For fans of the La Salle Explorers, the 2015-2016 season has largely been one to forget. Often teams that are outmatched night in and night out stay interesting by playing high-risk defense, creating steals and opponent turnovers that translate to a run-and-gun, up-tempo offense that is exciting to watch for the fans. But the Explorers lack of bench depth has forced them to play a much slower, more conservative style that is designed to take its opponents out of their comfort zone while saving the player's energy on offense. Although this strategy was successful in upsetting then 25th ranked Dayton about a month ago, the Explorers are the fourth-worst rebounding team in NCAA Div. 1 and the sixteenth-worst team when it comes to points per game. They are pitted alone in last place in the A-10 conference after losing 15 of their last 16 games. Not much for Explorer nation to be happy with.
Amidst the struggles, one bright spot to point out is the play and development of sophomore big man Tony Washington. Not only did Washington hail from Detroit, MI and The Miller School in Charlottesville, VA, but he also has great size at 6-foot-10, 210 pounds. He has been given an opportunity to play extensively this season for the Explorers, as he is the only true frontcourt player that has been healthy and eligible for most of the season.
Washington has done a satisfactory job with his role as the team’s solo big man, shooting 57% from the field, which is sixth in the A-10 conference. He has additionally averaged 7.5 rebounds per game which is ninth. However, what those stats don’t tell you is that Washington has been the best defender for La Salle. A defensive rating of 106.5 per 100 possessions is the highest among the Explorer’s regular rotation players and his 1.63 blocked shots per game ranks fourth among all players in the A-10 conference.
Looking at these numbers, a Tony Washington critique might think that his solid stats are a reflection of being the Explorer’s only big man, allowing him to stuff up the stat sheet without sharing the frontcourt with any teammates. However, that is not really the case with Washington. He has averaged 27.5 minutes per game, which is a good amount of time for a blossoming sophomore, but fifth among La Salle’s starters. It’s not like Washington has played anywhere close to the amount of minutes per game as fellow starters Jordan Price, Johnnie Shuler, and Cleon Roberts, who all average at least 37 minutes.
Washington has also had to anchor the team’s interior defense while playing with foul trouble, an extremely daunting task that is improved mostly with experience. He averages 3.6 fouls per game over the season and has accumulated at least four fouls in 11 games. Sure, being foul prone usually indicates a poor defender, but because Washington is the team’s only rim protector, it is wise to make him the sacrificial fowl lamb on the inside and keep Price, Shuler, and Roberts free and clear from foul trouble.
During an A-10 conference call, when Dr. Giannini was asked about Tony Washington, he made it pretty clear that he is happy with Washington’s play thus far.
“It’s his first year of significant playing time and he’s going to keep getting better,” he said. “Whether it’s his first time getting double-teamed in a game, or whether it’s having to play extended minutes and maintain his effort, or guarding different sets and actions that people have, he is soaking all of those things in and he’s just going to keep getting better. He is a quality A-10 big guy and he’s one of the players that we think we can win with in the future.”
When talking about what factored into Washington’s strong year, Dr. G added, “We thought he would be a good player this year and we thought he’d pair up with Yevgen Sakhniuk and give us a real good inside combination similar to what we had with Steve (Zack) and Jerrell (Wright)… The reason he’s had success this year is from playing against (Zack and Wright) all last year. We had a really good plan with his development: redshirt a year and then get his feet wet and play against those guys every day for another year and that’s why he’s prepared. He’s a talented kid, he’s a good kid, he’s had time to get strong in the weight-room and he’s played against good players in practice in (Zack and Wright) and he was ready for this season. Je certainly has done his part and he’s just going to keep getting better.”
As fans of La Salle are realizing, this year’s team is not postseason material, making the Explorers' final eight games almost inconsequential. However, the development of Tony Washington into one of the A-10’s premier big men will be a sweet thing to watch. Learning to play through this season’s adversities will provide great experience for Washington and the rest of the Explorer team. Next year will contain a retooled, and battle-hardened squad that gives Explorers’ nation something to look forward to. For now, all La Salle fans can do is sit back and watch Washington develop before their eyes.
Photo: Steven M. Falk / Philly.com Staff
-La Salle loses to UMass in the first round of the A-10 tournament