It was a quick move – Sir’Dominic Pointer knifing into the lane for a floater (and subsequently converting the And-1 free throw) – but for that brief moment, Steve Lavin must have been transported back to his first year at St. John’s. During the 2010-11 season, the Red Storm scored more than one point per Big East possession, the only season in Lavin’s tenure that the squad had cracked a point in conference play, and with just a minute remaining against Rouen, the Red Storm’s first overseas tilt in their two-week international trip, SJU ably demonstrated how the squad, comprised of outer-worldly athletic talents, could easily get buckets.
Since arriving at St. John’s, Lavin has stressed re-educating his players the moment they step on campus, a task he’s often shouldered since there haven’t been many upperclassmen at the Queens-based school. Discounting his initial year, which was chock full of seniors recruited by Norm Roberts, Lavin has spent two years coaching the youngest team in SJU’s history and the nation’s fourth-youngest team, respectively. Only four players – Moe Harkless, Amir Garrett, Malik Stith, and Nurideen Lindsey – have left the school prematurely, and the team’s percentage of returning minutes has continually ranked atop Division I.
The Red Storm have the makings of a skilled defensive group; a third year should further their understanding of SJU’s match-up zone, one that allows Lavin to utilize his players’ athleticism, and any team with a center (Chris Obekpa) who sports a block rate of nearly 16 percent while only committing four fouls per 40 minutes erases any missed perimeter assignments. Despite the team’s offensive success versus Rouen – Jamal Branch led all scorers with 22 points (on seventeen attempts) – Lavin has struggled to mold his team into one that can consistently score in transition as well as in the half court, a dilemma which could derail any dreams SJU harbors of crashing the Big East’s upper echelon this upcoming season.
Just four other high majors scored fewer points per possession last season during conference play than the Johnnies, and there is ample evidence underscoring why this team, which features seven top 100 recruits, failed to consistently put the ball in the basket. While a case could be made for too many missed threes, the core of SJU’s offensive woes centered on an inefficient mid-range game that resulted in too many long twos and struggles on the offensive glass.
Transition was key for SJU a year ago. Their depth allowed SJU to seek quick buckets, and though their pace remained roughly the same as in 2012, the team actively attacked the defensive glass. Teams realized, though, that stalling SJU’s offense was as easy as getting back on defense. According to Hoop-Math.com, SJU was particularly potent the first ten seconds after a defensive board, making 40 percent of their twos and 36 percent of their threes, but the offense dragged the moment Branch, Harrison, or Phil Greene IV was forced to bring the ball out and set up the offense.
In an attempt to speed up their half-court offense, St. John’s heavily utilized pick and roll – more than a tenth of SJU’s possessions were a result of the classic play – but as with SJU’s transition-laden strategy, opponents soon understood how to defend the pick. Whenever Greene or Harrison – the two Johnnies who often had picks set for them – would square with his teammate’s hip, the big’s defender would flat hedge. Why a flat hedge, which would put the opposing big at risk for being beaten off the bounce? Because coaches realized Greene and Harrison didn’t have that lightning speed to get to the rim, and also because the SJU big who set the screen wasn’t really an option to roll. SJU scored only 0.74 points per possession when a frontcourt player rolled, down significantly from 2012, and the defensive hedge meant a big was always in front of the SJU guard to prevent an open long-range look.
Since none of the players could connect from deep in 2013 – just a quarter of the team’s threes dropped last season – that switch was just enough to keep SJU off-balance. When they were freshmen, the squad – especially Harrison – fell in love with the arc. More than a third of the guard’s offense came from spotting up, and a significant amount of those attempts were from beyond the three-point line. Entering his sophomore year, though, Lavin encouraged Harrison to attack off the dribble and expand his mid-range game, and while it may have a seemed like he spent most of 2013 camped on the perimeter, Harrison made a concerted effort to cut down his attempted threes and try to convert from within 19 feet. The percentage of Harrison’s two-point field goal attempts (and, per Hoop-Math.com, not at the rim) increased to more than 40 percent, and while his accuracy improved from that range, that hedge (coupled with the knowledge Harrison was fond of the three-ball) meant the guard almost never had a clear look.
The lack of bigs who could effectively roll following the screen also deterred SJU’s offensive success. JaKarr Sampson was the best option among SJU’s frontcourt players, but Sampson was more a threat to roam the baseline or fade after setting the screen and shoot, using his funky-yet-surprisingly accurate motion to make just under 50 percent of his twos. None of the bigs had the handle to put pressure on opponents after rolling; instead the play often stalled and resulted in a plethora of long twos. Pointer was the only player (who used a large percentage of SJU’s minutes) to have an assist rate over 20 percent and the team spent a majority of their offensive sets willing their offense on unyielding defenses. The Johnnies attempted 269 shots from between 17 feet and the three-point line – over a hundred more than the previous season – and connected on just 35 percent of those attempts. These mid-range shots simply bailed out opponents, rarely forcing teams to move their defensive position and instead just leaving them to wait for the inevitable carom.
As one of the nation’s taller teams, the Red Storm should have controlled the offensive glass, but they missed God’sgift Achiuwa – a big whose touches depended on hauling on offensive boards (10.4 percent as a junior). Achiuwa sat out last season as a redshirt, and his absence impacted SJU’s scoring off the glass – the Red Storm converted less than one point per offensive board – and hamstrung their ability to generate additional possessions. It is likely that St. John’s offense wouldn’t have precipitously dropped if they could have scored some easy buckets, but the squad pulled in only 30 percent of their misses and Obekpa, who spent the majority of his inaugural season on the block or using his 6’9″ frame to snatch rebounds, had trouble finishing – Obekpa grabbed the second-most offensive boards on the squad but converted them into only 0.93 points per possession.
Since Lavin returns 90 percent of SJU’s minutes, how can the squad improve on their dismal ’13 offensive showing? The eligibility of Orlando Sanchez helps. Sanchez missed all of last season, but has been a starter in each of St. John’s overseas contests. Sanchez should naturally complement Sampson; Sanchez’s skills at the 4 suggest a big who can control the game in the paint, and if he is able to flash to and operate offensively from the free throw line (similar to Justin Brownlee), Sampson should have more freedom to pick and pop and better use his unique athleticism and skill set. Achiuwa’s re-emergence will also add some interior heft and some much-needed rebounding skill.
Max Hooper, the Harvard transfer is well-known in Queens (he was a frequent presence at the iS8 tournament before he decamped for the Ivy League), could provide SJU’s long-range boost. Though he barely played under Tommy Amaker, Hooper had a reputation in the high school ranks as a lights-out shooter, and he is a sorely needed asset: a 6’6″ wing who understands how to shake free of his defender and possesses a quick release. It is unclear if Hooper’s arrival signifies even fewer minutes for the PT-starved Marco Bourgault. It typically takes junior college transfers a season to adjust themselves to the speed of DI, and while Bourgault hit his stride in February, he made only 12 percent of his threes during SJU’s final seven games (and was a defensive liability when on the floor).
However, even with the roster additions, there is still a possibility that St. John’s will still have to grind out games to succeed. In their second game in France, foul trouble and a subpar shooting display forced the Johnnies to overcome a fourth quarter deficit of 23 points, a lead that proved too wide for SJU. One silver lining? The team made nearly 40 percent of their long-range attempts in the loss, a sign that the Red Storm’s offense might have finally caught up with their defense.