The La Salle Explorers have won all three of their games to begin the 2015-2016 season. Jordan Price has been the clear star for the Explorers thus far, averaging 27 points per game heading into Monday's matchup against Lafayette, where he scored 33 points while shooting 79% from the field. Aiding Price’s consistent offensive effort this season has been sophomore guard Johnnie Shuler. The young man from Washington D.C. has shown the toughness and clutch playmaking ability that the Explorers have needed in this early stretch of the season. Against Towson, Shuler displayed both of these attributes when he played all 40 minutes of the game and came up with two game winning moments to seal the victory; a last minute steal and transition layup to take the lead, along with making three of his final four free throws.
However, despite his success, one problem with Shuler has been his decision making as a point guard. In the first game against Towson, he did a good job by not committing any turnovers in the win. But in the second game against Rider, Shuler was more aggressive with his desire to initiate offense. Although he notched four assists in a thirteen point win for the Explorers, Shuler also committed five turnovers, followed by a three-turnover performance in the win Monday night game against Lafayette.
In many sets of La Salle’s offense so far, the Explorers run with two combo guards on the floor together, Shuler and Amar Stukes. However, during important offensive possessions, it is Jordan Price initiating the offense. Monday night, when the Explorers were holding a second-half lead, they often ran offense out of a 1-4 set, with Jordan Price starting the play at the top of the arc and Shuler as the strong-side second option if Price did not find a lane to the basket. Because the Explorers were running conservative sets like this, Johnnie Shuler was not put into a position where he had to force plays and commit numerous turnovers. When Shuler was committing turnovers, it was because he was forcing the issue offensively and was trying to do too much. When Jordan Price is not initiating the offense, head coach Dr. Giannini may be wise to have Stukes initiate the dribble-drive more often and keep Shuler as the strong-side off-ball option. Stukes may be better served as the ball-handler when he and Shuler are both on the floor. Stukes can display his qualities as a distributer (5.3 assists per game and 0.7 turnovers) while Shuler, who is the better 3 point shooter between the two, is better fit off the ball.
On the other hand, a likeable part of Johnnie Shuler’s game this season has been his consistent toughness. The Explorer’s website provides the following quote from head coach Dr. John Giannini regarding Shuler, “Johnnie was recruited to be a major contributor in his sophomore year and he is well prepared to do so. He has fearless and competitive qualities to go with his high skill set so that he can be a very good player for us.” Shuler stands a mere 5-11, but that hasn't stopped him from corralling six rebounds a game in this young season, highlighted by an eight-rebound performance against Rider. If the Explorers continue to implement these small, four-guard lineups this season, shorter players like Shuler will be expected to crash the boards, especially on defense, to hold opponents to one-shot possessions.
The most noticeable improvement for Shuler this season compared to last year has been at the free throw line. In 2014-2015, Shuler shot 59% on his free throws. This season, in his first three games, Shuler has shot 90% at the line. A ball handler who is confident in his free throws is a valuable player late in halves, especially in bonus situations where any foul leads to a chance for points at the free throw line. With all of the rule changes college basketball instituted this season, we are seeing many fouls called. Due to this, making free throws will be ever more important for the Explorers to win close games.
With the return of big man Tony Washington, Shuler should have another low-post weapon in the Explorer’s offensive arsenal. This will help create more open lanes for the guards and forwards to attack. As La Salle heads across town to face Penn on Wednesday night, it will be interesting to watch Shuler and how he becomes more comfortable in his decision making as the Explorer’s point guard. If he continues to efficiently supplement the Explorer’s offensive attack, play solid defense, and show up in big time moments, the Explorers will have a great chance to continue their early season success.
-La Salle loses to UMass in the first round of the A-10 tournament