Saint Joseph's guard Nick Robinson, who is averaging 6.2 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in 24 minutes per game, drives to the basket at Hagan Arena.
(Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire)
It’s easy to look at the box scores and ignore Nick Robinson’s stats. Only 6 points per game in an average of 24 minutes? 24% from three? Nearly 3 fouls per game? Again it’s easy to throw Robinson’s contributions aside with a mere look at the basic stat line. But in actuality, Robinson has been a bright spot in a season that has been marred by inconsistency and struggles for Saint Joseph’s.
The 6-foot-6 guard had offers from Cal, DePaul, and Saint Louis coming out of high school in Chicago. A third team Illinois All-State selection during his senior season, he ultimately chose St. Joe’s and was primarily seen as a wing at the next level. When he arrived at college last year, Robinson saw minutes from the jump as a reserve wing who provided defensive prowess thanks to his length and versatility. Offensively, he was still feeling his way out, running the offense effectively and providing depth to the St. Joe’s lineup. Scoring and playmaking was not an expectation, with junior guard Shavar Newkirk and sophomore guard Lamarr Kimble running the show on offense.
But an injury to both Newkirk and Kimble threw a wrench into head coach Phil Martelli’s system, quickly thrusting Robinson into a bigger role as a ball handler. With the elevated responsibilities Robinson struggled to find his niche. In year one, he would play 23 games where he totaled 20 or more minutes, yet made a mere 2 or less field goals in 15 of those games. He topped that off by shooting 36% from the field, 23% from three, and 57% from the free throw line.
On the other hand, Robinson still showed signs of potential. With point guards Newkirk and Kimble injured, Robinson had to adapt as Martelli’s new point guard, despite being advertised as a wing in high school. The freshman was tough, never shying away from the competition in front of him. He did the little things, hitting players with an assist to an assist or having to cover the other team’s top perimeter player. He most importantly showed an ability to do a bit of everything. Whether he shot the ball well or not, you always knew Robinson was going to attack the boards, lock up on defense, and hustle. Even though his play was encouraging, the consistent production was not where it needed to be and Robinson was given a pass -- a freshman wing with minimal college experience thrust into a point guard-type role. It was okay.
This year, Robinson came out of the gate a new player. After turning the ball over in all but three of St. Joe’s games during his freshman season, Robinson rebounded by tallying only 6 turnovers in the first 10 games of his sophomore season. Throughout his freshman year, when Robinson was asked to handle the ball, he gave confidence to the St. Joe’s coaching staff that he could hold that same role off the bench in the following year. After another season ending injury to Kimble, this job proved invaluable as he gave Newkirk, who is recovering from an ACL surgery, much needed breaks. Robinson has also spotted senior James Demery for a few breaks, the versatile forward who is asked to cover the other team’s best player, whether that’s a point guard or a ‘4’ man. With Robinson’s length and athleticism, that has also been his job. He has even spilled junior guard Chris Clover off the ball, providing a more athletic and better defensive lineup for Martelli. In theory, he is the perfect man off the bench, giving the Hawks many different lineup options.
However, recently, he has moved into the starting role and, as a result, it has leaked into wins. Over the last three games, in which Robinson has started, he has averaged 9.3 points per game, 8 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1 block, while shooting 60% from the field and 50% from three. The result -- a three game win streak and the longest win streak since the opening week of the 2015-16 season.
Robinson’s insertion into the starting lineup has provided Newkirk with more stability as well, as Robinson can handle the ball in the backcourt. It’s not rare to see plays with Robinson at the ‘1’ while Newkirk perches off the ball, freeing Newkirk from constant playmaker responsibilities. It was just last year when, playing beside Lamarr Kimble, Newkirk had averaged 20 points while shooting 46% from the field and 40% from three. This year, with the ball in his hands a lot more, Newkirk has seen those scoring averages decrease to 17.5 points per game and shooting percentages of 38% from the field and 30% from three (also posting 4.6 rebounds per game and 3.8 assists).
Those dramatic decreases don’t exist, however, when Robinson has started with him. In the four games that Newkirk and Robinson have started together (Robinson actually started in five games, but Newkirk did not start in the game against St. John’s), Newkirk has averaged 18.5 points per game, 6.5 assists, 6.5 rebounds, and 42% from the field, all noticeable increases from his averages across the entire season. Ultimately, Robinson’s play has been contagious (fourth on the team in overall box-plus minus with 1.4), especially for the Hawks’ best playmaker, Newkirk.
A large part of that is because Robinson has brought energy night in and night out. He’s not particularly fast or quick, but he’s always attacking. When he has the ball in his hands, he puts it on the floor looking for openings. When he doesn’t have the ball, he’s focused on pressuring the defense and gathering offensive rebounds, averaging one per game. As a result, the opposing defense has to burn energy and always box out when Robinson is on the floor, an immeasurable asset.
On the defensive end, Robinson is equally as effective. When Demery leaves the game, Robinson takes his assignment. Even when they’re both in the game, Robinson will often pair up with him to stick one of the other team’s top two perimeter players.
For example in their most recent game against 15-12 Duquesne, Robinson was tasked with covering the Dukes’ star guard, Eric Williams Jr., who is second on the team in scoring with 14.5 points per game. Robinson played an integral role in forcing the freshman to 6-21 from the field, 3-11 from three, and four total turnovers.
Robinson brings size and tenacity to the defensive end (second on the team with a defensive box-plus minus of 3), just like Demery, and gives Martelli two talented perimeter defenders to play at the same time. This once again takes pressure off of Newkirk, allowing him to take the third best perimeter player in the opposing team’s lineup, and conserve more energy for the offensive end.
While it has felt like ages ago since St. Joe’s defeated NCAA Tournament hopeful St. Bonaventure at Hagan Arena on January 6th, the game was a pure representation of just how important Robinson can be for the Hawks. With about 7 minutes left in the contest, it was Robinson who dove on the floor for a rebound, tipping it to redshirt sophomore Pierfrancesco Oliva for the dunk to put the Hawks up 8. A minute and a half later, after the Bonnies had answered, Robinson cleaned up the mess again, slamming home a Shavar Newkirk missed three. Less than a minute later, he would pin a layup by Bonnies’ forward Josh Ayeni. Newkirk, who gathered the rebound, even took the time to high-five Robinson as the senior dribbled the ball down the court, something you rarely see. Robinson’s impact, especially in the energy department, was a big reason why the Hawks escaped with their biggest win of the year.
It’s the little things that Robinson has done all season. He has quietly filled up the stat sheet and shown that he can be the perfect “Mr. Do-It-All” player for Martelli in the years to come.
Saint Joseph's forward Pierfrancesco Oliva dribbles up the court against St. Bonaventure at Hagan Arena..
(Photo credit: Saint Joseph's Athletics)
Avi Cantor and William Derry
Staff Writer and Editor
For a majority of the first half in their game on January 6th, St. Bonaventure had been chipping away at Saint Joseph’s lead.
With seven minutes left in the half, St. Joe’s pulled ahead by eight points, the largest lead of the game so far. They finally seemed in control, comfortably winning against one of the top teams in the A-10.
It wouldn’t last for long though as the Bonnies managed to continue shaving away at the Hawks’ lead.
St. Bonnies’ forward LaDarian Griffin threw down a court-quaking dunk to cut the Hawks’ lead to six. After a defensive stand, Philadelphia native Izaiah Brockington hit a jumper, seemingly changing the momentum of the game.
Fellow guard Matt Mobley followed Brockington’s bucket with a steal and a layup of his own. The momentum hadn’t merely changed. Mobley’s shot managed to stab the Hawks’ dying lead, leaving them barely leading by two points.
Luckily for the Hawks, forward Pierfrancesco “Checco” Oliva wasn’t keen on the idea of losing a lead.
When Bonnies’ forward Josh Ayeni received the ball, hugging the sideline, Oliva trapped him and forced him to squirm around, yearning to get the ball out of his hands. Ayeni’s struggle created a turnover on a traveling violation, ending the Bonnies’ run of consecutive scores.
After a media timeout, Oliva promptly fed forward James Demery for a wide open bucket. Seconds later, Oliva boxed out Bonnies’ forward Courtney Stockard, allowing guard Shavar Newkirk to pick up the rebound, charge up the court, and draw a foul that would lead to two points.
Oliva’s game against St. Bonaventure was indicative of his play for much of the season. He contributed when they needed it most, doing the dirty work, and as a result, Oliva ended the night just one point, two rebounds and two assists shy of a triple-double. All season he has attacked the boards, grabbing a rebound from one play to the next and immediately serving as a threat on both sides of the ball. He has become a type of secret weapon for head coach Phil Martelli, even if his stats don’t always show it, specifically with his ability to handle and pass the basketball with ease.
When Oliva grabs a board on the defensive end, he doesn’t need to outlet. He can instantly dribble the ball up the court and start a fastbreak play for the Hawks, which allows SJU to get out in transition faster and score more points. Oliva can also create for teammates from the perimeter by beating his man off the dribble and dishing it out to an open teammate when their defender slides over to help. On offense, Oliva is a constant mismatch.
Not only does Oliva contribute on the offensive end but he also provides the Hawks with a presence on defense. The 6-foot-8 big can guard the ‘4’ and the ‘5’, with his lateral quickness on the perimeter and length in the post. As a result, he has recorded a block in 15 of the team’s games while leading the Hawks in defensive box plus/minus at 4.1 and is third on the team in overall box plus/minus at 2.3.
Three days before Saint Joseph’s game against the Bonnies on January 6th, Oliva scored 15 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, dished out 3 assists, and added a steal and a block in an overtime victory against VCU. However, Martelli considered relieving Oliva of his starting duties prior to the VCU game due to his subpar play.
“He’s a veteran player, he played in an NCAA [tournament] game, so he should be playing [well] and he hadn’t been,” Martelli said following the St .Bonaventure game.
Martelli instead decided to keep the former All-State Third Team player in the starting five in large part because of his skillset and how it would help defeat VCU’s press and man-to-man defense.
That versatility that Martelli mentioned has been evident in Oliva’s play since the Hawks beat VCU. Oliva has found ways to impact the game despite not being a consistent scorer this season. For example, when the Hawks beat Dayton on January 17th, Oliva did not record a single point but he led Saint’s Joseph’s in rebounding with 15 boards (all defensive), helping them outrebound the Flyers 43-32. Now, the redshirt sophomore, despite only weighing 210 pounds, leads the A-10 in defensive rebounding percentage at 23.7.
Oliva followed up that performance on January 20th with a season-high 22-point effort in Saint Joseph’s win against Fordham. Although Oliva has not shot the ball well this season, he had it going against Fordham shooting 9-17 from the field for 22 points and adding 8 boards, 2 assists, 1 block, and 2 steals.
While Oliva had his best scoring outing of the season against the Rams, the next 5 games he would make his mark in the paint, recording 26 rebounds and on the perimeter, tallying 13 assists.
In conference play Oliva has not shot the ball too consistently, but his rebounding has made up for it. Oliva has recorded 7 or more rebounds in all of Saint Joseph’s conference wins this season as he is averaging 6.3 boards in A-10 play. Even more, Oliva is averaging 3 assists, 1 block and 1.2 steals in conference play.
As spontaneous as it is to see both a statistically and non-statistically impressive steak of performances from Oliva, coach Martelli credits his overall success to an impressively high basketball IQ.
“Of the guys on our team with IQ’s, he has the highest IQ so he saw some plays that other players don’t see,” said coach Martelli.
Oliva’s high basketball IQ may be his greatest strength and he has relied on it when he’s been unable to get things going this season. At the times when Oliva has struggled to score, his high basketball IQ has kept him on the floor. He takes pressure of Newkirk and often jumpstarts the offensive himself, putting a lot of stress on the defense. With Lamarr Kimble out for the season, much of his ball handling responsibility has fallen upon Oliva and he has not disappointed. While the nightly box scores may not always show the contribution that Oliva makes for Saint Joseph's, the forward’s versatility on offense and defense has been one of the team’s most effective aspects.
-Saint Joesph's loses to #25 Rhode Island in the Semifinal of the A-10 tournament