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