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
As La Salle began their season this week, a storyline that fans and media were watching for was how would La Salle’s revitalized offense look coming out of the gate. Last season, it is no secret that the offensive gameplan was a mess and needed a makeover. So, John Giannini hired Matt Brady as an assistant coach and made him the offensive coordinator.
Although Dr. Giannini has a longer head coaching resume, amassing 477 wins over a 27 year coaching career, it is clear that Giannini respects Brady immensely as a basketball mind, calling him “One of the best coaches in the Atlantic 10” at an interview for goexplorers.tv.
In that interview, he reaffirms that Brady will be the team’s offensive wizard stating that “I think his offensive expertise clearly surpasses mine.”
Their first game was Brady and Giannini’s first opportunity to show off the improved offense, and although the Explorers were not able to earn the win, the script for Saturday night’s game was vastly different than anything Explorer fans saw last season. The Explorers offensive execution was surprisingly on-point. La Salle amassed 92 points and turned the ball over just nine times in 45 minutes of play. They moved the ball around well, fed Tony Washington and Demetrius Henry in the post when they had position, and put a well-coached Fran Dunphy defense on their heels. If Jordan Price shot just a little better than 3-9 from deep, the game may not have even made it to overtime.
A few plays stuck out as examples of well coached offense that should give La Salle fans encouragement from the Temple game. One play was Amar Stukes’ dribble drive with 5 minutes left in regulation. Although the result was a blocked shot by Temple’s Obi Enechionyia, the execution of the play was very nice, as La Salle ran a motion set that gave Stukes a good angle to drive toward the basket. Stukes’ drive forced Temple’s defense to collapse and it left Price wide open on the wing. Obviously, the point guard needs to find Price here, instead of attempting the layup, but, surely this is a play that Stukes saw again in a film session and he will keep an eye open for a shooter next time La Salle runs that set.
Another well executed play in the Temple game came at the 25-second mark of the second half out of a Temple timeout with the Owls leading by 3. Brady drew up a beauty out of the timeout and, as La Salle spaced out the floor, Price made a baseline cut that drew the defense’s attention. The ball then found Stukes, who was posted up against Temple’s freshman, Alani Moore. Had Stukes gotten his shot off earlier, he could have tied the game right then. Instead, Stukes settled for a pair of free-throws, La Salle had to foul Temple on the next possession and then rely on a heroic three-point shot from Price to send the game into overtime.
Tuesday night’s game against Delaware had a much different tone. Although the Explorer’s did not play as well offensively as they did against Temple, they were able to score as much as they needed to carve out a win.
La Salle’s star on Tuesday had to be Pookie Powell, who scored 14 points, dished out six assists, and grabbed 7 rebounds in 35 minutes of play. He did all of this without committing a single turnover. He scored in a variety of ways, from making a pair of three-point shots, to going a perfect 7-7 from the free-throw line, and even throwing down a monsterous dunk after crossing up the defense and driving right down the middle of the lane.
While Powell racked up the stats, the interesting note from the game was how La Salle’s coaching staff used Stukes. Since Stukes struggles to shoot from the perimeter, conventional wisdom would say to have him as the primary ball handler and Powell off-ball when the two guards share the floor. But Coach Brady and Dr. Giannini often started sets with Powell on-ball, then using dribble-handoffs, weaves, and ball movement to get Stukes the ball in a spot where the defense was not set and he could penetrate with a dribble drive. This type of action played a large part in Stukes going 4-7 from the field, amasing five assists and giving away only 1 turnover in 35 minutes of play.
Another offensive tactic La Salle used was putting Stukes on the free-throw line and having him make plays out of the high-post. This is a smart way to use Stukes because of his positional size (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) and passing ability. Out of the high post, Stukes is patient with his decision making and was able to find either Henry/Washington in the low post or kick the ball out to a shooter on the perimeter. Look for La Salle to continue to use Stukes in this spot and watch how opponents adjust to this over the season.
Saturday’s loss vs Texas Southern was a tough blow in front of a sold-out Tom Gola Arena. If you look at most of the stats, La Salle should have won the game. They turned the ball over only eight times, while Texas Southern had 14 turnovers and also shot a smooth 45% from the 3-point line. But a combination of poor team defense on La Salle’s part, losing the rebounding battle by 10, and a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Dulani Robinson resulted in the Explorers dropping the game, 77-76. B.J. Johnson’s play was a bright spot for La Salle, as he scored 24 points on 3-3 from behind the arc and a perfect 9-9 on free-throws. He and Price show the potential to be a good tandem together, especially running a pick and pop where both players have the skills to be the ball handler or the shooter.
While the optimistic La Salle fan’s expectations may have been dampered after La Salle’s first pair of games, they have the players to make serious noise this season. If the coaches continue to put role players like Stukes in the best spot to be successful and get consistent scoring from both Price and Johnson, the Explorers will show improvement in their offensive execution as the season goes on. La Salle continues their season on Sunday the 27th at Drexel.
Photo: William Derry/Philly Empire
Although Texas Southern defeated the La Salle Explorers yesterday, 77-76, on a buzzer-beater by guard Dulani Robinson at Tom Gola Arena, junior Amar Stukes finally found his groove. The guard left it all on the hardwood against the Tigers. He tracked down loose balls, scrapped for rebounds, and even played fantastic post defense on Texas Southern’s 7-footer, Marvin Jones. Stukes was a large part of why La Salle even stayed in the game, especially in the first half.
After getting off to a slow start in the first half, which led to Texas Southern's largest lead of the game (13 points), La Salle head coach John Giannini called a thirty-second timeout and went to the bench to find a solution.
Though junior Demetrius Henry and senior Cleon Roberts entered the game in place of junior B.J. Johnson and senior Jordan Price after the break, La Salle still struggled. While Johnson and Price would later re-enter the game and help the Explorers make a comeback, it was Stukes who came off the bench early on and took on the challenge of guarding Texas Southern’s leading scorer Zach Lofton.
Stukes held Lofton to 3 first half points, which was huge. While Stukes thrived, the rest of his teammates struggled.
“I thought the first half we had some good players play atrocious defense,” said Giannini at his post-game press conference. “They shot 55 percent, outrebounded us and we couldn't stop them without fouling.”
The La Salle College high school grad’s play on the defensive end against Lofton throughout the first half allowed the Explorers to stay in the game despite their big deficit. Stukes, who played 35 minutes and tallied 8 points, 5 assists, and 2 steals against Delaware this past Tuesday, has gotten off to a solid start this year and coach Giannini said that his play at practice is a key factor in his performances thus far.
“He is by far our highest winner at practice,” said Giannini. “His team almost always wins. He defends, doesn’t turn the ball over, and gets his teammates involved.”
Stukes’ first half efforts earned him a start in the second half. He made the most out of the opportunity as he drained a three-pointer off a Pookie Powell assist within the first minute of the second half. Later, he found center Tony Washington on a drive to the basket for a layup.
After Johnson knocked down three consecutive free-throws to cut the lead to 2 for the Explorers, Stukes forced forward Lamont Walker to turnover the ball, which led to Roberts tying up the game with a layup on the other end to make it 46-46.
Roberts hit another clutch basket a little over minute later to give the Explorers a 51-48 advantage, drilling an electrifying three-pointer that brought the crowd of 2,622 people to their feet.
Before Stukes rested on the bench after playing for the first eleven minutes of the second half, Roberts continued his perfect shooting night (4-4 3PM, 6-6 FGM), hitting his third three-pointer, giving La Salle a 57-55 lead.
With Stukes on the sideline, Texas Southern’s Kevin Scott hit a three-pointer to give them a three-point lead, 62-59.
The Philly native gave La Salle the lead, 70-68, when he stole the ball from Robinson and received a pass from Powell for an easy layup. Stukes then fought for a loose rebound after Price missed a jumper, which resulted in a jump ball that favored the Explorers due to the possession arrow. The Explorers led 72-69 after Johnson hit two free throws. The Lower Merion graduate followed that up with a dunk to make it a 5-point lead.
Lofton, who finished the game with 13 points, kept attacking the basket for Texas Southern. He hit a contested layup to make it a three-point game. Then, Powell beat his man off the dribble and drove baseline to the basket but instead of laying it up, he attempted a dunk, which he missed. Last year’s SWAC Player of the Year Derrick Griffin got the rebound and found Lofton, who hit a jumper to pull the Tigers within 1-point.
“Pookie's missed dunk would have iced the game,” said Giannini. “If there's one play that's more upsetting, it's probably that because that was the game.”
With 8 seconds left in the contest, Powell hit both free throws giving La Salle a 3-point lead after being fouled by Lofton. Powell soon committed a foul of his own on Scott, who made 1 out of 2 free-throws with 6 seconds remaining.
The Tigers forced the inbound pass to go to Henry, who missed the first shot of a one-and-one, which prompted Robinson to grab the ball and sprint up the court, where he hit the game-winning shot for Texas Southern.
“It's a crushing loss,” said Giannini. “They did one more good thing than us and I'm just really disappointed.”
Despite La Salle's close loss, Stukes put in a strong defensive performance, which helped keep the Explorers in the game and should give him confidence moving forward. His defensive prowess has not gone unnoticed by coach Giannini.
“Defensively he's terrific and that’s half the game of basketball,” said Giannini.
Photo: Benjamin Simon/ Philly Empire
After a long and tough 2015-2016 season that saw the Explorers win a mere nine games and finish their A-10 conference season buried in last place, La Salle is looking to take a leap forward. Thanks to the talent head coach Dr. John Giannini has imported, three transfers from major conference schools, who will begin their La Salle careers this season.
The Explorers were handcuffed last season due to having only eight eligible scholarship players available to play, along with dealing with various injuries, illnesses, and ailments. That stripped the squad of any bench depth. The defense was porous due to the paper thin frontcourt, exhausted bodies (La Salle starters averaged 33 min last season), and the slow paced offense that overly relied on freelancing and Jordan Price. But this all changes this season.
Along with the transfers becoming eligible, one of the most important offseason moves for La Salle was the acquisition of assistant coach Matt Brady, who will revamp the offensive attack. Matt Brady joins La Salle after serving as James Madison’s head coach in 2014-2015. Although his expertise is on the offensive side of the ball, under Brady, the Dukes were the best team in the nation at defending the three and overall field goal percentage. Look for his coaching to carry over to the defensive end as well.
This season, the Explorer’s biggest challenge will be getting all of these new players to become familiar playing with one another while learning the new systems. The Explorers may struggle in the non-conference season as they get used to playing with one another. But, by February-March, La Salle should be ready to give A-10 powers like Dayton and Rhode Island a run for their money.
Rohan Brown (G, graduated), O.J. Lewis (G, graduated), Dusan Majstorovic (G, transferred), Karl Harris (G, transferred)
The Explorers lose some consistent contributors from last season, but not enough for major impact. Rohan Brown brought veteran leadership but struggled to stay healthy for much of the year. While his impact in the locker room will be missed, the Explorers will have no trouble replacing his on-the-court production. Brown’s fellow graduate, O.J. Lewis, was a walk-on and averaged two minutes player per game in the 12 games he appeared in.
The Explorers also lose their entire 2015 recruiting class with both Dusan Majstorovic and Karl Harris transferring out. Neither players were expected to make a major impact this season. Karl Harris showed some glimpses of promise but would have been buried on the depth chart. Majstorovic also had trouble finding minutes last season and wouldn’t be able to consistently find minutes with the revamped 2016-17 roster.
RaShawn “Pookie” Powell (G, So.), B.J. Johnson (F, Jr.), Demetrius Henry (F, Jr.), Saul Phiri (G, Fr.), Cian Sullivan (C, Fr.), Isiah Deas (G, Fr.)
This section is what gives La Salle fans optimism heading into this season. It was said that during intra-squad scrimmages last year, La Salle’s scout team, manned with the three ineligible transfers, often would outplay the starters. Pookie Powell comes to La Salle from Memphis where he started 11 games and averaged 4.3 points per game. BJ Johnson returns home to where he played high school ball in Lower Merion after attending Syracuse. The final transfer is Demetrius Henry, who was a common face in the South Carolina roster for the two years that he attended the school.
Along with the elite transfers becoming eligible, La Salle also brings in a three-man freshman class that all have one common trait: size. Saul Phiri is a 6-foot-4 wing that defends the perimeter well. Cian Sullivan stands at 7-foot-2 and is the eighth Irish men’s basketball player to sign a National Letter of Intent in the United States. Isaiah Deas’ eligibility for this season remains in question, but his 6-6 frame is intriguingly long. The Brooklyn native could develop to be an excellent player down the road.
Projected Starting Lineup
G: RaShawn “Pookie” Powell (Proj. Stats: 9 PPG, 5 APG, 1.5 SPG)
Ra Shawn “Pookie” Powell begins his La Salle career after transferring from Memphis. In his one year at Memphis, he averaged 4.3 points and 2.7 assists in 15.4 minutes per game. Powell is a quick distributing point guard with a nice crossover and that sets up his ability to drive to the rim or a pull-up with a mid range jumper.
G Jordan Price (Proj. Stats: 19 PPG, 3 APG, .37 3p%)
Last season, Price averaged 19.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3 assists in nearly 38 minutes per game. La Salle’s offense often ran through Price as he displayed a knack for creating his own shot. Not only was Price the Explorers’ most effective offensive weapon, he also was forced to play versatile defense, often matched up with opponents’ power forwards and even sliding to defend the center position when Tony Washington took his rests. Price will split most of his time between the two wing positions this season.
F B.J. Johnson (Proj. Stats: 14 PPG, 6 RPG, .40 3p%)
The Syracuse transfer, B.J. Johnson is a tall (6-foot-7) wing who is known to be an accurate 3-point shooter. Although the Lower Merion product shot only 23% from the three in his first two seasons at Syracuse, an expanded role should allow him to find his shooting stroke with more attempts. Explorer fans should be excited about Johnson as he gives a huge boost to the team’s offense that does not feature a legit three point threat.
F Demetrius Henry (Proj. Stats: 10 PPG, 7RPG, .50 Fg%)
In all likelihood, La Salle will mix together combinations of Demetrius Henry, Tony Washington, or Cleon Roberts into the starting lineup throughout the season. Demetrius Henry comes to La Salle after two seasons at South Carolina. Henry is an athletic and facing up scorer. He will need to improve his rebounding after averaging only 3.5 rebounds in 18.6 minutes in his two seasons as a Gamecock. Look for the 6-foot-9 Henry to make his mark scoring down low as well. Because modern basketball is trending towards playing with four perimeter players, one thing to watch this season is how Henry plays with Washington when they are on the floor together. If Henry can hit 15-18 foot pick and pop jump shots, La Salle will be in good shape when the two are paired up, particularly on the defensive end.
F Tony Washington (Proj. Stats: 6 PPG, 8 RPG 1.5 BPG)
Washington had 1.5 blocks in 26.7 minutes per game and gained a plethora of experience over last season. His 106.2 Defensive Rating was the best among all of the Explorers’ rotational players. Although he struggled with getting into foul trouble, picking up 3.5 fouls per game, Washington should be aided by having Henry. This will help him without having to play such aggressive defense as he needed to last season, as he will have another legit big man to help him on the defensive end.
Cleon Roberts (G, Sr.), Johnie Shuler (G, Jr.), Yevgen Sakhniuk (F, Jr.), Amar Stukes (G, Jr.), Saul Phiri (G, Fr.), Isiah Deas (G, Fr.), Cian Sullivan (C, Fr.)
After only having a bench that was three, two, or sometimes only one player deep last season, the Explorers will gain an huge influx of bench depth. If he doesn't start for Dr. G, the first player to come off the bench will be the senior wing Cleon Roberts. Roberts has shot 36% from the three over his collegiate career and provides tough defense with his long 6-5 body on the perimeter.
Johnnie Shuler will be competing with Amar Stukes for backup guard minutes, Shuler provides more of an offensive punch (9.6 points and 3 assists last season) and plays best while off-ball, while Stukes is the better defender and more of a natural on-ball guard. Stukes struggled last season in his minutes, unable to completely seize the starting guard spot without consistently playing well.
Yevgen Sakhniuk is looking for a breakout season after struggling to stay on the floor last year, after dealing with illness. Sakhniuk should provide solid backup power forward minutes and give La Salle an interior scoring option off the bench.
Phiri will add another perimeter presence with the ability to shoot the ball, as he nailed 107 three pointers in his final year at prep school. Isiah Deas may struggle to find minutes early on this season, but will provide a long wing who averaged 12 points per game last season for Coastal Academy in New Jersey. All signs point to 7-foot-2 Cian Sullivan redshirting his first year of college basketball to gain some weight and get comfortable with the pace and physicality of the game.
at Temple November 11th, 2016
The Explorers open their season at the Liacouras Center against Temple. Not only is this an inter-city rivalry game to open up the season, but it is also the first chance La Salle will see the three highly coveted transfers in action. A win to open up the season against a strong program like Temple could set the tone for a great La Salle season.
vs. Georgetown December 20th, 2016
The Explorers play Georgetown as part of the HoopHall Miami Invitational at American Airlines Arena. La Salle will have a chance to gain some excellent national exposure in front of ESPN2’s cameras against one of the Big East’s best teams. Georgetown returns multiple talented big men, including 6-foot-10, 270 pound Jesse Govan and fellow sophomore Marcus Derrickson. A writer for SB Nation even went as far as saying about the Hoyas, “I can't recall a roster so deep heading into a season in all my born days.” It will be a tough game, but a chance for the Explorers to cement themselves as a top tier team.
at Dayton December 30th, 2016
The Explorers split their games against Dayton last season and have a chance to steal a win on the road from the A-10 conference front runner to start conference games. Opening A-10 play with a win against one of the league’s best teams would radiate momentum for the team. The Flyers bring back Charles Cooke for his final season which could present problems for La Salle. After scoring 21 points in their first game, the Explorers held the high scoring wing to 6 points on 2 of 8 shooting from the field. If La Salle wants to win, they will have to contain Cooke.
17-12 (10-8 in A10 play)
La Salle should win 17 games next season and a sixth place finish in the Atlantic 10 conference. While this is an eight-win improvement from last season, it is a conservative estimate. The Explorers may start the season off slow as Dr. G experiments with lineups, rotations, and minutes, but by the time the schedule moves into the conference season, the Explorers should have their rotation etched out and start to build some chemistry and continuity with new players and a new scheme.
Quotes on the season
“Pookie is talented and hard-working. I see him consistently improving with us and becoming a truly outstanding player. He is the type of complete guard who can penetrate, pass and shoot that we have had success with.” -Dr. John Giannini via goexplorers.com
“Our biggest strength is how deep we are.” -B.J. Johnson via City of Basketball Love
“Things have changed over the last several years. We certainly don’t want to settle in our recruiting and lower our standards for the high school talent that we want.” –John Giannini via the Providence Journal
“Whether it’s his first time getting double-teamed in a game, or whether it’s having to play extended minutes and maintain his effort, or guarding different sets and actions that people have, he is soaking all of those things in and he’s just going to keep getting better. He is a quality A-10 big guy and he’s one of the players that we think we can win with in the future.”-John Giannini about Tony Washington via The Empire.
“I never honestly feel like I have to score 30 every, single night [but] sometimes, I get into a groove,” he said after practice last week. “We had a good team last year and we beat some of the top teams in our conference so night in and night out we had a chance every time.” –Jordan Price via City of Basketball Love.
"I am thrilled to be joining the Explorer basketball family and grateful for the opportunity and trust that Coach Giannini has given me. In my short time here, I already see the enthusiasm and optimism for La Salle basketball for next year and beyond is truly justified. This is a great time to be a part of La Salle basketball." -Matt Brady via goexplorers.com
Photo: Yong Kim/ Philly.com
Jamir Moultrie announced his commitment to La Salle University last Friday via Twitter.
Moultrie, who currently attends Bishop McNamara high school in Forestville, MD, has averaged more than 17 points over the past two seasons.
The 6-foot combo guard is the second member of La Salle’s 2017 recruiting class, joining Miles Brookins, who committed in early October.
Georgia, Georgetown and Monmouth were also on his final list.
The Explorers also added Dajour Joseph to it’s 2017 recruiting class. Joseph announced his commitment via Twitter this past Monday.
The 6-foot-6 wing currently attends Combine Academy in North Carolina.
Photo: Mark Gail/The Washington Post & Phenom Hoop Report
Four seasons ago, the La Salle Explorers went dancing. Well, maybe a little more than dancing. They went to the Sweet Sixteen and captured the nation with some fantastic finishes. This year, like every year, they will try to return there and the 2016-17 roster has more than a legitimate chance to do so.
Not only do they return star Jordan Price, who averaged 19 points per game, and talented wing Cleon Roberts, who averaged 12 points, but they also bring in three big time transfers. That includes former Memphis guard Pookie Powell, Syracuse wing BJ Johnson, and South Carolina big man Demetrius Henry. Packed with a solid three person recruiting class, the Explorers are ready to compete for an Atlantic 10 championship.
However, in order to do that, they will need a large portion of their team to step up from last year. One of the bigger weaknesses for the Explorers in the 2015-16 season was in the frontcourt, where they were often short handed. 6-foot-10 Tony Washington had only played 37 minutes before being asked to compete as their starting center in one of the country's top conferences. Senior Rohan Brown battled injuries and struggled to stay on the floor. Despite some encouraging minutes, Ukrainian Yevgen Sakhniuk couldn’t find consistent time when he wasn’t battling illness.
Now the team heads into the 2016-17 season revamped with big men. While they return both Washington and Sakhniuk into the lineup, there are also new faces: transfer Demetrius Henry and incoming freshman Cian Sullivan.
While Henry may be new to the public eye, he is not new to the team, already having spent the year at La Salle sitting out per NCAA rules. He spent this time learning the system and getting ready for the year. Henry has proven his ability to grow as a player, as he jumped from 210 pounds in his freshman season to a bulky 230 pounds his sophomore season. Also improved was his shooting percentage, which was a dreadfully low 41% his freshman year, jumping that up to 51% his sophomore season.
When engaged, he’s a force down low. However, that wasn’t always the case at South Carolina, where he played beside guard Sindarius Thornwell, who was prone to taking lots of shots. As a result, Henry’s production didn’t always seem to be as high as it could be.
DJoumbarey A. Moreau of HoopsHabit.com wrote a piece during the 2014-15 season about the Gamecocks, saying that if Henry “remains unengaged during the early part of the year it's only going to stay the same for South Carolina and they will get slaughtered inside against larger opponents.”
The same can be said for La Salle. Not only will he have to face some of the country’s top big men on a nightly basis, but he will have to play with a similarly high scoring player who shoots a lot in Jordan Price. Either Price will need to learn to get Henry involved more often or Henry will have to learn how to get more engaged himself. But either way, Henry will be a valuable part of the offense when playing well, allowing for an inside out type of offense to be ran.
Consequently though, he has to show he can do it more consistently against good competition. During his sophomore season, he had five double digit scoring games. They came against North Florida, UNC Asheville, Coker, NC A&T,and Tennessee. In his freshman year he had three double digit games against FIU, Marshall, and South Carolina State. In both years he only had one double digit rebounding outing. That came against South Carolina State as well.
On the other hand, against the eight ranked teams he faced at USC, he only averaged 4.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. While he won’t be expected to be the number one scoring option at La Salle, Henry will have to play better against top tier competition.
Compared to Henry, Sullivan comes into the season with relatively low expectations. Although he stands at 7-foot-1, the Ireland native is extremely raw. Born in Ireland, Sullivan has only been in the United States for one season, where he did a prep year at St. Andrew’s, a top tier basketball school. Thanks to an improved shooting touch, he was ranked as the top player in the Rhode Island class of 2016 according to the New England Recruiting Report (NERR). Despite such a high ranking, Sullivan lacks the necessary strength for a future Division 1 player.
With that said, St. Andrew’s head coach said that Sullivan will likely redshirt the upcoming season to better prepare himself physically, according to the NERR. He will be able to learn under a plethora of big men, but specifically Tony Washington, as the rising junior went through a similar situation.
As a lanky, raw big man coming into La Salle, Washington redshirted his first season on campus, putting on 20 pounds. The next year, he barely played in his first official season in a La Salle uniform, appearing only in 13 games. Despite that, he put on another additional 10 pounds. His sophomore season, after two years of learning under star Explorers’ Jerrell Wright and Steve Zack, held more playing time, as he averaged 27 minutes per game and saw consistent starts. The same strategy will likely be used for Sullivan so that he can take over the reigns when Washington leaves. The hope is that Washington can be a mentor and as helpful to the young Irish player, as the preceding Explorers were to himself.
Washington, on the other hand, returns one of the two veteran big men (the other being Yevgen Sakhniuk) in the system. Both players complement each other’s games, as Washington is more of rim protector and back-to-the-basket type player. Sakhniuk, on the other hand, is a more natural finesse scorer.
In both of their first years with major minutes, they had their moments. Washington proved to be a good rebounder, averaging 7 rebounds per game, with a total rebounding percentage of 16%, ranking him first on the team and third in the Atlantic 10 conference. This was a product of ten games with double digit rebounds. On the defensive end, he was solid rim protector, averaging 1.5 blocks per game, which ranked him fifth in the conference. He added about 8 points per game on the other end and shot 60% from the field.
Sakhniuk, on the other hand, was very efficient on the offensive end in minimal minutes. Despite only playing 13 minutes per game, he averaged 6 points per game, giving him the highest points per 100 possessions on the team with 26.7. Not only that, but he was a close third on the team in player efficiency, with a rating of 16.4% (behind Washington). Cap that off with the fact that he shot 65% from the field and was second on the team in True Shooting Percentage with a percentage of .608. Had he played more minutes, he would have placed eighth in the Atlantic 10 in the TS% category. Although he didn’t play as much as many would have desired, Sakhniuk will have another chance this season to prove that he is a skillful scorer.
So...how do these guys fit in?
While Sullivan is likely to find minimal minutes (if any at all) because of his lanky frame and limited skillset at this time in his basketball career, Sakhniuk, Washington, and Henry should duke it out for the starting spots. With La Salle’s strengths visibly in their guards, to see three big men starting at the same time will be really surprising. Instead, expect coach Giannini and his staff to go with a three guard set, sometimes even resorting to four guards and small ball.
The team will have most of its scoring coming from the guard positions in the likes of rising junior Jordan Price, sharp shooter BJ Johnson, Florida native Cleon Roberts, and even Memphis transfer Pookie Powell. All four of those players are strong scorers and coach Giannini will likely look for the big men to complement that scoring. That would fall in more of the area of Washington and Henry, who can balance the floor by playing more in the post, and will give a better defensive presence for the team. Based on his play last season, Washington has already proved that he can fit in perfectly with this team, as he doesn’t often force shots, is a strong rebounder, and can protect the basket.
Ideally, that would leave Sakhniuk to come off the bench, where he can bring a scoring and energy punch when the starters need a break. While last year he had trouble getting comfortable in that role, he will need to learn how to produce off of the bench. With that said, there’s no doubt he has the skill and talent to score consistently at this level. It shouldn’t be a problem under coach Giannini, who has a history of talented forward and centers like Steve Zack, Jerrell Wright, Aaric Murray, Jerrell Williams, and others. This season seems to be no exception. Although the frontcourt will not be the focal point of the team, it will have to be a reliable group of guys that know their roles. If that happens, the Explorers will have a chance at winning some games in the NCAA tournament.
A big question mark heading into 2016-2017 for the La Salle Explorers is the role of junior guard Johnnie Shuler. Last season, Shuler was the team’s starting shooting guard, moving to point guard when Amar Stukes was taking his rest. He was given an enormous opportunity to display his play, as he averaged 35.6 minutes per game. Shuler showed flashes of promise and overall, was a solid contributor to the shorthanded roster.
Although his stat line (9.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3 assists) does not pop off the page, his contributions need to be looked at subjectively given the spots he was put in, playing for extended periods of time without rest, in a dreadfully slow-pace offense while often being oversized (only 5-foot-11, 170lbs) in his matchups against opponent’s off-ball guards. Despite the complications, Shuler held his own throughout the tough season.
Although La Salle lost only one scholarship senior to graduation in Rohan Brown, the Explorers rotation is sure to be drastically different from last season’s due to the three eligible transfers beginning their La Salle careers. With all of this roster turnaround, how will the Explorers’ incumbent starting guard see his role change next season?
Shuler’s role will be contingent on a couple different factors. One is how his game stacks up to Memphis transfer, point guard RaShawn “Pookie” Powell and last year’s starting point guard Amar Stukes. Another factor will be how head coach Dr. John Giannini wants to handle his starting lineup. These variables will determine how many minutes Shuler will play and at which guard position.
Pookie Powell did not transfer to La Salle and redshirt an entire season to sit on the bench for Dr. G. Although the former four-star recruit will have to earn a starting role, he is the early favorite to begin the season as the starting point guard. Two stats that are valuable in gauging the effectiveness of a point guard are assist to turnover ratio and assist percentage. Judging by these statistics, Powell was a much better point guard his freshman year at Memphis than Shuler was his freshman year. While averaging 15.4 minutes per game, Powell’s assist to turnover ratio was 1.35 with an assist percentage of 33.4%. Shuler’s freshman year, his assist to turnover ratio was .5 in only 6.2 minutes per game and held an assist percentage of 9.5%. Given this information, Powell is most likely Shuler’s biggest competition for point guard minutes next season.
Then there’s Amar Stukes. Stukes struggled mightily with his shooting in the first half of last season and has yet to develop into the ball player that Explorer fans were hoping he might. Still, the reigning Big 5 Scholar Athlete of the Year provides good defensive energy and played hard all last season while continuing to improve his game. Given Dr. G’s reputation for being loyal to his players, Stukes may have earned spot minutes next season and could be an off-the-bench option when Dr. G wants to set a defensive presence.
Between Powell and Stukes, Shuler will have his work cut out as he competes for point guard minutes next season. Still, if he can find around ten minutes a game as the team’s primary ball handler, that will allow him to play within the offense effectively without having to chase the opponent's ball handler around on defense for extended periods of time, as he was often required to do last season.
Johnnie Shuler should again, see time at both guard positions. Although he is undersized when matched up with most Division I off-ball guards, Shuler has good defensive instincts that were highlighted the first game of last season when a last-minute interception-steal sealed a win over Towson. Shuler is also a tough rebounder, averaging 3.7 rebounds per game and a 10.5 defensive rebounding percentage, better than fellow starters Amar Stukes and Cleon Roberts who are three and six inches taller than him, respectively. Last season, the Explorers’ half-court offense revolved around Jordan Price and Amar Stukes initiating the play from a 1-4 or 1-2-2 set and kicking the ball out to either Shuler or Cleon Roberts on the wing. Shuler developed a nice catch-and-shoot skill that became a reliable weapon for the Explorers, as he shot a respectable 36% from the three-point arc in conference play.
How many minutes Shuler gets at the off-ball guard position will be determined by the lineup and rotation that Dr. G decides to implement. With 10 scholarship players slated to suit up for La Salle, expect Dr. G’s rotation to fluctuate constantly. If a traditional two guard, three forward lineup is used, Shuler’s shooting guard minutes would be pinched almost altogether as Jordan Price, B.J. Johnson, and Cleon Roberts would soak up all 80 minutes between both wing spots. However, if Dr. G puts a more modern three guard and two forward lineup on the floor, Shuler should find shooting guard minutes off the bench as Johnson would be manning power forward spot more exclusively.
La Salle’s three-star freshman Saul Phiri is also not to be forgotten about and could spend some time on the floor. The early prognosis on Phiri is that he is a skilled shooter and at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Phiri provides much greater length and muscle off the bench compared to Shuler.
Although Johnnie Shuler’s natural position is somewhat undefined, his combo-guard skill set can be an asset for La Salle, and lineups with both he and Powell on the floor together could be a weapon to catalyze offense for the Explorers. Not only is Shuler an effective three-point shooter, he also shot a respectable 79% of his free throws. Even though he averaged just two free throws a game last season, if Shuler is given the freedom to attack the basket, as an off-the-bench playmaker, he should get to the line more often and capitalize with his free throw accuracy. This will have to be something he works on this season so he can maximize his strengths
Johnnie Shuler’s role is an interesting and important question heading into next season. With squads as deep as La Salle’s, it is important that every player understands and accepts their position on the team. For Shuler to maximize his success next season, in any role, it is important is that he be prepared and ready to play whenever Dr. Giannini calls his number.
Photo: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
-Junior forward B.J. Johnson will declare for the NBA Draft but will not sign with an agent