34 Teams in 34 Days: St. John’s

St. John’s

Outlook: A mix of talented transfers and the offensive evolution of Shamorie Ponds should be enough to propel the Red Storm to their first NCAA tournament since 2015, but will an inexperienced defense waylay Chris Mullin’s squad?

Last year: 14-19 (7-11 Big East),

Who’s in: Shamorie Ponds (G); Marcus LoVett (G); Bashir Ahmed (F); Marvin Clark (F – transfer redshirt); Justin Simon (G – transfer redshirt); Tariq Owens (F); Amar Alibegovic (F); Bryan Trimble (G/F); Kassoum Yakwe (F)

Who’s out: Malik Ellison (G/F); Richard Freudenberg (F); Darien Williams (G/F); Federico Mussini (G)

Key Non-Conference Games: vs. Arizona State (Dec. 8); vs. Grand Canyon (Dec. 5); vs. St. Joseph’s (Dec. 20)

Chris Mullin knew he wouldn’t have much slack as head coach at St. John’s. As the coach of NYC’s lone high-major Division I team, that’s never an option, and it certainly wasn’t part of the agreement when he replaced Steve Lavin on the Big East program’s sidelines in the spring of 2015. A Brooklyn native, Mullin understood this, which is why he kept his cool while still projecting an aura of assuredness — the team will contend, but patience is key — as the team steadily increased its win totals the past two seasons from eight to 14 (albeit without any postseason appearances).

But this upcoming season will test Mullin’s confidence in both himself as a coach and signal whether his team can fulfill his long-gestating blueprint. Gone are Malik Ellison, Yankuba Sima, Darien Williams, and Federico Mussini; each had bought into Mullin’s pitch to reinvigorate New York City’s lone Division I program and either were summarily jettisoned (or left on their own accord) once the coaching staff had brought in players that could compete at the high-major level.

Filling their void are former blue chip recruits like Justin Simon (from Arizona) and Marvin Clark (Michigan State), which is why the Johnnies, along with returnees like Shamorie Ponds, Bashir Ahmed, and Marcus LoVett, were predicted by the Big East coaches to finish sixth in conference play. It’s also why coaches like Villanova’s Jay Wright are even more bullish on SJU’s success in 2018, telling Jon Rothstein of FanRag Sports that, “I think the Johnnies have a chance to be really good. The Johnnies, they’re not old yet, but those guys [have been] around. They’re good. Those guys are young, but they’ve played. The two guards are outstanding. They can really be a factor this year.”

Others, though, haven’t been as rosy with their predictions, so how to properly judge where the Red Storm stand entering Mullin’s third year? Success starts and ends with Ponds’ evolution. The guard needs to take the vaunted sophomore leap to propel this team up the league standings and into the NCAA tournament. And he has the necessary offensive skillset to facilitate that climb: the 6-foot-1 Ponds, who narrowly missed out on the conference’s rookie of the year award in 2017, led the team in offensive box plus-minus (6.6) while scoring 1.14 points per possession, a feat considering he controlled a quarter of the squad’s possessions. The left-handed Ponds enrolled in St. John’s as a three-point marksman, and while the efficiency came in spurts, he combined a smooth stroke from deep with an uncanny ability to finish at the rim around larger defenders.

Per projections from Dan Hanner and Chris Johnson of Sports Illustrated, Ponds’ effectiveness will only continue on that side of the ball. When paired with LoVett, whose “Bright Lights” nickname was far from a misnomer during his sophomore season, the duo are arguably the Big East’s most offensively prolific backcourt. Few teams have one guard that can drop 1.10 points per possession, let alone two, and factoring in returning minutes and overall growth, that is how Sports Illustrated foresees the SJU backcourt’s maturation.

But what will be most interesting about the squad this upcoming season will be the various lineup machinations Mullin utilizes. During a recent exhibition game against American International, Mullin went with small ball lineups throughout the contest. This was, in part, out of necessity—Kassoum Yakwe sat with an injured ankle—but also an indication that the team will often be a positionless one.

Using Clark as the 5 and Ahmed (or Tariq Owens) at the 4, Mullin can play Ponds, LoVett, and Simon at the same time, creating a lineup that portends to sow offensive malcontent for opposing defenses. Adding Clark and Simon also upgrades the small lineup’s scoring punch: per Hooplens.com, a lineup featuring Ahmed, LoVett, and Ponds in 2017 scored just 1 PPP and posted an effective field goal percentage of 48 percent. Coupled now with Simon and Clark, who both have shown an effectiveness from beyond and within the arc, and St. John’s becomes much more difficult to slow on the offensive side of the ball.

The other key for a postseason appearance, aside from Ponds’ growth, will be the team’s defensive rebranding. Simply put, the Red Storm couldn’t stop anyone from scoring in 2017, allowing opponents to 1.10 points per possession in Big East play. The squad’s defensive malaise was clearly its bugbear a year ago, and it’ll only continue to waylay SJU.

Clark’s contribution should affect that slide, as the 6-foot-7 forward is a nuisance on the defensive glass—he grabbed 12 boards against American International. Owens was the only Johnny last season to post a defensive rebounding percentage near 20 percent, and the 6-foot-11 junior is better suited focusing on defending the rim (11 percent block rate). When combined with Clark, the two bigs should tamp down opponents’ two-point field goal attempts: per Hoop-Math.com, 37 percent of opposing squads’ attempts were at the rim, which led the Big East.

And by controlling the defensive glass, the Red Storm will be able to more effectively leak out in transition, which is where Mullin prefers his squad exploit its penchant for perimeter shooting and finishing skillset: only ten other DI teams used more possessions than SJU, and that should only increase with the retooled roster.

Make no mistake, St. John’s is molded in its coach’s image. The team has been built to mirror NBA trends, and expect a barrage of three-point attempts and shots around the basket in 2018. Gone are the days of the questionable mid-range two-pointer. But unless Ponds continues his playmaking arc, and the team can better defend within the arc, this could be the third straight season in which the patience of its fans along Union Turnpike is tested.

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