Weighing the Storm in the Balance
There’s nothing worse for a basketball aficionado than having to wait for the next hardwood season.
As others are preparing for the upcoming football season, there are some that still want to chew the fat on their favorite NBA or collegiate basketball teams, assessing different squads’ chances of a rewarding regular season and postseason run. Of course, with blank slates in the record books and the successes (or failures) of the past basketball year just a memory, it all becomes a matter of “what have you done for me lately.” So much hinges on the 2016 recruiting class, coach/administration switch-ups and how hard everyone worked during the summer.
As the adage goes, “Champions are made during the offseason.”
While there are a small number of squads that are reasonably proud of their overall athletic performances in 2015-16, most teams are going back to the drawing board to improve upon less than stellar showings on the hardwood.
St. John’s is one of the teams that needs to strike a balance between remembering failures, learning from the past and moving on to reverse the misfortunes of last season. Since it would be more patronizing than productive to compare the Johnnies with other BIG EAST conference squads, let’s weigh the team against itself to determine if the program will show some growth from last year.
During the 2015-16 season, the Red Storm finished 8-24 (1-17 BIG EAST). If one did not take into account the youth and jejuneness of St. John’s men’s basketball team, a fair assessment would be that the Johnnies had an extremely poor overall season with flashes of potential. Unfortunately, a lot of the players that heavily contributed to those subtle flashes of potential last season are no longer with the program.
Durand Johnson and Ron Mvouika, who were the leading and third-leading scorers on the squad, respectively, finished their last year of collegiate eligibility last season. Meanwhile, Chris Jones, who followed Mvouika on the scoring chart and placed third in rebounding for last year’s team, graduated, opted out of returning to the squad for his last year of eligibility and transferred to UNLV. Felix Balamou, who was an explosive player that could sense lulls in the Johnnies’ collective game and spark changes in the team’s flow on both ends of the floor, also graduated in May.
Last season, St. John’s had a handful of players that contributed to the team’s production on the squad. The aforementioned veteran players along with then-freshman guard Federico Mussini helped the unit get off to a solid start. Notably, Mussini, Johnson and Mvouika gave the Red Storm a dimension that had been missing for some years: a lift from beyond the arc. Mussini, who led the team in 3-pointers made, averaged 10.7 points a game as the Johnnies’ second-leading scorer and was the team’s best free throw shooter by a landslide.
As the season progressed, former neophytes Yankuba Sima and Kassoum Yakwe made their presence felt, especially on the defensive end. The duo led the Johnnies in blocks, as each recorded nearly three swats a contest and also clocked in at first and second, respectively, on the squad in rebounding.
Although the intangibles of the game showed that St. John’s made incremental improvements, the most noticeable observations throughout 2015-16 were that of the Storm’s woes on the floor.
At first, St. John’s struggled to build hardwood chemistry -- that changed midway through BIG EAST play. However, the nagging problems rested on the Johnnies’ lack of a leader, turnover rate, inconsistency in point production, which included a terrible showing from the free throw line, and collective laxness on the defensive end of the floor.
In a best-case scenario, all of St. John’s essential personnel would simply come back from the offseason stronger, address the team’s weaknesses and guarantee furtherance. However, as aforementioned, a lot of the players that were the core of the subtle flashes of potential last season are no longer with the program.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
As a result of these noticeable Swiss cheese-like holes in the roster, second-year head coach Chris Mullin added many key pieces to the puzzle for 2016-17 – not only to address the players that have graduated or moved on, but also to address the problems that the team struggled with as a whole last season.
Mullin acquired Shamorie Ponds, Bashir Ahmed and Richard Freudenberg for immediate play this upcoming season. He also tacked on sophomore Justin Simon (Arizona) and junior Marvin Clarke Jr. (Michigan St.) for the following 2017-18 season, as the pair must sit out this season as per NCAA transfer regulations. There are also two players on the roster, Tariq Owens and Marcus LoVett, who had to sit out last season due to NCAA rules, who should be available for 2016-17.
Ponds, one of the Storm’s two native New Yorker recruits, is lightning quick on both ends of the floor. He has the keenness and explosiveness to score off the bounce at the basket and from long-range. Also a veteran ball-handler, the 6-foot-1 playmaker will probably find a home sharing point guard duties with sophomore Federico Mussini. On the defensive end, Ponds helps ignite his team with gritty defense and spurring offense off steals and loose balls. He will not only be a remedy of a symptom, but a cure to three of the four of the Johnnies’ major problems from last season: turnovers, point production and laxness on the defensive end.
Ponds, a four-star Rivals.com recruit, was the centerpiece of the boys’ basketball team at high school Thomas Jefferson (Brooklyn, N.Y.), averaging 29 points, eight rebounds and six assists as a senior. In the postseason of his senior year, he was also the mastermind behind the team’s championship run, earning co-MVP honors as the program potted its first PSAL championship since 1954.
The Johnnies’ second newest player, Ahmed, a JUCO transfer, is a long and slender, dynamic high-riser who is very active around the rim. Originally a high school player for John F. Kennedy (Bronx, N.Y.), Ahmed went on to play two years at Hutchinson Community College (Hutchinson, Kansas). In his second season at Hutchinson C.C., Ahmed averaged 20.1 points, 8.1 boards and 2.2 assists a game, contributing to his squad advancing to the NJCAA Division I national championship game during its postseason run.
Also displaying the grittiness that characterizes New York players, the 6-foot-7 swingman creates a difficult matchup problem for opponents as he has the scoring capabilities of a guard, allowing him to play multiple positions. On the defensive end, the Rivals.com three-star recruit’s long wingspan will make driving and passing lanes narrower. Ahmed’s presence on the floor will definitely help fill the void left by last season’s leading scorer big man Durand Johnson.
Lastly, German big man Freudenberg will add more length to the frontcourt. The 6-foot-9, 200-pound forward played with the Bayern Munich (Germany) basketball club for three seasons, averaging 19 points, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals in the Under-19 German League during the 2015-16 season. The Rivals.com four-star recruit was also able to nail 40 percent of his shots from 3-point range. In addition to Ahmed, having another big man that can knock down shots will pose another problem for players that try to defend him. Freudenberg is somewhat of an anomaly, as he does not have the clumsy, slow stride of typical bigs. Instead, Freudenberg has a comfortable, relatively quick flow to running the floor, finishing at the basket with finesse and strength.
Although not part of his stat row, if honed, Freudenberg has the makings of being a very good shot-blocker. When he does swat away shots, he has great timing, keeps it in play and hits it off toward a teammate. This quality will create more scoring opportunities for a team who struggled to consistently score in transition, at times, last season.
THREE KEY RETURNERS
Although the holes left behind by the veterans of last season have been filled in theory, the realistic stance is that the three new recruits are still raw talent. In addition to that, the trio is new to the St. John’s system as well as to the intense level of competition that will come with playing a major Division-I nonconference and BIG EAST schedule. There are quite a few St. John’s players returning, but not all of those players were routinely cast in the trenches to go to war with hardwood rivals last season and not all of those players had success against these foes.
However, there are three players that showed some promise against high-level opponents: sophomore guard Federico Mussini, sophomore center Yankuba Sima and sophomore forward Kassoum Yakwe. Despite only having a year under their belts in the intense heat of playing at this level, these three players will be instrumental in helping the three newcomers get adjusted.
Also, since Mussini, Sima and Yakwe were a part of the substandard showing last year, they know more about what is expected of their team and what NOT to do to be on a winning track. This live-and-learn hands-on experience can be passed down to the St. John’s rookies.
Mussini, Sima and Yakwe are no longer the freshmen they were last season; they have a year of experience under their belts now. If the trio utilized the offseason properly, all of the weaknesses that were exploited in their own individual games should not be as ever-present as they were last year. However, that hard work (or lack thereof) will not be immediately known until after the first tip-off of the season.
After implementing the rookie players into the system and the key returnees learning from past mistakes, how the Johnnies will fare during 2016-17 is still one big question mark. As Fall comes upon us and the countdown to the basketball season begins, there is one matchup you can be sure fans will be participating in . . . the waiting game.