He came off the bench. He could not shoot threes. He was a little timid. In his freshman season, Desi Rodriguez was just an ordinary player. He did not stand out, partly because of the stellar freshmen he was surrounded by and in large part because he did not understand the college game.
Rodriguez came to Seton Hall along with Isaiah Whitehead, his teammate from Abraham Lincoln High School. Whitehead, a five-star a recruit and one of the top-ranked players in the nation in his position, took the spotlight from Rodriguez, and Rodriguez went through his freshman year largely under the radar.
Rodriguez’s flair had always been a part of his game, showing off his “dunkin’ Desi” chops early and posting 46 dunks in his career, but Rodriguez wanted to be known for more than a showman. He knew his freshman year would be tough to navigate and make an impact in before the season started.
“That was expected for me, I knew who I had in front of me,” Rodriguez said. “I had a senior in front of me in Brandon Mobley. It wasn’t a problem for me; I was getting energetic minutes off the bench. After that year, I knew I had to get better.”
The starting lineup that season was guard-heavy, but Mobley held the primary spot at Rodriguez’s position. Rodriguez started two games that season, but otherwise came off the bench, averaging 5.6 points and 4.5 rebounds in 16.6 minutes per game.
The rebounding numbers are close to what Rodriguez gets in his 30.2 minutes per game today, but his statistics in three-point shooting show his true growth.
Currently, Rodriguez is in the top-15 of both three-point percentage (39.0) and average three-pointers made per game (2.0). In his freshman season, Rodriguez made just two three-pointers the entire year, attempting 12 total.
“I had to work on my game, shooting the ball, driving the ball, and I did that,” Rodriguez said. “I was able to get in the starting lineup my sophomore year, and we won a championship. I’m excited to see how my game prevailed over the years, how I got better and how I was able to do different things.”
In the offseason following his freshman year, Rodriguez worked on his three-point shot, simply because he knew defenders could not guard it. “I got in the gym, shooting the ball,” Rodriguez said. “I was just going off how teams played me. My freshman year they were playing off of me, and even if I got the ball and I was wide open, I wouldn’t take a shot, so I knew I had to work on that, get my confidence up and I was able to knock down shots.”
His sophomore season, Rodriguez incorporated threes into his game and jumped from 0.4 to 2.4 three-point attempts per game that year. He increased that to 4.3 attempts as a junior.
Among Rodriguez’s teammates, Angel Delgado did not expect Rodriguez to become a three-point shooter, never mind one of the best on the team.
“Desi was a big man,” Delgado said. “He was kind of helping me out [in the paint], so it was impressive how he developed his game, and that was good. I’m just proud of everything he does.”
Now Rodriguez averages two three-pointers per game on about five attempts. He has made at least one three-pointer in 32 of his last 34 games, and the Pirates are 30-14 all-time when he scores at least 15 points. In short, he is a game changer.
The tweaks Rodriguez made to his game were evident in big moments on bigger stages, whether it was stepping up on the road, at Madison Square Garden or at home, including games against elite talent. Those stepping stones led Rodriguez to become a 1,000-point scorer along with his teammates Khadeen Carrington and Delgado before the end of their junior season. But with Carrington and Delgado averaging at least 25 minutes per game in their freshman seasons, nearly 10 more than Rodriguez at the time, Rodriguez accomplished the feat in a different manner.
His freshman season, Rodriguez totaled 175 points in 31 games played. Both Carrington and Delgado had a big jump on him in that department, and it was not close – Carrington had 273 points and Delgado, a regular starter his entire college career, totaled 288 points that season. Rodriguez had a lot of catching up to do.
That catchup started with a move to the starting lineup and therefore a jump in minutes played, logging an average of 26 minutes per game. Improving his statistics in nearly every category, especially in three-point efficiency, Rodriguez jumped from averaged 5.6 points per game to 12.4 in his sophomore season. That increase helped Rodriguez pour in 421 points his sophomore season, 246 more than his freshman year.
The jump was a promising sign for Rodriguez, and that sophomore year culminated in a Big East Championship, the Pirates’ first since 1993.
“Age, understanding the game more, knowing what it takes to win,” Rodriguez said on what was the key difference in his improvement. “Just getting better, just playing with our guys, playing off of everybody, finding my spots on the floor and playing harder on defense.”
Rodriguez’s point total went up again his junior season, as he scored 519 on the season while hitting the 1,000-point mark. He had some catching up to do next to teammates Carrington and Delgado, but his burst on the scene in 2015 got the job done.
While he improved on the court, Rodriguez has had his fair share of benchings when disagreements arose with coach Kevin Willard. While another of those benchings happened in Rodriguez’s senior season against Creighton on Jan. 17, the issue has been placed a bit on the backburner as Rodriguez has aged, expressing the strength of his relationship with his coach and growing personally.
“That’s what I think is different, just age and knowing the game more and knowing I’m older and I understand everything more,” Rodriguez said.
Delgado has also seen the growth in Rodriguez’s maturity throughout college.
“What’s the difference? His head got a little bit bigger,” Delgado joked.
“No, but I think he grow up as a man right now, and I’m really proud of him how he has become.”
As Rodriguez has grown in his maturity, his charisma with his teammates has always been a constant. Constantly joking, the four seniors refer to themselves as brothers, and their pride in each other succeeding is unmatched. Rodriguez has been able to thrive in this setting, one where he is comfortable to be himself among his friends.
By changing his game and attitude, Rodriguez climbed up the ranks in both statistics and recognitions. Only being recognized on the Big East All-Academic Team and All-Met Second and Third Teams prior to 2018, Rodriguez was named to the All-Big East Second Team for his senior season. He leads his team in points per game (17.8), a feat he had never accomplish prior, and made his name known in a crowded Big East.
That is something fans did not think freshman Rodriguez was capable of doing, but now he is among the best.
Outside his game, his kind and open nature made Rodriguez a quick fan favorite. His interaction with fans in taking pictures was a constant presence, and he often gives away his shoes to children after games. That is a tradition taken on by many of Seton Hall’s players, but Rodriguez rewarded fans’ belief in him by giving them more to believe in each year.
As a freshman would show flashes of what fans see in him today, but he sees himself now as a different person. He is no longer just the Pirate who can dunk, but the Pirate who can dominate.
Even with his college career nearly complete, Rodriguez has learned to cope with a new challenge. Rodriguez experienced his first career injury on Feb. 21 when he sprained his ankle after slipping on a damp court in Providence, R.I. and sat out three games. The injury is one last hurdle for Rodriguez to overcome before Seton Hall’s NCAA Tournament matchup with NC State on Thursday.
“I didn’t know I was going to [feel] this great [at this point],” Rodriguez said. “The way I sprained my ankle and my tendon and everything that day three weeks ago, I didn’t think I was going to be back on the floor.”
Rodriguez said everyone’s confidence helped him get better, though.
Rodriguez has improved his game season after season by adapting to mismatches and working on what he knows makes him a threat. Entering his third straight NCAA Tournament, a win in the Big Dance is one goal that remains for Rodriguez and that he looks to accomplish with his teammates before they graduate. To do that, Rodriguez has evolved, as what he was not in his freshman year, he is now – a three-point shooter, an aggressor, a team leader, a fan favorite and someone who can rise to the occasion.
Elizabeth Swinton can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @eswint22.