’s worth.
But the point is that production in limited minutes is relevant if Njie is still coming along in his development and/or is still prone to excessive fouling. If so, then he needs to be efficient with his minutes — which should definitely go up this year — on both ends of the floor.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Njie and Zona are the starting frontcourt to begin the year with Booth rotating in off the bench. Maybe Booth eventually commandeers a starting spot, but if he does then I would say it’s at Zona’s expense, because I feel like Njie should be a full-season starter for Notre Dame (barring injury). There’s experience and production (albeit limited) that, combined with his physical attributes, makes me think that he has to play a major role on this team.
As for down the line, I don’t foresee All-ACC accolades for Njie. Maybe if he really comes into his own as a defender he could push for ACC DPOY, but even that feels like a stretch at this point. But if he stays at Notre Dame, let’s see where he is as a junior or senior, because the physical tools are all there.