Penn State basketball players Ace Baldwin, RayQuawndis Mitchell, Zach Hicks, D'Marco Dunn and Puff Johnson participated in an event in downtown State College on Sunday through NIL collective Happy Valley United.
But while the Nittany Lions needed to develop on the court through summer workouts and a two-game exhibition slate in the Bahamas, they also needed to bond off the court to get comfortable and build a chemistry that could transfer to game days.
A group of players had a prime opportunity to do that Sunday in downtown State College, Pa. Penn State players Ace Baldwin, Puff Johnson, RayQuawndis Mitchell, D'Marco Dunn, Zach Hicks participated in a meet-and-greet at the “Food Truck Rally in the Valley” to benefit Housing Transitions through the name, image and likeness (NIL) collective Happy Valley United.
For a couple hours, the quintet signed autographs, posed for pictures with fans, sampled the food truck offerings and got to know the community. All five picked Penn State out of the NCAA Transfer Portal earlier this year, so it was a prime opportunity to get face time with the fans who will be in the stands at the Bryce Jordan Center.
“It's great out here, a nice day outside and great bonding with the players,” said Baldwin, who followed Rhoades from VCU. “Happy Valley got happy people around here.”
The camaraderie between the five Nittany Lions was clear Sunday. Baldwin and Hicks walked around South Allen Street with a video camera to capture his teammates in action, and as Mitchell answered questions about his experience since transferring to Penn State from University of Missouri-Kansas City, the other four pulled out their phones and crowded around to record his answers.
“It's a great experience. … Being able to be a part of something like this is fun, is great,” Mitchell said. I'm enjoying it, getting to get a scene, a peek of all the people out, so it's been pretty good.
“It's definitely helping a lot. We've been bonding a lot with a few of us right here, and the connection with each other is just getting bigger and bigger. So it's good.”
Mitchell also credited the NIL opportunities from Happy Valley United as something that has helped him get to know the Penn State community better while also providing an introduction of him to State College at large.
“I love Happy Valley United. It's really good,” said Mitchell, who also played at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Otero Junior College in Colorado and Idaho, in addition to UMKC. “They're giving opportunities to be in different situations, be in different places like this and be around good people like this. So it's a great experience to be a part of.”
Johnson and Dunn transferred to Penn State from North Carolina, and they’ve been able to lean on each other during their transition. They’re one of two sets of teammates to transfer in — Baldwin and fellow former VCU guard Nick Kern is the other — to play for Rhoades.
“It's new for me, but it's been a good experience,” said Dunn, an Arizona native who finished his high school career in North Carolina. “I think I chose the right family, Coach Rhoades and Penn State, so the summer's been good. It's been a good adjustment period, so I'm excited for this season.”
For Johnson, it’s the chance to return to a state he knows well. He previously played for Moon (Pa.) Area High before finishing his high school career in Arizona and signing with the Tar Heels in the Class of 2020. There’s a level of familiarity for him to be back in Pennsylvania.
“It's pretty cool just because it's a new place,” Johnson said. “Close to home, too, for me, so it's pretty cool because a lot of family members can come down and see [me], so it's a pretty special place down here.”
Rhoades has had plenty of opportunities to work on the bond within his team. Penn State had its allotment of summer workouts, and then the Nittany Lions played a pair of exhibition games in the Bahamas a couple weeks ago. Penn State won both, and it allowed players and coaches alike to feel each other out in real action for the first time.
Rhoades wants his team to bond however it can to make Penn State stronger when the real games start in November. Sunday was another little thing that can help the Nittany Lions get closer, and that can pay dividends in the coming months.
“Like I tell everybody else, I love State College,” Baldwin said. “Like, it's called Happy Valley for a reason.”