La Salle guard Saul Phiri attempts a three-pointer against St. Bonaventure forward/guard Courtney Stockard at the Trumark Financial Center.
(Corey Perrine/Getty Images)
The La Salle Explorers knew that they would have an uphill battle replacing the production of senior guard Jordan Price, senior guard Cleon Roberts, and junior forward Demetrius Henry (left program). Last year, the three had combined for 37% of the team’s overall scoring. Price, a born scorer, ended with 1,623 total points in his three years at La Salle, while Roberts and Henry both shot career high percentages last season, Roberts from three (44%) and Henry from the field (61%). The questions were circulating. Who could step up? Who would be the team’s third scoring option? Who would knock down threes? Who would step up on the boards and in the paint?
Everyone knew that BJ Johnson and Pookie Powell would produce, but it was the rest of the lineup that was not set in stone. In order for the Explorers to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, it was clear that they would need that third player to complement their skill sets.
From the onset, people pointed to Isiah Deas and Saul Phiri as the front runners for those roles. Both showed signs of potential during their freshman years. Deas displayed that he could be a streaky scorer while Phiri exhibited his 3-and-D skill set. Even though both players have received a fair amount of minutes this season, there have still been growing pains in filling the big shoes left by last year’s departures.
Phiri has proved that, despite his misleading stats, he is improving and fulfilling an important role for the Explorers this season. On the offensive end, when he gets hot, he is a lethal scoring threat from downtown. On the defensive end, he is a big body, at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, who can keep up with perimeter players and bang inside with the big men. Phiri has also shown an acquired ability to put the ball on the floor and execute pick-and-roll situations. He has become a dependable ball handler who didn’t always show that during his freshman season.
Phiri’s game shined brightest during one of their most recent games against Rhode Island. It was a tall task from the jump, as the 11-16 Explorers would be facing off against a 21-4 Rams squad that was ranked 18th in the country and has real expectations to win multiple games in the NCAA Tournament. Most importantly, La Salle would have to find a way to slow down Rhode Island’s two star senior guards, Jared Terrell and EC Matthews. That responsibility was going to fall upon La Salle’s sophomore, Phiri.
All game, Phiri was tasked with sticking the two guards. He began and finished the game on Terrell, who averages 17.6 points per game on 45% from the field and 42% from three, but was also tasked at times with covering Matthews, who is the only other Ram putting up double figures at 13.2 points per game. Phiri had to keep up with the A-10’s studded backcourt from start to finish as he would stay on the floor for 37 minutes, his third highest total all season. Despite the large amount of minutes and tough matchups, Phiri held Terrell to 14 points on 6-16 shooting and Matthews to 13 points on 1-4 from beyond the three point line. Phiri’s defensive stops and hustle plays came up big at the end of the game.
The clock was hovering around 2 minutes remaining in regulation when Terrell decided that it was his time to score. Forget his earlier struggles during the game; he was going to take Phiri to the basket with the opportunity to ice the game as Rhode Island led 77-72. But Phiri was not going to be bullied. He returned Terrell’s physicality and took a piece of his shot in the lane, directing it into the hands of BJ Johnson who would run down to score quickly. A possession later, Rhode Island attacked Phiri again, this time with sophomore Jeff Dowtin, who would finish with a career-high 25 points. But Phiri’s tenacious, hard fought defense once again stopped the Rams as he forced Dowtin into an airball and then snatched the ball for the rebound. It changed the momentum of the game, allowing La Salle the chance to force overtime. And it was Phiri’s play on the defensive end that did it.
Phiri’s success has been centered around plays like these. Hustle and defensive toughness. Even though he is often asked to cover quicker guys like Terrell, Matthews, or even Dowtin, Phiri’s energy and unwillingness to be beat makes him one of La Salle’s most important players. It’s why he averages 30.6 minutes per game. He brings energy and is engaged on the defensive end, an area that the Explorers have continually struggled with this year, allowing 74.5 points per game, 231st best in the country. But it’s no surprise to see Phiri leading the squad with a team-high defensive box-plus minus of 2.7. Ultimately, the Explorers are a better defensive team when Phiri is on the floor.
Offensively, it has been a tough year for Phiri. His shooting percentages of 34.2% from the field and 29.1% from three are not ideal. A mere average of 6.2 points per game and 8.1 points per 40 minutes doesn’t look great either. But there’s more to Phiri. Although he hasn’t shot the ball particularly well, he is a constant three point threat that the defense continually has to worry about, opening up lanes for BJ Johnson and Pookie Powell. Likewise, there’s been signs of improvement.
Before a 0 point game against Fordham in their most recent outing, Phiri had arguably been playing the best basketball of his young career over the five games prior, averaging 12.8 points per game (including a career-high 22 points against NCAA Tournament hopeful St. Bonaventure along the way) and shooting 45% from three.
As the season comes to an end, it’s encouraging to see Phiri making these strides. In reality, it’s not always easy to play with heavy shot-takers like Johnson and Powell. Johnson averages a usage rate of 31.4%, second in the Atlantic 10, and is seventh in field goal attempts with 390 on the season. Likewise, Powell has posted a usage percentage of 26.8%, seventh in the A-10, and is third in field goal attempts with 409. Playing with both of them has taken time to adapt to, as Phiri has only had three games this season with 10 or more shots. Phiri is finally starting to come around however, and while it may be a little late, he will have to carry this momentum into the conference tournament if the Explorers want any chance at making a run.
La Salle guard Isiah Deas attempts a shot against Villanova.
(USA Today Images)
Isiah “Shaggy” Deas has followed somewhat of an atypical path to becoming a heavily relied upon figure in La Salle’s rotation. Deas spent part of his high school years at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, NY, where he was a two-star recruit with little Division 1 interest.
Despite being on a squad that featured players like current St. John’s star Shamorie Ponds and St. Francis (BKN) guard Rasheem Dunn, Deas thrived at Jefferson. Following their win to capture the “borough title,” head coach Lawrence Pollard said to the Brooklyn Daily that Deas “doesn’t know how good he is. He’s one of the better players in the city, but he is just too cool and laid back. He’s just a nice kid. I told him, ‘listen brother, this is Brooklyn AA — nice guys finish last.’ ”
Following his time at Jefferson, Deas, as a two-star recruit, noticed that his Division 1 future may be limited. That helped him make the decision to spend a year in prep school at Coastal Academy in New Jersey.
“A year of prep school, I really believe will give me the time needed to dedicate to my body. Getting in the weight room and getting stronger will only make me more prepared for college,” Deas told NYCHoops.net.
During his prep year, Deas lead Coastal Academy to a 28-6 record, showing great potential as a versatile defender and athletic finisher.
Deas’ recruiting hype hit its pinnacle in April of 2016, when he was named the MVP of the Annual Unsigned Hype Senior Showcase in Brooklyn, scoring 23 points.
“I just wanted to come out here, play hard and put on a show for the people” Deas told the Forest Hills Times. “A lot of coaches were in here, I just wanted to show them what I could do.”
It wasn’t until late in June of ‘16 that the report came out about Isiah Deas signing with La Salle, only days before Deas was supposed to report to Philly to begin taking classes. Even when he finally was a student at La Salle, the status of Deas’ academic eligibility was in question. The speculations came to a haul on November 9th and two days later, the Explorers’ took on Temple, where Deas started and turned heads, scoring 12 points in 29 minutes of play.
Deas told City of Basketball Love that when thinking about his first game at La Salle, he “still get chills. Starting your first college game was just amazing in itself, on the road, at Temple, It was ridiculous.”
After that Temple game, La Salle’s head coach Dr. John Giannini never awarded Deas the opportunity to play further extensive minutes for the Explorers during his freshman season, averaging 9.9 minutes per game throughout 17 games.
This season, Deas has been a bright spot during an up-and-down year for the Explorers.
Shaggy has seen his minutes and role in the offense expand more and more as his sophomore season progresses, now averaging 10.6 points, 4 rebounds, and 1 assist on 39% shooting from the field in 25.4 minutes per game. At this point in his development, Deas is well suited for his role as the team’s sixth man. Often paired on the floor with either Pookie Powell or B.J. Johnson, Deas is a versatile player in the offense. He can be a shot-creator from the wing when needed, with a nice mid-range pull-up that keeps defenders close to him.
In turn, this has opened up dribble-drive opportunities as well and as this part of his game becomes more effective, defenses will begin collapsing on him. At some point, it would be wise for Deas to expand his game with kick-out passes to the perimeter, keeping defenses from collapsing on him in the lane, while also setting teammates up with open three-point shots.
Deas can also settle in as a floor spacer and third scoring option in lineups that feature him, Powell, and Johnson, as 48% of all Deas’ field goal attempts come from behind the three-point line. With Johnson’s injury and nearly month-long absence, the Explorers have relied upon Deas this past month more than ever, posting a usage percentage of 24.7% on the season, third highest usage percentage on the team and merely four points lower than second place Powell. He has scored in double digits six out of the last seven games showing that he is continuing to get more comfortable on the floor for Giannini.
With the eminent departure of Amar Stukes and B.J. Johnson after this season, there will be glaring roster holes that La Salle will need to fill. If Deas can continue to grow stronger and improve his rebounding, his 6-foot-6 frame will fit perfectly into the wing-forward role that B.J. Johnson currently occupies.
The ceiling for what Deas may develop into during the next few years is quite high. With his combination of length, athleticism, shot-making ability, and defensive potential, Deas can be the Explorers’ best player and leader down the line and looks from NBA scouts are certainly not out of the question.
La Salle guard Johnnie Shuler dribbles up the court against Mercer.
(La Salle Athletics)
The Empire will be running a series titled “Q and A,” where writers will provide in-depth answers to a couple of burning and/or interesting questions surrounding a specific City 6 team.
What is Johnnie Shuler's role on the team down the stretch?
Two seasons ago, Shuler’s sophomore year, he averaged 35.6 minutes per game, demonstrating an ability to create his own shot that many expected could translate into a 6th man, spark-plug off the bench type role for the team. But Shuler has never really made the impact that some may have foreseen.
This season, Shuler is averaging 2.2 points, 1.1 assists, and 12 minutes per game in all 14 of La Salle’s contest. Dr. Giannini turns to Shuler for short spurts to spell Pookie Powell. In the past three games, Shuler has seen his minutes increase, with 22 against Mercer, 18 against Bucknell and 18 again in their most recent match against Saint Louis.
Still, however, when Shuler does play, he hasn’t been aggressive shooting the ball, with just 6.4 shots per 40 minutes, leading only Miles Brookins on the team in this statistic. When Shuler does decide to shoot, 70% of the time it is from behind the three point arc. Hopefully for him, the law of averages kick in, and his 32% three-point shooting effectiveness climbs back somewhere towards the 40% he put up last season.
Shuler’s best way to help the Explorers is to be an efficient distributor and feisty guard rebounder, something they’ll need with the small-ball lineup. His 16.7 assist percentage follows only Pookie Powell on the team, and his 6.3 total rebounding percentage leads all Explorers who stand 6-foot-3 or shorter. Although it is not the most important attribute for a guard, getting the extra possessions from rebounds really matters in the big picture of a game. It would not be a surprise to see the momentum of a tough conference match swayed in the Explorers’ direction, thanks to Johnnie Shuler jumping “into the trees” of big men and pulling down a tough rebound.
Which player has exceeded preseason expectations?
In my La Salle season preview, I had B.J. Johnson averaging 17 points per game, 6 rebounds on 45% shooting. So far this season, Johnson has shown that I, along with many others, underestimated just how good Johnson could be as the clear number one scoring option. He boasts a stat line of 21.8 points and 9.1 rebounds on 43% shooting.
With much of opponents’ defensive attention directed on him, Johnson has made a big adjustment to where his shots are coming from. He is shooting 3-point shots at a fewer rate this season then he has his entire career, with just 31% of his total shots coming from behind the arc. Last season, 47% of Johnson’s shots came from 3, and during his two seasons at Syracuse, the number was 56%. His best game this season was against South Alabama where he scored 30 points on 58% shooting and 11 rebounds.
Johnson has looked very comfortable in his role as the team’s alpha dog. If he can return to form from his injury, Johnson’s excellent season should put him atop the list for City 6 Player of the Year and perhaps even the Atlantic 10’s Player of the Year as well.
How are the freshmen developing?
Head coach Dr. John Giannini has a history of not allocating a lot of minutes to freshman in his rotations, playing them only if necessary. This year, injuries and the makeup of the roster has required four freshmen to be used by the Explorers for at least 15 minutes all season. Additionally, all six freshmen have seen more run recently, playing 62 minutes combined in the last three games.
Miles Brookins’ 143 minutes played this season leads La Salle’s freshman class. He is averaging 3.7 points and 1.6 rebounds in 11.9 minutes per game, nailing 63% of his field goal attempts. Brookins length and energy make him impactful in the short bursts that he plays, and his 142.7 offensive rating leads all Explorers. He will likely step right into the starting center spot come senior Tony Washington’s departure, and if Brookins continues his development path, he will be an important player in the program’s future.
The next leading freshman minute earner for the Explorers is Jamir Moultrie, the 6-foot-1 guard from D.C. Moultrie has played in six games this season, totaling 23 minutes. While his on-court sample size is still small thus far, Moultrie has shown a proclivity to shoot in volume when given the chance, putting up the ball 1.7 times in 3.8 minutes averaged per game.
Moultrie's aggressive shot seeking has him leading all Explorers in a number of advanced offensive statistics. Although the statistics may be a little inflated due to his lower amount of minutes, they are important to consider, allowing Explorer fans to get a sense of what Moultrie could bring to the table. He sits first in points per 40 minutes (24.3), player efficiency rating (27.9), and offensive box plus/minus (10.6). His 133.2 offensive rating is also second on the team. Moultrie is currently buried on La Salle’s depth chart, but with Amar Stukes and Johnnie Shuler’s time with the program ending after this season, Moultrie should be on track to be an every game player for the Explorers next season.
Redshirt freshman Cian Sullivan has seen a recent uptick in his in-game action, tallying 8 minutes against Bucknell in a game that Brookins missed. On the season, the 7-foot-2 Irishman has played 22 minutes in six games while also earning a pair of starts. Sullivan’s length has been apparent in his stints on the court, as his 6.8 defensive box plus/minus, 19.2 block percentage, and 91.6 defensive rating lead the team. Sullivan’s 4 blocked shots has him tied for second on the team with Isiah Deas and Saul Phiri. As promising as Sullivan’s defense could look, his offensive skills will definitely need to improve. In his last game against Bucknell, he notched 0 points on 3 shots in 8 minutes of play. Among all Explorers who have played at least 15 minutes this season, Sullivan’s 51.1 offensive rating and -13.5 offensive box plus/minus are both the lowest on the team.
After Sullivan, the next freshman minute earner is Dajour Joseph. Joseph has played 15 minutes in five games this year. Joseph, like Moultrie, has been aggressive with his shot attempts when Dr. Giannini unleashes him. Joseph’s 7 field goal attempts make him the second most aggressive Explorer in terms of shooting rate, with 18.7 field goal attempts per 40 minutes, trailing only B.J. Johnson’s 19.4 field goal attempts. As a freshman and already having a 6-foot-6, 207-pound frame, it is easy to envision how Joseph would fit as a small-ball ‘4’ in the Explorers’ rotation for years to come.
How is the rest of the A-10 stacking up?
As teams begin conference play, the Atlantic 10 has a clear favorite, the Rhode Island Rams. The Rams are 9-3 on the year, led by senior guard Jared Terrell (17.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg and 2.9 apg). Rhode Island has a couple decent wins on their non-conference resume, defeating #21 Seton Hall 75-74 and a 10-5 Providence team 75-68. They also defeated George Mason in their only conference game so far. The Explorers play at Rhode Island on January 3rd and will battle in Philly on February 20th.
Another team that is expecting to make a run in the A10 conference is St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies are 11-2 on the season, with impressive wins against Maryland and Syracuse, while notching a win against Dayton in their first conference game. The Bonnies are led by senior guard Jaylen Adams, who is averaging 20.1 points, followed by another senior guard, Matt Mobley, who notches 18.3 points per contest. St. Bonaventure is currently shooting 39.8% on their 3-point shots, which is 32nd in the nation.
St. Joseph’s, VCU, and Dayton made up a third tier of teams in the Atlantic 10 conference preseason poll. While St. Joe’s is 5-7 (0-1 in conference) on the year, VCU is 9-5 (1-0) and Dayton is 6-7 (0-1).
The next teams from the preseason poll are Davidson, St. Louis, Richmond, and La Salle. The Davidson Wildcats are 5-7 (0-1) this season, St. Louis is 7-7 (0-1), and Richmond is 3-10 (1-0).
The final five teams, whom the A10’s preseason poll expected at the bottom of the conference standings by season’s end are George Mason (6-8, 0-1), George Washington (8-6, 1-0), Massachusetts (7-7, 0-1), Fordham (5-8, 0-1), and Duquesne (10-4. 1-0).
La Salle guard Isaiah Deas dribbles past Temple guard Quinton Rose.
(La Salle Athletics)
Prior to La Salle’s most recent win over Mercer, it was becoming apparent that the Explorers needed a consistent scorer beyond B.J. Johnson and Pookie Powell. Now, with Johnson’s ankle injury, finding the team’s next scoring threat should be one of the top priorities.
The duo of Johnson and Powell is currently combining to average 31.6 field goal attempts and 37.9 points per game, which is 53% of the Explorer’s shots and 54% of their points. If both of them are having a good night, Johnson and Powell can take over games offensively, and propel the Explorers to quality wins. But, if either of the duo is having an off night, the Explorers struggle to generate enough offense to keep pace with their opponents.
If La Salle can develop one of their many role players into a reliable offensive catalyst during these possibly handful of games that Johnson is out, they could see the entire offense open up with Johnson’s return. We’ll take a look at the four players in La Salle’s rotation who are averaging at least 18 minutes per game, and suggest their chances to become La Salle’s clear third scoring option.
Sophomore Saul Phiri is the new face in La Salle’s starting lineup this year. On the season, he is averaging 29.3 minutes played and 5 points per game on 34.5% shooting from the field and 26% from three, to go along with a perfect 11-11 from the free throw line.
Phiri’s two best offensive performances this season are his 12 points in a loss to Penn and 14 points in a win over South Alabama. Phiri mostly looks to play within the offensive system and dons a supporting cast role with 4.8 field goal attempts and .9 free throws per game. For Saul Phiri to create more offense this season, La Salle would have to adjust their strategy and design more sets to get him open looks and put him in a position to score.
They can do this during Johnson’s absence, as his volume of shooting will need to be replaced. But, given Phiri’s current shooting numbers, and the fact that more shots and set plays for Phiri would take shots away from Johnson when he does return, Phiri is the least likely of the players mentioned to become the Explorer’s third scorer.
With Johnson out, Tony Washington becomes the teams top interior scoring threat. Washington has efficiently scored on 55% of his 4.3 shots per game this season. His best offensive game this season came in a win against Temple, when he scored 12 points on 60% shooting.
When La Salle is facing a scoring drought, if a play is not called for either Johnson or Powell, it is not uncommon for La Salle to post Washington up and let him go to work down low. Washington is good at getting low block position in his post ups, and has a nice little hook shot in his post-move repertoire. Even if Washington is not getting touches in the flow of the offense, he can still affect the game with offensive rebounds and putbacks. Washington has managed 1.9 offensive rebounds per game, and while that is a solid margin, they’ll need him to attack the offensive boards more as a legitimate third scoring option.
If he is able to further develop this part of his game over the season, Washington’s scoring numbers will improve as well, without the Explorers needing to shake up the offensive game plan too much by calling set plays for him.
Another player that could grow into a consistent offensive engine is the team's primary point guard Amar Stukes, The fifth-year senior has seen consistent playing time throughout his entire Explorers’ career. This season, he is playing a career-high 36.5 minutes per game, averaging 6.3 shots per game, and 1.8 free throws.
Stukes is a quality ball handler and his career 1.93/1 career assist/turnover ratio shows that he is not sloppy or careless with possessions. Stukes’ game is limited by his perimeter shooting (29% in career from three), so most of the offense that Stukes generates happens when he is the primary playmaker.
The Explorers have found creative ways to get Stukes involved. One of them is in the high post, where he takes advantage of his 6-foot-3 size to make plays against shorter point guard counterparts. For Amar Stukes to become the Explorers’ clear third option, he will need to lead them by becoming more aggressive in attacking defenses off the dribble, especially in transition. A more aggressive dribble penetrating Stukes would draw more fouls and utilize his most effective offensive weapon: 84% free throw shooting over the past two seasons.
After Johnson and Powell, the next most aggressive Explorer in terms of scoring is Isaiah (Shaggy) Deas, who is averaging 8.1 points, 6.8 field goal attempts, and 1.8 free throws per game.
Deas has blended in well as a wing floor spacer, 54% of his shots are from behind the three point arc. The biggest hindrance to Deas’ chances of becoming the clear third offensive option for La Salle is just getting on the floor. Deas’ role on the team is the first player off of the bench, with an average of 19.3 minutes played per game. Even with his minutes per game being a bit less than the rest of La Salle’s rotation, Deas’ 16.7 points scored per 40 minutes shows that despite never being relied on as a primary playmaker, Shaggy is aggressive and gets to the bucket when he is on the court.
The recipe for Deas to become a consistent offensive contributor is simple, he has to make his shots. Shaggy is not afraid to shoot, and his nose for scoring will be needed by the Explorers in years to come.
Deas has garnered quality looks by just playing within the offense and finding his spots. Deas’ three point shooting has improved throughout the season, to the point where he has made 36% of his three point attempts. If Dr. Giannini continues to give Deas a longer leash to shoot and be aggressive off the bench, and Deas can continue to be a threat from the perimeter, defenses will be forced to close out harder on him, giving him more opportunities to penetrate defenses with dribble drives and mid range pull-ups.
Of all the players mentioned in this article, Shaggy Deas has the best chance of developing into the Explorer’s third scoring option and will be relied upon to create an important portion of the team’s offense as the season continues.
La Salle’s next test comes Friday, December 22nd as the Explorers will tip off against the Patriot League’s Bucknell. As non-conference schedules are concluding and A-10 play begins, it will be interesting to see who steps up in Johnson’s place and helps Powell carry the Explorers’ scoring load. Even if Johnson does return, the Explorers’ need one more piece to give them that extra scoring punch come conference play. This is the difference between a .500 La Salle team and an above .500 La Salle team.
La Salle center Tony Washington and guard Johnnie Shuler wait in anticipation at the Palestra.
(Luke Risher/Staff Photographer)
Heading into the 2017-2018 season, La Salle’s primary goal was to fix their team defense, which allowed opponents to score 76.6 points per game, shoot 47% from the field, and 39% from 3-point range last year. What was frustrating for fans was that the defensive struggles did not stem from a lack of talent or athleticism. Players like Amar Stukes, Tony Washington, and Demetrius Henry all had previously shown signs of strong defensive play. There was no player in last year’s rotation that one could undoubtedly point at as a liability on that end. But the team never looked “locked in” as a collective unit. Instead, it always looked more like five players all guarding their own man.
A secondary goal for La Salle has been replacing the production of Jordan Price. Without one of the nation’s top scorers the past three seasons, the team’s offense figured to be depleted in a big way. So far, the Explorers scoring numbers have declined, scoring 69.3 points per game this season after putting up 75.5 ppg in 2016-2017. However, replacing Price’s minutes with Saul Phiri looks to have La Salle playing better team defense. The Explorers are giving up 6.9 fewer points than last season. Throughout his career, Price had a defensive rating of 107.4 and a defensive box plus/minus of -1.3. This season, Phiri has put up a defensive rating of 101.5 and a 2.7 defensive box plus/minus, the highest on the team of any players getting regular minutes.
At first glance, an explanation for Phiri’s defensive numbers looking better than Price’s is the pace La Salle is playing at. Last year La Salle seemed to emphasize getting right into their halfcourt offense and making a play when it is available, regardless of how much time was on the shot clock. But this year, the Explorers are more patient and deliberate in their attack. One would think that this slower pace would assist the defensive numbers by limiting the opponent’s possessions and field goal attempts. However, La Salle’s opponents this year are averaging 60 field goal attempts per game, two more attempts per game than last year. The biggest difference in La Salle’s defensive numbers is in the opponents 2-point shooting efficiency. This year the Explorers are holding opponents to 46% on 2-point shots, a better number than last year’s 51% of opponent's shots inside the arc dropping for points.
La Salle has been able to control their opponent’s interior shooting numbers by using a couple different man-to-man defensive looks. Switching has become a staple of the Explorer’s defense this year. With their starting lineup of Amar Stukes, Pookie Powell, Saul Phiri, B.J. Johnson, and Tony Washington, the Explorers switch on nearly all screens and handoffs, which helps neutralize the opponent’s pick-and-roll attacks. The only player that does not always switch when defending the screener is Tony Washington, who, depending on the situation and matchup, sometimes plays a more traditional pick and roll defense by hedging to disrupt the ball handler and then scrambling back into the paint.
Although the season opening win against St. Peter's was a dominating defensive effort, where they gave up just 40 points to the Peacocks, the best early evidence of La Salle’s defensive potential came in the 75-71 win vs Penn. In that game, Penn shot 33.8% from the field, and just 25% from three. La Salle’s team defense held a collective defensive rating of 88.8.
Following the win against Penn, head coach Dr. John Giannini touched on defense’s importance for this specific La Salle team.
“First and foremost, we’re trying to be a good defensive team so we can win games when we don’t click offensively,” he said. “We didn’t click offensively today, and we still won. To hold Penn to 33% from the field is going to be quite the accomplishment when you look back at this season. I don’t think many (teams) will do that.”
La Salle’s next game came against South Alabama from the Sun Belt Conference. This was a team that La Salle was expected to handle quite easily. La Salle played a strong first half, outscoring the Jaguars 47-27, and dictating the tempo of the game. The Explorers started the game on a 14-4 run, and went on another 11-point run midway through the first half. But La Salle’s defense began to leak in the second half, and the Jaguars were able to score 46 points to cut La Salle’s deficit to 8 points when the game ended. Absolutely not the performance Dr. John Giannini wanted out of his team’s defense to finish this game.
Following the game, Dr. Giannini reiterated his focus on defense. “Some people play zone and man,” he said, “we play our man two different ways, and we had some players that when we tried to change, didn’t execute at all and we gave up wide open layups in crunch time, which is obviously unacceptable.”
A variation in how La Salle plays their man-to-man defense can be seen in how they disrupt ball screens. One strategy is switching on all picks and relying on the versatility and athleticism of the individual defenders. While this strategy can keep teams from finding open pull up jumpers off of picks, it can lead to mismatches and breakdowns when trying to regroup. The Explorers like to use this defensive look when they have a small lineup on the floor, or, when Miles Brookins is playing, who uses his length and activity to harass ball handlers.
Another defensive look that the Explorers will utilize on screens is having the off-ball defender sag low into the paint, giving the on-ball defender plenty of room to go underneath the pick and cut off any attempt at dribble driving. This defense is good for defending the interior and keeping rolling big men from creating offense, but it is susceptible to giving up open perimeter shots. Boston College, Northwestern, and Temple were all able to create many open 3-point opportunities when La Salle utilized this defensive method.
One of the wrinkles South Alabama specifically utilized in the second half to attack La Salle’s defense were smaller lineups with five perimeter players who could help shoot their way back into the game. The Jaguars small-ball lineup forced La Salle to go small as well, leaving Tony Washington and Miles Brookins on the bench, as they combined for a total of 15 minutes despite only having 1 total foul, meaning the Explorers played 25 minutes without a true center on the court.
“I’d rather have Tony or Miles out there,” Dr. Giannini said following the win. “We are more comfortable, we can do more things offensively, using our big guy as a screener. We’re more comfortable playing with a big guy in the game. But, I don’t think it’s wise to have a 6-10 guy chasing one of those 6-6 shooters around the court… I think if we would have played big, we would have lost. They made nine threes with us playing our quickest lineup. What would happen if we played our slowest?”
After the Explorers were forced to abandon having a prototypical big man on the floor against South Alabama, the next three games, all losses to high-level Power 6 conference teams, Dr. Giannini continued to show his desire to have Washington or Brookins in the game. The team only spent a total of 7 minutes without either of them playing during that stretch. However, Northwestern and Boston College were still able to score against La Salle without many problems, each putting up 82 points.
The Miami game was a different story. While the Explorers offense could not get anything going at all, scoring only 46 points, shooting 29% from the field and 0-15 from three, La Salle’s defense kept the game competitive. They held Miami to 57 points (just 19 in the first half), 37% from the field, and 5-15 from three. Considering Miami is averaging 81 points on 50% shooting from the field and 35% from three on the season, La Salle’s defensive effort should be considered a success.
Against Temple, the Explorers started the game off in decent shape. While the Owls were making shots and scored 43 points in the first half, La Salle was able to make just enough plays offensively to stay in the game. In the second half, La Salle’s defense began to unwind as the Owls were able to build their lead to 11 points. Just when the game looked to be falling apart for La Salle, they went on a nearly four minute 11-0 run to tie the game. Eventually, the Explorers would take the lead with two minutes left in the game. Following Pookie Powell’s clutch three pointer, the game was iced off with two excellent defensive plays by the Explorers. They locked up in crunch time following a steal of Quentin Rose from Saul Phiri with under 30 seconds left in the game and then a chase down volleyball spike block off the backboard by B.J. Johnson as time expired. While La Salle’s defense was not playing to their full potential the entire game, giving up 83 points, the Explorers got stops down the stretch when they needed them the most.
Seven games into this young season, the Explorers’ defense has shown signs of becoming more active and engaged compared to last year’s. The team’s statistics show clear areas for improvement (opponents shooting 40% from 3-point range). But they have played a tough schedule thus far and if the team continues to get better throughout the season, and they continue to stress emphasis on defending, La Salle will have a great chance to win many games and have a successful season. The Explorers next challenge will be a trip to Belfast, Ireland to face Towson on Friday, December 1st.
The Empire's season podcast series will cover college basketball in the City 6. We will be releasing a podcast to accompany a written report covering our outlook for the teams' seasons. Please note that the podcasts and the written season previews may differ in writers and opinion.
For most basketball teams, a six win improvement from one season to the next would promote optimism among the school and fans. However, when hopes and expectations were as high as last year’s team following the arduous 2015-16 season, a six game improvement that leads to a .500 record does not cut it for some fans. The team’s mediocre record speaks perfectly to how last season went. No big wins and no overly disappointing losses, simply an ordinary and unspectacular year.
The inflated expectations stemmed from the addition of three Power-6 conference transfers that became eligible to play last season. From the time Demetrius Henry, Pookie Powell, and B.J. Johnson were only scout team or practice players in their redshirt year, the sentiment among fans was that these three were among the best players on the team. Adding them into the mix was the plan to boost La Salle to the top of the conference, and bring change to the team.
Last year’s team did have a different feeling to it though. Unlike the prior year, the Explorers had few problems scoring, averaging 75.5 points per game. This is attributed to the offensive system implemented by then assistant coach Matt Brady. His up-tempo, four out dribble drive offense improved La Salle’s scoring by 11.4 points per game, and their field goal percent by 4%. The Explorers’ problem last season was on the defensive side of the ball. La Salle’s opponents scored 76.6 points per game, shot 47% from the field and 39% from three. All offseason, the Explorers’ goal was to improve on the defensive side of the ball. With a turnover of four players from last season, Dr. Giannini has the opportunity to engrain a defensive mindset into this year’s new roster.
Who’s Gone? Jordan Price (G/F, graduation), Cleon Roberts (G, graduation), Demetrius Henry (F, pursuing pro career) and Hank Davis (G, graduation)
Jordan Price is the largest loss in terms of production that the Explorers will need to replace. Price’s 15.3 points per game was second on the team, while his ability to play in isolation and score on his own helped get the Explorers out of offensive droughts all season. Cleon Roberts was the team’s sixth man last year after starting every game the previous season. Roberts brought good shooting ability and length to the Explorers rotation and having him come off the bench gave the Explorers not only good depth from the wing position, but also flexibility in the lineups to go big, small, or any variation. Demetrius Henry started 18 games for the Explorers last year and showed potential to be a scoring threat from the power forward position. His 61% field goal percentage can be attributed to a soft touch around the basket and above the rim athletic ability where he finished lobs and put-backs. Hank Davis was a walk-on that played 12 total minutes for the Explorers last season, but considering his four years spent with the program and academic prestige (Big-5 scholar athlete of the year, published article in scholarly journal), there is sure to be a leadership quality in the program that is lost with Davis’ graduation.
Who’s New? Miles Brookins (F, Fr.), Jamir Moultrie (G, Fr.) Dajour Joseph (G, Fr.) and Cian Sullivan (C, R-Fr.)
With no transfers on the docket to join the team, this year’s freshman class will be relied upon to bring depth to the Explorers rotation. Due to the loss of Demetrius Henry, Miles Brookins will be given minutes early in the season. Jamir Moultrie is a three-star recruit from District Heights, Maryland who stands at 6-foot-1. With La Salle’s current depth at the point guard position, Moultrie’s impact on the team might need another year to come to fruition. Dajour Joseph is a 6-foot-6 wing from Lauderdale, FL. He is a two-star recruit and more of a raw prospect compared to the other two true freshman. Lastly, Cian Sullivan is a 7-foot-2 redshirt freshman center, who is ready to begin his college basketball career after the long redshirt season last year. Fans should be excited about what a player with his size has the capability to do for the team, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Projected Starting Lineup:
Graduate Student. G, Amar Stukes (Proj. Stats: 7 PPG, 4 APG, 1.5 SPG)
The redshirt senior has been a mainstay in the Explorers’ starting lineup since his sophomore year. He plays hard and takes care of the ball. Last year, Stukes showed the ability to attack the rim and scored on 55% of his 2pt field goals. He is also quite effective from the free throw stripe, shooting 83%. Stukes also showed his ability to handle the ball, posting an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2:1. Because Stukes struggles to stretch the defense while playing off-ball, shooting 30% on three point shots the past two seasons, he should be more of the ball handling guard in the Explorers’ offense. Stukes makes his bones on the defensive side of the ball. He is the best perimeter defender on the team and brings a gritty toughness to the lineup that will be crucial in improving La Salle’s team defense.
Sr. G, Pookie Powell (Proj. Stats: 14 PPG, 4 APG, 35% 3PT%)
Powell had moments of great offensive play last season. His quickness and ball handling skills create many scoring opportunities. In Sports Illustrated.com’s top 100 scorers preview, Powell was ranked 41st in the country, projecting him to score 16.1 points per game. While he will need to shoulder a bit more of the offensive load due to Jordan Price’s departure, defenses will also be keying in on him more, making efficiency more difficult. Powell improved his 3pt shooting percentage by 7% from 29% his freshman year at Memphis to 36% last season at La Salle. To score the ball the way he is expected to, he will need to continue to improve his perimeter shooting.
La Salle guard Pookie Powell attempts layup.
(Luke Risher/Staff Photographer)
So. G, Saul Phiri (Proj. Stats: 9 PPG, 4 RPG)
Phiri is a long wing that provided some nice defensive sequences last season in his 6.3 minutes averaged in 24 games played. He has a bulky 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame with potential as a useful 3-and-D wing. To secure his spot in the lineup, Phiri will need to remain active on the perimeter defensively, getting his hands in opponents passing lanes and making it tough for opposing wings to find a rhythm. Offensively, Phiri shot just 30% from three last season, but has the potential to improve that number and become a perimeter threat that teams will not be able to double off of.
Sr. F, B.J. Johnson (Proj. Stats: 17 PPG, 6 RPG, 45% FG%)
The leading scorer from last season, B.J. Johnson, is seeking another strong season for La Salle. Sports Illustrated has him projected as the 7th leading scorer in the country for the upcoming year. Like Powell, Johnson finds himself in an improved role as legitimately the team’s #1 scoring option heading into this season. Johnson scores in a variety of ways, from slashing to catch-and-shoot three-pointers, while even possessing the ability to play isolation basketball. If Johnson can take part in improving the Explorers’ team defense, continue to take games over offensively, and become the alpha leader on this La Salle team, Johnson should be recognized as one of the top players in the Atlantic 10.
La Salle forward B.J. Johnson finishes through contact.
(Luke Risher/Staff Photographer)
Sr. F, Tony Washington (Proj. Stats: 6 PPG, 7 RPG, 1.7 BPG)
This season is the senior’s last chance to establish himself in the A-10 as an impactful and important player. Last year, Washington’s statistical production dipped from what he was able to do as a sophomore. While Washington’s minutes did drop, from 26.7 per game to 15.9, Demetrius Henry’s departure puts Washington back atop amongst La Salle’s big men. Washington should have the opportunity for extensive playing time once again this season. His playing style; setting picks, rebounding, and protecting the interior, is a prototype for what you want from a big man in today’s college basketball game.
Reserves: Isiah Deas (G, So.), Johnie Shuler (G, Sr.), Miles Brookins (G, Fr.), and Cian Sullivan (C, Fr.)
The Explorers’ bench can be summarized in one word, inexperience. While Johnie Shuler begins his senior season, and will be the first guard off of Dr. Giannini’s bench, the rest of the bench is just blossoming into their collegiate careers. Isiah Deas played in 17 games last season and earned two starts. His size (6-foot-6, 170 pounds) along with guard skills make him a high-ceiling player. Brookins and Sullivan figure to compete for backup center minutes in relief of Washington. While Sullivan has the size (7-foot-2, 215 pounds) that would look great underneath La Salle’s defensive basket, Brookins has had a really good offseason, earning praise from coach Giannini and teammates alike. Expect Brookins to be given minutes right out of the gate this season, which will give him an opportunity to show the maturity of his game and how prepared he is for the collegiate level.
at Penn (Nov. 13th, 2017)
La Salle has lost to Penn for the past two years. Early this season, at the historic Palestra, the Explorers will have a chance for revenge against its Big 5 rival. Although the past two defeats to Penn felt like somewhat of an upset, the Quakers lost only one major player from last year and will be an improved team. Early season rivalry games can help build momentum for teams heading into the meat of the season, and a win at Penn would really start the season on the right path for the Explorers.
at Richmond (Jan. 20th, 2018)
In mid-January, the Explorers travel to Richmond, Virginia for a nationally televised Saturday day-game. The Spiders were strong last season, finishing in 3rd place in the A-10 standings, but they lost their two top scorers over the offseason, who together made up for 47% of the team’s points. Although Richmond is projected to fall somewhere in the middle of the A-10 standings this season, this road game in front of the NBC Sports cameras will be an opportunity for the Explorers to assess themselves as a team. La Salle needs to win games on the road against teams like Richmond to show that they are a good team and capable of making a conference tournament run.
vs. Rhode Island (Feb. 20th, 2018)
Of course, a late season home game against the conference favorite is going to be marked on La Salle’s calendar. Like the Richmond game, this matchup against Rhode Island is a barometer for the Explorers to judge where they are as a team. By this point in the season, both teams should be in prime shape and at the top of their games. La Salle does not need to pull off an upset here to feel good after this game. Even if they play Rhode Island to a close game, and find some weaknesses in the Rams’ team, this will help them come conference tournament time, particularly if these two teams get matched up against each other later on.
16-15 (9-9 in conference)
Identical to last year, the Explorers should be hanging around a .500 record all season. The talent between B.J. Johnson and Pookie Powell will prevent La Salle from posting a losing record. They should have success offensively in the second year of the dribble drive offense Matt Brady had implemented in his time with the Explorers (Brady left to coach for the Maryland Terrapins). But, the lack of a defensive continuity is going to be a thorn in the Explorers’ side. The ceiling for this team should be the top of the A-10 standings. If everything goes right, the offense will be humming, the defense improved, and coach Giannini will have found an underclassman off the bench to step up and provide quality depth. The Explorers could end up with a higher seed in the A-10 tournament if that comes into fruition. But, objectively looking at this team in the beginning of November, it is hard to count on everything playing out the way La Salle needs it to. That is why the Explorers should be expected to remain somewhere around a 16 or 17 win team.
“Pookie (Powell) is having an unbelievable Fall. He really looks like an elite player right now.“ Head Coach Dr. John Giannini in an interview, found via Philly.com
“B.J. (Johnson) received great feedback from exploring his NBA potential. He is extremely focused and motivated to improve himself and our team and to reach his highest goals. He had interest to workout for several teams. However, he has some minor health issues from last season that would be best to take care of now to maximize his preparations for next season. He has decided to take that route and it bodes well for him and our team.” Head Coach Dr. John Giannini in a statement regarding B.J. Johnson exploring the NBA draft evaluation process, found via Sports Talk Philly.com
“I am blessed, honored, and thankful for the opportunity that Coach Giannini has entrusted me with. I have always supported Coach Giannini and have the utmost respect and admiration for him. To be given an opportunity to learn from him and the other coaches on the staff is priceless.” Newly hired Assistant Coach Donnie Carr in a statement, found via goexplorers.com
“Offensively, we're not going to have problems scoring the ball, but, I think defensively this year we came with a different mindset, and that’s going to help us win more of those 50-50 games that we lost last year.” B.J. Johnson, in an interview, found via Philly.com
“I just wanted to go somewhere where I felt comfortable, somewhere I could make an impact right away. And, just my relationship with the coaches, that played a role in it.” Freshman guard Jamir Moultrie in a statement on committing to La Salle, found via The Washington Post
With the three eligible transfers, experienced returning players, and newly hired associate head coach in Matt Brady, the La Salle Explorers had NCAA tournament plans heading into this season. With the high expectations and tough out-of-conference schedule, even without winning the A-10 automatic bid, the Explorers had a shot to prove their worthiness of being anointed into the tournament by the selection committee.
Unfortunately for La Salle, as their season commenced, and losses to lower RPI ranked schools like Temple, Texas Southern, and Penn added up, it is clear that this year’s La Salle squad will not be selected to play in the NCAA tournament and they will need to win their conference championship in order to lock down the automatic bid. This article will preview La Salle’s A-10 tournament and what their key will be to winning each game.
Game #1 (Thursday) vs. Davidson
The 8th seeded Explorers will begin their Atlantic 10 tournament run on Thursday at noon when they will face the 9th seeded Davidson Wildcats. Davidson is 4-6 in their last 10 games and coming off of a 3-point loss to Rhode Island. In their only matchup this season, La Salle defeated Davidson 91-83 in Philadelphia. In that matchup, Davidson’s top two performers were Peyton Aldridge with 33 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists, and Jack Gibbs, who scored 25 points, along with 4 rebounds and 7 assists. While these two players did tear up La Salle’s perimeter defense, shooting 9-19 from 3 together, La Salle’s offense was even better, shooting 47% from three as a team and 57% from the total field. The Explorer’s offensive proficiency was highlighted by Jordan Price’s 29 points and B.J. Johnson’s 19 points.
Apart from the hot shooting, La Salle was also able to out-rebound the Wildcats 33-25 in their previous meeting. Rebounding has been a weakness for La Salle all year, and for the Explorers to defeat Davidson on Thursday, they will need to control the glass and limit Davidson’s total number of possessions.
Game #2 (Friday) vs. Dayton
If La Salle is able to defeat Davidson, the following day they will be matched up against the top-seeded Dayton Flyers. The Flyers ran through their conference schedule posting a 15-3 mark at the end of the season. Although Dayton is coming off a six point loss at George Washington, the Flyers are 9-1 in their previous ten games and are the favorites to win the A-10 tournament. In the Explorers only conference game against Dayton, it was the Flyers who were victorious by a score of 66-55. This was an ugly game on both sides of the floor, as the two teams combined to shoot just 26% from 3’s on 47 attempts. Dayton, who averaged 39% shooting from 3 in the conference season, managed to make just 3 of their 22 attempts (14%). Dayton's poor shooting aligned with La Salle’s 34-31 rebounding advantage and kept the Explorers in the game despite 20 total team turnovers for La Salle.
The key for La Salle in this game will be defending the interior. Despite Dayton’s woeful perimeter shooting night, the Flyers were able to convert 68% of their two-point attempts. During that game, one of La Salle’s big men, Demetrius Henry, sat out leaving the Explorers with only Tony Washington to defend underneath the basket. Dayton took advantage of La Salle’s thin frontcourt and Washington found himself in foul trouble for most of the game, ending with 4 total fouls in 19 minutes of work. For the Explorers to find themselves on the winning side of a potential matchup with Dayton, they will need to utilize Demetrius Henry and a healthy frontcourt to defend Dayton from again slicing up the Explorers’ interior defense.
Game #3 (Saturday) TBD
If La Salle is still alive after Friday, their next match would be against either Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure, Massachusetts, or St. Joe’s in the tournament semi-finals on Saturday.
Massachusetts plays St. Joe’s in the A-10 tournament kick-off game, the winner of that game plays St. Bonaventure, and the winner of that game faces the 4th seeded Rhode Island in the quarterfinals.
Game #4 (Sunday) TBD
The A-10 championship game will be held Sunday at 12:30 p.m. While there are a multitude of teams that La Salle could face, the highest two seeds on that side of the bracket are #2 VCU and #3 Richmond.
For La Salle to win their first ever A-10 tournament championship, they will need to play (and win) four straight games. This isn’t an impossible task for La Salle. In fact, from January 4th through January 19th the Explorers won five conference games in a row, beating St. Louis, Duquesne, Rhode Island, George Washington, and Davidson.
The Explorers are the top free throw shooting team in the conference percentage-wise, and when the shots are falling, La Salle had shown signs of being one of the highest scoring offenses in the country. When the entire team is engaged defensively and on the glass, La Salle has the talent and depth to compete with anyone. While there is an arduous road ahead of the Explorers, in their attempt to capture the Atlantic 10 tournament championship, at this point, they must not look ahead of Davidson this Thursday. Then just take it one day at a time. Survive and advance.
19 months went by from the time B.J. Johnson announced his transfer from Syracuse until his first, live, in-game action in an Explorers’ uniform. With the 2015-2016 season going the way it did, 19 months had to feel like an eternity. But from the time Johnson stepped on the court at the Liacouras Center to begin his La Salle career against Temple, where he led the team in points, rebounds, and blocked shots with 23, 8, and 3 respectively, it was apparent that Johnson had been worth every bit of the wait.
In October of 2012, Robert “B.J.” Johnson made a commitment to play basketball at one of the most well-known basketball programs in the country.
“It’s been my favorite school for a while,” Johnson told press following his commitment to Syracuse.
When he was just 17 years old, as an ESPN top 100 recruit, Johnson joined a freshman class that included the Houston Rockets’ Tyler Ennis.
“That’s a very high level program,” Johnson explained of Syracuse. “The experience playing in the ACC, and the certain nuances of the game that the coaching staff taught me [was valuable]. [I picked] up things on and off the court from just being able to play with a lot of great players.”
But Johnson was not blooming the way he or head coach Jim Boeheim may have expected him to, averaging 12 minutes in 35 games played, while shooting 30% from the field and 23% from three over his two years with Syracuse. That prompted Johnson to make a move.
Syracuse.com spoke with Johnson’s father, Robert Johnson, a former La Salle Explorer himself, who described his son’s decison to transfer to his alma mater.
“In high school, B.J. was a 13-year-old freshman on the varsity team, but it comes to a point where you have to realize ‘is that a help or a hinderance?’” R. Johnson said. “He showed some great upside toward the end of season. I said, ‘You know what? We may have to take him off track, put him in the depot and then put him back on the track in a year.’”
Besides his father’s legacy, Johnson mentioned that his familiarity with junior guard Amar Stukes and head coach John Giannini’s candidness throughout the transfer process factored into his decision to move to La Salle.
“I knew Amar Stukes from playing AAU with him, so he had a big part of it,” said Johnson, who played on the Jersey Shore Warriors with Stukes. “The relationship with the players, the honesty that coach [Giannini] gave me during the transfer process, I think those are the biggest things.“
As long as that redshirt year must have felt for Johnson, it will be beneficial for his long-term development. That year proved to give him invaluable time to work on his game and mature physically. Johnson is no longer the thin 165-pounds he entered Syracuse at. He is now listed as 200 pounds, according to ESPN.com.
Johnson didn’t just mature physically over his redshirt year however.
“I’m just more confident [and] more comfortable playing,” he said. “Being three years older than I was when I first came to college, I think I’m just being more comfortable and more confident.”
Johnson already had a high rapport in the Philly basketball scene. Between the legacy of his father’s days as an Explorer, to his rise at Lower Merion high school, and his relationship with Amar Stukes, it was a clear fit between Johnson and the Explorers.
As if La Salle fans were not already anxious enough for his arrival last season, it was reported that during an inter-squad scrimmage, he made 17 three-point shots in a 20-minute span in what fans hoped was a preview of things to come.
18 games into his first season as an Explorer, Johnson has lived up to expectations. He is leading the Explorers in points with 17.3 per game, rebounds with 6.1 per game, and free throws with 3.8 makes per game. All while shooting 47% from the field and 39% from three.
It is clear how much better the Explorers are as a team on both ends of the floor when he is on the court, compared to when he is not. Johnson’s 110.5 defensive rating may not be great, but it is the best rating among all the Explorers this season.
“Well we don’t really play too much 2-3 zone here,” Johnson said about whether he has been able to apply any of the zone defense concepts he learned at Syracuse to La Salle. “When we do, I am really one of the more experienced or active guys in the zone.”
Johnson said the key to his success this season has been “playing within our system, trying not to take bad shots, trying to keep my teammates involved, and trying to make to most out of opportunity when it presents itself.”
“The key to his success is his talent, he’s 6-8, athletic and a very good shooter,” head coach Dr. John Giannini said of Johnson. “I think his improvement has come with the mental approach to the game, with his increased playing time I think he has embraced the challenge of making the most of that, he loves basketball, he wants to be good, he is highly motivated... I think he is appreciating the opportunity (to play extended minutes), he’s appreciating the game, and he’s learning. He’s just getting better at all of these things as time goes on.”
There are times when Johnson absolutely takes over games offensively. His season-high came against FGCU, when he scored 35 points. That being said, Johnson tries to balance staying aggressive with playing within La Salle’s system and keeping his teammates involved.
“I always try to remain aggressive, but try not to be too aggressive because that’s when bad shots are forced and unnecessary turnovers [occur],” said Johnson. “I try to stay aggressive, but when a man is open, [I] hit the open man and keep trying to play within our system.”
Even with Johnson’s individual success, there are still issues that La Salle needs to address.
Johnson clearly is an effective addition on the defensive side of the ball. This is evident in his team-leading defensive rating. The challenge is translating his individual defense to helping the Explorers defense as a whole, which is allowing 78.9 points per game and 47% shooting from the field and 40% from three.
The Explorers struggled on defense early in the season, allowing opponents to score 83.2 points per game, which forced La Salle to focus more on defense.
“Prior to Dayton and St. Louis we were one of the worst defensive teams in the country,” revealed Johnson. “To start the new year, we just tried to make a conscious effort to play defense and to focus more on defense. We know if we stop the other team from scoring, we have a pretty good chance of winning, when we are trying to just outscore opponents it’s pretty much 50-50.”
The challenge for the team will be how quickly they can learn to play with each other, according to Johnson.
“Our biggest challenge is trying to get more comfortable with each other,” he said.” We have five or six new pieces that we didn’t have last year, so we have had a couple bumps in the earlier part of the season, but we learned from that and we are looking forward to the rest of the season.”
One of Johnson’s teammates that has been on the same page with him is senior Jordan Price, who has scored consistently in double-digits in all but three contests this year and is shooting better than he did last season. At times, the Price-Johnson pairing has been extremely effective, for instance, when the duo combined for 49 points in a triple-overtime victory against Mercer. Their complementing skill-sets give La Salle scoring threats from either wing.
“Last year a lot of the focus was on him,” Johnson said about Price. “So just having me and a couple of other guys being able to take the scoring load off of him, it makes it easier for him to score and vice versa. When teams try to keep him [contained], it opens the game up for me.”
Dr. Giannini thinks that his star forward has evolved as a basketball player, specifically the finer points of the game.
“I think he is becoming a better defender and rebounder,” said coach Giannini. “He is just figuring out the multitude of things that goes into winning, whether its leadership, or rebounding, or defensive communication, or ball screen defense. I think he is understanding the many facets of the game that goes into winning, and when you are a top player on the team and you are playing a lot of minutes you are going to be asked to do a lot of those things.”
If B.J. Johnson continues his high level of play, and all of La Salle’s new pieces are able to gel together over the course of the conference season, Johnson will be an A-10 POY candidate. His combination of size, skill, athleticism, and basketball IQ make him one of the top scorers in the nation, and someone who is capable of carrying the team offensively. Time will tell if B.J. is able to accomplish his goal of making the NCAA tournament and the way he has been playing, B.J. Johnson is a name that Philly college hoops fans will hear often for the next couple of seasons and perhaps even further into his basketball career.
Photo: Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports
In last Saturday's 84-80 win over Florida Gulf Coast, juniors Tony Washington and Demetrius Henry combined for 6 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks. On paper, those numbers amount to a decent game.
But they had more than a decent game.
In the first half, FGCU managed just two points in the paint as Washington tightly guarded the combination of VCU transfer Antravious Simmons and UNLV transfer Demetris Morant. Henry played these same men when Washington came out of the game with 13 minutes left in the first half, and let up just 4 points in the paint. This wasn’t a small feat.
Coming out of high school, Simmons was ranked as the 25th best center in the country by ESPN.com and was offered scholarships from prime time schools including Alabama, Kansas State, Memphis, and Miami. He ended up signing to VCU and redshirting his freshman year so that he could gain 30 pounds. He transferred to FGCU in December of 2014 and has had success in the past against La Salle. Last year, he collected his first double-double with then-career bests of 17 points and 10 rebounds in a 9-point win.
Morant is quite the player as well. He was offered scholarships from USC, Arizona State, Memphis, UNLV, and San Diego State. He also redshirted his first year at UNLV and decided to transfer in August of 2014 and was immediately eligible to play.
His first year, he broke the record for the most blocks for an FGCU player against a Division-I opponent and the second-most in FGCU history. Even though he missed 12 games due to injury last year, he had the second best rebound percentage on the team, led the team in dunks with 22, scored his career high in points, with 12 against North Florida, and would’ve placed third in the Atlantic Sun Conference in blocks, if he had played enough games.
During Saturday's showdown, Morant played for 21 minutes and started the game at forward. He ended up only making one out of his seven field goals, with half of his points coming from free throws. In the first half, while being guarded by Washington, he missed two heavily contested layups. When he was guarded by Henry, he scored just 2 points and ended the game with 4 fouls.
Simmons, on the other hand, played for just eight minutes due to fouling out of the game in the last five minutes of the second half. He was also held to 0 points, 0 shot attempts, and 1 rebound. Washington and Henry’s defense ultimately smothered FGCU's players, holding them to a mere 10 points in the paint all game.
Morant and Simmons were completely shut down the entire afternoon. Coach John Giannini of the Explorers couldn't stop raving about Henry's performance.
“Demetrius’ [Henry] impact was phenomenal,” he said after the game. “One thing that the average spectator might not be aware of is, when a good guard is making threes, you have to guard him tight. Now when they come and set a pick and roll and you have to be hit by that screen, that big guy has to stop the guard and get back to his man before he can score. It’s really hard to do. Demetrius Henry must have done that 20 times today. Really big time defense.”
But this wasn’t just a one game phenomenon. In the last six games, the La Salle big men, including Ukraine native, Yevgen Sakhniuk, who didn’t play against FGCU, have held the opposition's 12 big men to a collective 91 points (15.1 PPG, as an entire frontcourt per team), 9 assists, and 15 offensive rebounds. When the Explorers played the Bucknell Bison, they were met with a huge test against forward Zach Thomas, who averaged 16.3 points per game coming into the contest. La Salle was able to hold him to 10 points, his lowest total of the year.
Another impressive defensive performance was against center Tim Kempton of the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. Thus far, the two-time Patriot League Player of the Year has averaged the most amount of points for a Lehigh player since 2013, putting up 22.8 points per game this year, which is 9th best in the nation. His scoring was cut to nearly half that against the Explorers when he scored a season low 12 points in addition to 4 turnovers.
Arguably the most prominent performance of the year for La Salle was against Rodney Williams of the Drexel Dragons. While averaging 17.1 points per game and compiling six games with more than 20 points, Williams has become a premier player in the City 6. However, against La Salle, he tied his season low in scoring with a meager 7 points.
Then, more recently, in a 98-96 win, the Explorers held Mercer's five bigs to just 16 points and 5 made shots in more than 100 combined minutes of play.
Saturday’s win showed how La Salle can play up to the competition. FGCU has posted four straight 20-win seasons and hasn’t finished lower than tied for second place in the Atlantic Sun Conference in each of those four seasons. La Salle is now 6-4 and looking to use this victory as fuel to win bigger and better games, especially behind their stellar frontcourt defenders.
Photo: Rich Schultz/Getty Images North America
On Saturday afternoon the La Salle Explorers will be defending Tom Gola Arena against the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles. Last year, the teams met in Fort Myers, FL and FGCU got the edge against an undermanned La Salle squad. This year, with La Salle’s improvements of talent and the game being played in Philly, La Salle has a great chance to avenge themselves against FGCU. Both teams are looking to rebound after losses in their previous games, La Salle to Georgetown and FGCU to Georgia Southern.
La Salle is 4-4 on the season after losing their previous two games. Their offense has played well, scoring 82.5 points per game on 47% shooting from the field and 40% from three. La Salle’s problem this season has been their defense. The Explorers’ opponents are scoring 82.0 points per game while shooting 49% from the field and 41% from three. If La Salle is going contend this year in the A-10, they will need to improve their team defense.
Florida Gulf Coast University is 7-4 on the year and have won six of their last seven games. Their four losses have all come against quality opponents in Florida, Baylor, Michigan State, and Georgia Southern. They are scoring 77 points per game on 51% shooting from the field and 39% from three. While FGCU’s offense has not scored as frequently as La Salle’s has, the Eagles play tough defense and their opponents have been held to 70 points per game, shooting 43% from the field and a mere 26% from three.
What to expect
From La Salle, expect a fast pace and a good amount of three point shots. They will push the ball up the court and have a quick trigger on open shots no matter how much time is left on the shot clock. Defensively, expect La Salle to pressure FGCU’s ball handlers. Giannini would be wise to pressure FGCU for two reasons, one is that pressing the defense gets the entire team engaged at a higher lever, a problem that La Salle has been hampered by this season, particularly on defense. Another reason the Explorers may pressure the Eagles is that FGCU has not handled the full court press well this season. Long Beach State and Sienna both nearly defeated the Eagles by closing large second half deficits with the use of full court presses. FGCU gave Michigan State all kinds of problems until the Spartans switched to a full court press that slowed the Eagles down. Even if Dr. Giannini does not come out in a full court press, expect him to cover ball handlers tightly in the half court and if La Salle struggles to defend the Eagles, switch to a full court press in the second half.
For the Eagles, expect them to, as FGCU’s broadcast commentator J. Webb Horton says, “Sugar the bigs.” FGCU has three good interior players in All A-Sun Forward Marc-Eddy Norelia, the A-Sun Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Demetris Morant, and 6-foot-9, 250-pound Antravious Simmons. FGCU will want to work their half court offense to create post ups for their big men, and also use their three guards, Brandon Goodwin, Zach Johnson, and Christian Terrell to penetrate the defense and find the big guys for easier looks.
Key Matchup: Jordan Price and Demetris Morant
Price and Morant are both of their team’s power forwards, technically. The 6-foot-5 Price is a wing who is listed as a guard, but is tasked with defending opponents power forwards due to La Salle’s 4 out, 1 in lineup. Since most NCAA teams also play 4 out, 1 in, he has a good matchup for most games. But when Price has to defend an actual frontcourt player, that player tends to have a good game. We saw this against Temple when Obi Enechionyia scored 20 and grabbed 14 rebounds, and also in the close loss to Texas Southern, when the Tigers’ starting power forward Derrick Griffin had 16 points and 8 rebounds. To Price’s credit, he did render Georgetown’s Akoy Agau without a field goal attempt in 18 minutes, but Agau averages just 2.7 attempts per game and is out there for his skills on defense.
FGCU’s Demetris Morant, a UNLV transfer and the preseason A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year would be a center on most other teams in the nation. Offensively, Morant plays much like a center, setting picks, crashing the offensive glass, catching alley-oops, and posting up here and there. While Morant isn’t the type of player that Jordan Price would normally cover, Morant’s frontcourt partner, Antravious Simmons, is a traditional back to the basket center that has excellent touch around the basket and a thick, strong body that he uses to get position to score in many different ways. Either Demetrius Henry or Tony Washington will be used to defend Simmons and Jordan Price will have to do his best against Morant. When La Salle has the ball, FGCU will most likely keep this matchup due to Morant’s defensive versatility to defend Price.
One of college basketball’s top scorers and the A-Sun’s pre-season defensive player of the year. This will be a great battle to watch.
X-Factors Pookie Powell and Brandon Goodwin
The matchup of the AAC transfer point guards will be another intriguing storyline for this game. Powell (Memphis) has been everything La Salle fans hoped he would be, scoring 12.6 points and dishing out 2.6 assists while only turning the ball over a total of .6 times per game. FGCU’s achilles heel on defense has been guards who penetrate with dribble-drives. Pookie Powell is exactly the type of player that can expose this. With his handles, and quick acceleration, Powell collapses defenses and creates space for his teammates to get open perimeter looks. Powell will need to show up ready to play on Saturday, particularly on defense, against Brandon Goodwin (UCF), who has been equally as impactful for the Eagles, scoring 15.4 points with 3.5 assists per game. Goodwin is also a very athletic and quick guard that finishes at the rim and shoots the ball from long-range reasonably well too (36% on the year from three).
What La Salle needs to do to win
To win, La Salle will need to use their defense to create turnovers and ignite some up-tempo offense. La Salle’s edge going into this game is in the turnover battle. The Explorers, as a team, turn the ball over 11.5 times per game and with their 12.4 turnovers forced, they have a +.9 ratio on the year. Meanwhile, FGCU turns the ball over 14 times per game and forces only 11 per game, giving them a -3.0 team turnover ratio. La Salle’s offense is at it’s best when they are pushing the ball in transition and finding either open shooters on the wing or trailing behind the play. If the Explorers are able to force FGCU into making mistakes that lead to easy baskets in transition, the Tom Gola crowd will get behind them and give the Explorers the momentum to win this game.
What FGCU needs to do to win
FGCU’s advantage in this game comes with their size, half court defense, and rebounding. For FGCU to win this game, they will want to slow the game’s pace down and get into their halfcourt offense where their talented big men can do damage down low. FGCU plays with three guards around two traditional big men. The starting big man tandem of Antravious Simmons and Demetris Morant has the size (both stand 6-foot-9) to give La Salle all sorts of problems down low. Simmons had the best game of his career last year against La Salle when he scored 17 points and 10 rebounds. Add in FGCU’s leading scorer and rebounder from last season, Marc-Eddy Norelia, who has had a light playing load to this point (17.1 mpg in 7 games) due to a healing shooting wrist that was broken late in the offseason, and the Eagles have a frontcourt that can play with anyone in the nation. If FGCU runs their halfcourt offense without turning the ball over too much, and the Eagles are able to defend the three point line as well as they have been this season (sixth best 3-point defense in the nation). The Explorers will struggle to find answers defending the Eagles in the paint and keeping them off of the glass.
Prediction: 75-70 Florida Gulf Coast University
La Salle and FGCU are probably equally as skilled teams. Dr. John Giannini and Joe Dooley’s coaching balance each other out, But the size and scheme matchups favor FGCU in this game. The Explorer’s scoring punch and home court advantage will give them a big boost, they should come out of the gait playing inspired basketball. But ultimately, FGCU’s size and ability to get stops on defense down the stretch will make the difference and the Eagles will head home with a quality road win.
Photo: Linwood Ferguson/ Captive Photons
-La Salle loses to UMass in the first round of the A-10 tournament