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