Returning 95 percent of its offensive production and its entire starting lineup from the 2017–18 season, the Yale men’s basketball team is veteran, deep and talented.
But against Vermont last Wednesday night, it was first-year forward Isaiah Kelly ’22 who guided the Elis (2–2, 0–0 Ivy) for much of the first half. His strong play in a packed Patrick Gymnasium marked a highlight for the program’s first-year class, a group of five players continuing their transition to the Bulldog system. In addition to Kelly, the class of 2022 features guard Matthue Cotton ’22, guard Eze Dike ’22, guard Michael Feinberg ’22 and forward Jake Lanford ’22.
“I went out there like every game I’ve had so far,” Kelly said. “I just try to go out there when I get in and provide a lift from the bench and a lot of energy in the game … moving around, cutting, just trying to be as aggressive as possible. I was playing with a lot of energy.”
Kelly’s 13 first-half points in as many minutes off the bench came on six of seven shooting from the field, helping the Elis combat 20 first-half points from Catamount junior forward Anthony Lamb, en route to a career-high 34-point performance in a 79–70 Vermont win. Earlier this week, the 6-foot-7 Atlanta native received recognition on the Ivy League Honor Roll along with guard Miye Oni ’20, whose 16.3 points per game ranks third in the Ivy League after three contests.
In the season’s first three games, head coach James Jones regularly called on Kelly and Cotton to provide a spark off the bench. Recruiting site 247Sports rates Kelly and Cotton as Jones’s third- and fourth-best recruits of all time, respectively. They rank slightly behind fellow three-star forwards Jordan Bruner ’20 and Paul Atkinson ’21.
Cotton, a New Jersey native, played the majority of his high school career at St. Benedict’s in Newark, a basketball program recognized as one of the nation’s elite. He chose Yale over more than 15 other Division I offers, including offers from power conference programs like Miami, Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech. Four days before Yale’s season-opening win against California in the Pac-12 China Game, Cotton led the Elis with 19 points in an exhibition against a Chinese University All-Star team at the Suzhou New District Cultural & Sports Center.
Kelly scored a superhuman 2,780 points for two schools during his high school basketball career and played alongside current Chicago Bulls forward Wendell Carter Jr. for two years at Pace Academy in Georgia. The duo helped lead the Knights to two consecutive state championships during Kelly’s sophomore and junior years.
Still, even as they emerge from premier secondary school programs and well-traveled Amateur Athletic Union teams, Yale’s first years have needed to adjust to the pace of Division I basketball, which is inherently faster than the speed of high school ball.
“I feel like I’m still learning stuff everyday,” Feinberg said. “It might not be just plays but picking up on little things like play styles and making smart decisions on the court that I might not have in high school … I feel like I’m being pushed every day, and that challenge definitely leads to growth. It’s been really beneficial to my improvement as a player.”
The Bulldogs’ veteran core plays a critical role in bringing the rookies up to speed. Feinberg — a 6-foot-4 Los Angeles native who played the majority of his career on a stacked Sierra Canyon team that included the second pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Marvin Bagley III — called guard Alex Copeland ’19 a mentor to him.
Dike, on the other hand, referenced Oni and Bruner as players valuable to his transition to the college game. Last spring, the Montreal point guard graduated from Kimball Union Academy where he transferred his junior year. At the academy, team captain Dike competed in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council’s AA division, a group of Northeastern prep teams whose 2018 alumni now play at programs such as Villanova, Providence and Creighton.
Rounding out the class of 2022, Lanford comes into the Bulldog program tied with Atkinson as the tallest player on the team. Standing at 6-foot-10, he was named the top center in South Carolina three years in a row, helping the Porter-Gaud School clinch three state championships.
“The biggest part is just being in the right spot defensively and playing with the right pace — not letting the speed of the game get you lost out there,” guard Trey Phills ’19 said. “When you’re a freshman you’re in a hurry all the time, but I think they’ve been ready to play. Some games they’ll play 12 minutes. Some games they might play 0. You just have to be ready when your number is called.”
The class of 2022 has contributed 82 minutes of playing time through four games.
William McCormack | firstname.lastname@example.org