Iona’s Freshman Guard Inspires Russ Smith Comparisons

This upcoming season is the year of the sub-6′ point guard. Iona’s Schadrac Casimir is a celebrated member of that group.

According to ESPN, five of the prospects in their top 100 2014 ranking measure under 6′, and several high-major programs like Arizona (Parker Jackson-Cartwright, 5’8″) and Kentucky (Tyler Ulis, 5’9″), among others, will be headlined by these pint-sized distributors. This year isn’t that much of an outlier insomuch as the concentration of smaller-than-customary guards among BCS level schools. Players at that height typically find themselves overlooked and often end up in lower-level conferences, a scenario Iona freshman Schadrac Casimir encountered while in high school.

Since committing to Iona this past March, the 5’10” Casimir — whose first name is pronounced “Cedric” — had been widely praised as a potential breakout candidate in the MAAC, even drawing raves from twitter evangelizer Jon Rothstein:

As a recruit, though, the slight, sprightly Casimir was completely overlooked. “A lot of schools recruiting Schadrac, even the small Division I programs, questioned whether he was big enough or fast enough to play at their level, which put a damper on his recruitment,” said his older brother Benson.

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Iona head coach Tim Cluess hopes that freshman Schadrac Casimir could develop into his team’s next young star. (photo courtesy: Stockton Photo)

Of course, the Casimir who is a potential starter as a freshman for coach Tim Cluess, and the latest in the long line of gems the Iona head coach has unearthed during his five years at the New Rochelle-based school, is much different than the senior who suited up for Trinity Catholic High School. ESPN’s Adam Finkelstein had watched Casimir’s development for years, and scoring was never a problem for the guard. “He was one of the best scorers in his high school league,” Finkelstein said, “but there were significant concerns he couldn’t score against more athletic opponents.” He also was an efficient scorer, a player who was gifted enough to get to the rim at ease but also could create separation from beyond the three-point line.

Following his high school career, Benson says Schadrac had three offers — Sacred Heart, Fairfield, and Central Connecticut — and while the Gaels hadn’t offered, Cluess and assistant Jared Grasso were interested. “We saw him at an AAU event a few summer ago,” Cluess said, “and we wanted to follow him depending on what his next move was.” That next move was to raise his recruiting profile via a prep school — another brother had played college ball at Quinnipiac, and Benson, who handled Schadrac’s recruitment, felt his younger brother would benefit by moving into the ultra competitive New England Prep School Athletic Council, or NEPSAC. The conference has produced 17 NBA draft picks in the past four years, and was Schadrac’s best bet to prove his DI-worthiness. “He performs best where his back is to the wall,” Benson said. “He is real soft-spoken, and takes everything in around him, but he is at his best in high-pressure situations.”

Kelvin Jefferson, South Kent’s longtime coach, had watched Schadrac on the court three times before the guard enrolled for a post-graduate year. “That’s a lot of viewings for me,” Jefferson claimed. “Unfortunately, we have a lot of students from all over, and I only see kids through their highlight films, but with Schadrac, I was sold the first time — the other two times was to show him that we wanted him.” Jefferson has coached another underappreciated guard who wound up as one of those 17 draftees — Louisville’s Russ Smith — and as he watched Schadrac convert nearly 70 percent of his attempts, he could see the similarities between the two guards: “When it comes to the state of Connecticut, recruits don’t get the credit they deserve, and I thought Schadrac played with the same chip on his shoulder that Russ had.”

It took about four games for Schadrac to dispel any notions that he couldn’t compete against higher-ranked prospects — he scored a combined 58 points during two games at the National Prep Showcase, an offensive onslaught that included 36 points against NEPSAC powerhouse Brewster Academy. A day later, Schadrac received that Iona offer, and he committed to the annual MAAC title contender in the spring. “If he didn’t go to Iona, he probably would have chosen North Carolina Central,” says Benson. “Iona has been on him from a long time, and he was willing to give them a shot to prove himself there.”

The 2014-15 season is arguably the first year since becoming head coach in 2010 that Cluess needs some backcourt depth. Not only did the eligibilities of Sean Armand and DaShawn Gomez expire, but Tavon Sledge, who many thought would inherit a bulk of the team’s ball-handling duties, is no longer listed on the roster and appears to have left the team. While junior A.J. English will top the squad’s usage rate, Cluess will need additional ball-handlers to spell English, who is arguably the team’s most dynamic scorer. Ibn Muhammad, a junior college transfer who is also under 6′ tall, joined Iona late this summer, and will pair with Schadrac to continue quelling the group’s turnover rate — Iona has consistently been one of the nation’s best at limiting their giveaways, a miracle considering their offensive tempo.

Casimir likely won’t start immediately, especially with Iona’s veteran core, so expect Casimir to come off the bench and provide both an offensive spark and a defensive change of pace. Defense is rarely mentioned when discussing the Gaels, but Cluess described Casimir as “sneaky quick” on defense, and thought he’d be capable of creating significant havoc with his speed. When I spoke with Cluess this summer, he was enthusiastic about the freshman: “We have a lot to replace at wing, and since A.J. is versatile enough to play at the wings, and Schadrac will give him that option. I’ve had guys with Schadrac’s skill set at other places, but never at Iona.”

Matt Giles covers the Big East conference, as well as other conferences, for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Matt on Twitter @hudsongiles.