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