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
-La Salle loses to UMass in the first round of the A-10 tournament