Max Hooper’s contribution to the 2011-12 Harvard squad lasted about twelve seconds. While Hooper’s stat line from his freshman season indicates the 6’6″ wing played four minutes — two in a preseason game against MIT and another two versus Utah — that sixth of a minute was the only moment Hooper did something other than run up and down the court, taking a baseline pass at the top of the key and missing on the only field goal attempt in his Harvard career. But that contribution belies how important Hooper is to his newest team, St. John’s, this season; the wing transferred to the Big East school following his freshman year and is a major reason why the Johnnies are seen as a potential conference title contender.
“My job is to get shots on the court,” said Hooper recently at Dribble for the Cure, an annual event hosted by the school and the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation that has raised more than $50,000 this year. “But I bring more to the table than shooting. I am a very cerebral player so I feel I can use that to make plays for my teammates.”
The wing took the long route to Queens. A transfer during his high school career brought Hooper to the storied Mater Dei program, and while various recruiting articles linked Hooper to Notre Dame and Stanford, it wasn’t until he spent a year at Brewster Academy (in an effort to boost his profile) that he committed to Harvard, the one program that reportedly showed consistent interest. However, it proved difficult for Hooper to find playing time in the Crimson’s crowded backcourt, and he settled on St. John’s a few weeks after announcing decision to leave Cambridge.
Why did he chose the Red Storm, a team similarly stacked with guards? The presence of JaKarr Sampson, the highly-ranked forward who recommitted to St. John’s last spring who was Hooper’s roommate at Brewster. “When we roomed at Brewster, it was the first time I met a true, knock-down shooter,” claims Sampson. “You don’t think a shooter like Max can get better, but his shot has gotten better over the years.” Hooper had also played with, and against, current Johnnies at iS8, an annual summer tournament held in a tiny middle school gym in Queens — Hooper was placed on the same team with Sampson and D’Angelo Harrison. “Moe Harkless had a team,” said Hooper, “and he told JaKarr to come down and play and bring a teammate. It was an invaluable experience.”
There have always been concerns that Hooper did not possess the athleticism to compete at the high-major level, but as his mentor Miles Simon, the former Arizona star who now doubles as a skills’ trainer and college basketball analyst at ESPN, told the NY Post this spring, Hooper has transformed his body and become a better athlete. Hooper agrees with Simon, saying, “Last year was a good opportunity to take advantage of sitting out. When the team was on a road trip, the strength coach would keep working me out, and I could concentrate on getting extra lifts on game days.”
Hooper has always possessed the reputation as a long-range threat — during the team’s overseas trip this August, Hooper connected on 10 (of 13) threes in a win, and as John detailed, Hooper’s offensive rating in Europe (147.6) led the squad — so it will be interesting how coach Steve Lavin uses the wing. Even if he struggles defending potential quicker wings, his shooting touch is a sorely needed asset, one that essentially ensures he sees quality playing time. The Red Storm made nearly 25% of their threes a season ago, and the lack of outside shooting hampered the team’s offensive efficiency, clogging the paint and negating SJU’s overall athleticism.
Hooper foresees himself used in a variety of scenarios, including both in transition and in the half-court, and believes the ability of Jamal Branch and Rysheed Jordan to break defenders off the bounce will be integral to his game. “Both Rysheed and Jamal are always able to get into the lane, draw my man, and then kick to me for a spot-up. Regardless of who is on the court with me, my teammates do a good job setting me up.” Hooper is also skilled enough as a ball-handler that Lavin may also depend more frequently on having Sampson or Orlando Sanchez set a pick for the sophomore — both bigs can roll and then catch and finish and traffic, or give Hooper a fraction of daylight needed for an attempt.
The potential pairing of Hooper and Marco Bourgault also cannot be understated; though Bourgault only averaged ten or so minutes per game, he did convert 40% of his threes in a span of five games, and is another option to provide interior spacing. “Hoop is such a good shooter that teams are going to have to chase him off the line,” said Sampson, “But his shooting will open up our offense a lot this season.”