La Salle guard Saul Phiri attempts a three-pointer against St. Bonaventure forward/guard Courtney Stockard at the Trumark Financial Center.
(Corey Perrine/Getty Images)
The La Salle Explorers knew that they would have an uphill battle replacing the production of senior guard Jordan Price, senior guard Cleon Roberts, and junior forward Demetrius Henry (left program). Last year, the three had combined for 37% of the team’s overall scoring. Price, a born scorer, ended with 1,623 total points in his three years at La Salle, while Roberts and Henry both shot career high percentages last season, Roberts from three (44%) and Henry from the field (61%). The questions were circulating. Who could step up? Who would be the team’s third scoring option? Who would knock down threes? Who would step up on the boards and in the paint?
Everyone knew that BJ Johnson and Pookie Powell would produce, but it was the rest of the lineup that was not set in stone. In order for the Explorers to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, it was clear that they would need that third player to complement their skill sets.
From the onset, people pointed to Isiah Deas and Saul Phiri as the front runners for those roles. Both showed signs of potential during their freshman years. Deas displayed that he could be a streaky scorer while Phiri exhibited his 3-and-D skill set. Even though both players have received a fair amount of minutes this season, there have still been growing pains in filling the big shoes left by last year’s departures.
Phiri has proved that, despite his misleading stats, he is improving and fulfilling an important role for the Explorers this season. On the offensive end, when he gets hot, he is a lethal scoring threat from downtown. On the defensive end, he is a big body, at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, who can keep up with perimeter players and bang inside with the big men. Phiri has also shown an acquired ability to put the ball on the floor and execute pick-and-roll situations. He has become a dependable ball handler who didn’t always show that during his freshman season.
Phiri’s game shined brightest during one of their most recent games against Rhode Island. It was a tall task from the jump, as the 11-16 Explorers would be facing off against a 21-4 Rams squad that was ranked 18th in the country and has real expectations to win multiple games in the NCAA Tournament. Most importantly, La Salle would have to find a way to slow down Rhode Island’s two star senior guards, Jared Terrell and EC Matthews. That responsibility was going to fall upon La Salle’s sophomore, Phiri.
All game, Phiri was tasked with sticking the two guards. He began and finished the game on Terrell, who averages 17.6 points per game on 45% from the field and 42% from three, but was also tasked at times with covering Matthews, who is the only other Ram putting up double figures at 13.2 points per game. Phiri had to keep up with the A-10’s studded backcourt from start to finish as he would stay on the floor for 37 minutes, his third highest total all season. Despite the large amount of minutes and tough matchups, Phiri held Terrell to 14 points on 6-16 shooting and Matthews to 13 points on 1-4 from beyond the three point line. Phiri’s defensive stops and hustle plays came up big at the end of the game.
The clock was hovering around 2 minutes remaining in regulation when Terrell decided that it was his time to score. Forget his earlier struggles during the game; he was going to take Phiri to the basket with the opportunity to ice the game as Rhode Island led 77-72. But Phiri was not going to be bullied. He returned Terrell’s physicality and took a piece of his shot in the lane, directing it into the hands of BJ Johnson who would run down to score quickly. A possession later, Rhode Island attacked Phiri again, this time with sophomore Jeff Dowtin, who would finish with a career-high 25 points. But Phiri’s tenacious, hard fought defense once again stopped the Rams as he forced Dowtin into an airball and then snatched the ball for the rebound. It changed the momentum of the game, allowing La Salle the chance to force overtime. And it was Phiri’s play on the defensive end that did it.
Phiri’s success has been centered around plays like these. Hustle and defensive toughness. Even though he is often asked to cover quicker guys like Terrell, Matthews, or even Dowtin, Phiri’s energy and unwillingness to be beat makes him one of La Salle’s most important players. It’s why he averages 30.6 minutes per game. He brings energy and is engaged on the defensive end, an area that the Explorers have continually struggled with this year, allowing 74.5 points per game, 231st best in the country. But it’s no surprise to see Phiri leading the squad with a team-high defensive box-plus minus of 2.7. Ultimately, the Explorers are a better defensive team when Phiri is on the floor.
Offensively, it has been a tough year for Phiri. His shooting percentages of 34.2% from the field and 29.1% from three are not ideal. A mere average of 6.2 points per game and 8.1 points per 40 minutes doesn’t look great either. But there’s more to Phiri. Although he hasn’t shot the ball particularly well, he is a constant three point threat that the defense continually has to worry about, opening up lanes for BJ Johnson and Pookie Powell. Likewise, there’s been signs of improvement.
Before a 0 point game against Fordham in their most recent outing, Phiri had arguably been playing the best basketball of his young career over the five games prior, averaging 12.8 points per game (including a career-high 22 points against NCAA Tournament hopeful St. Bonaventure along the way) and shooting 45% from three.
As the season comes to an end, it’s encouraging to see Phiri making these strides. In reality, it’s not always easy to play with heavy shot-takers like Johnson and Powell. Johnson averages a usage rate of 31.4%, second in the Atlantic 10, and is seventh in field goal attempts with 390 on the season. Likewise, Powell has posted a usage percentage of 26.8%, seventh in the A-10, and is third in field goal attempts with 409. Playing with both of them has taken time to adapt to, as Phiri has only had three games this season with 10 or more shots. Phiri is finally starting to come around however, and while it may be a little late, he will have to carry this momentum into the conference tournament if the Explorers want any chance at making a run.
-La Salle loses to UMass in the first round of the A-10 tournament