This is a guest post by Ronak Patel. The humbling of a New York native is a big reason for the turnaround St. Joseph’s is experiencing this season. The play of sophomore point guard Shavar Newkirk has helped the Hawks — who won 13 games last season — to a 23-5 overall mark, tied for first in the Atlantic 10.
Newkirk doesn’t mince words if you ask him about his mindset when he first step foot on Hawk Hill last season as a wide-eyed freshman.
“Coming from New York City I was just a little arrogant,” Newkirk said. “Because my skill set was there, I knew I was going to be successful in high school. I worked hard but not as hard as I’m working now on my game.”
This may sound like boasting, but Newkirk’s high school career — he played his freshman season at Rice High School before transferring to Cardinal Hayes in the Bronx for his sophomore season — was sterling.
He was twice named the NY Daily News Bronx Player of the Year and, averaged 17.0 ppg and 7.0 apg as a senior during the 2013-14 season, leading Cardinal Hayes to a 26-2 record, the best mark in school history. He also led them to back-to-back appearances in the CHSAA intersectional semifinals and to the team’s first Archdiocesan title in more than 40 years.
Newkirk committed to St. Joe’s prior to his senior season. A big reason he stay true to his commitment throughout his senior season was the bond he created with longtime Hawks head coach Phil Martelli.
“The fact that coach Martelli was a down to earth person stood out,” Newkirk explained. “He didn’t sugar coat anything. He told me what he expects, and if I come here, I’ll have to earn everything, nothing is promised.
“As opposed to other coaches who really sold you on a dream just so you can get to their school. I knew what I was getting myself into when I signed with St. Joe’s.”
Despite the impressive high school press clippings, there was one thing that stood out to Martelli when he and his staff recruited Newkirk.
“He’s a winner: that’s what we were looking for,” Martelli said.
His freshman season, Newkirk played behind the incumbent, then-senior point guard Chris Wilson. He played in all of the team’s 31 games, registering 3.3 ppg and 2.3 apg in 20 mpg. St. Joe’s went 13-18 overall.
Despite a dip in wins from the previous season’s total of 24, Newkirk learned a lot from Wilson.
“Last year I got to play behind a really good person and player,” Newkirk said of Wilson. “He taught me a lot, he taught me how to run a team, how to be vocal, how to be a leader and how to use my swagger to help lead a team.”
This season’s dividends — Newkirk is averaging 8.4 ppg, 2.3 rpg, and 2.7 apg through 27 games — began when last season ended Martelli explains.
“It’s overall improvement,” Martelli said. “Last season, he was a freshman trying to find his way; physically and mentally it was a challenge. He started preparing last April for this season; his stroke has improved considerably and his mental approach is up.”
The film work improvements has shown in Newkirk’s efficiency on the court this season. He’s committed only 39 turnovers in the 637 minutes of play and just four in the team’s last five games.
“Last year they expected a lot out of me and I wasn’t ready mentally,” Newkirk said. “The coaches worked with me on and off the court. I watch more video this season and it’s carrying over to the court.”
The extra weight lifting has also helped Newkirk. His shot has improved thanks to a stronger frame and increase in leg strength. Last season, the sophomore shot 28% from the field (34-121), including an anemic 18% on three-pointers. This season, he’s shooting 40% overall and 35% on three-pointers (20-57). His free throw percentage has jumped from 56% to 73%.
“I didn’t do any extra lifting in high school,” Newkirk said. “I didn’t realize mentality was a big part of the game until I got here. That mental strength got me into the gym more and work on all aspects of my body to be able to withstand contact when driving to the lane and get more leg power into my jumpers.”
The Hawks are led in scoring by a dynamic one-two forward tandem of senior Isaiah Miles (17.8 ppg) and junior DeAndre’ Bembry (16.8 ppg). Finding their comfort spots and where they like the ball has been key for the team’s success on offense (averaging 76.7 ppg, a jump from 61.7 the season before).
“Communication is the key,” Newkirk said. “If someone has a problem or someone else sees a situation on the court that can help another teammate out, we pull each other together and will point out specifics like ‘Watch out for this, they double-teaming from that side and when you get it and you can pass or cut.’ Communication is the key and we talk on the court and off the court.”
One would think with the improvements Newkirk has made and being a sound floor general, he would be averaging near 30 mpg. But that’s not the case. Newkirk is playing just 23.6 mpg as talented freshman point guard Lamarr Kimble is getting 17 minutes of game action.
“I’m not concerned about the minutes, I’m going out there pedal to the metal exhausting myself for the time I’m out there,” Newkirk explained. “When you’re a winner, it’s stuff that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet; if that what it takes for me and the team to win, I’m going to do it. It’s a good thing and helps in life situations that you’re not going to get everything you want—what do you have, you have to make the best of that opportunity.
A lot of players in college ball would chide or be frustrated in splitting time at one position but Newkirk’s demeanor and approach has impressed his coach. “He’s a wonderful teammate,” Martelli said. “Both him and Kimble are constantly pulling for each other and rooting each other on. We’re successful because of the teammates these guys are and that starts with Newkirk and Kimble.”
Martelli continued, “We have a group of guys who are not all great players and don’t always play great, but in terms of teammates and way they support each other, it’s been a pleasure to work with them and i’m looking forward for Shavar and Kimble to grow and play together.”
Much like how Wilson took Newkirk under his wing, he’s done the same with Kimble.
“We learned how to play together,” Newkirk said. “I’ve played against him and when I found out when he was coming here, I was excited because he can do some of the same things I can.
“We have a strong chemistry; we chill off the court and when we on the court, sometimes [Martelli] even plays us together.”
Since the famous 2003-04 Jameer Nelson led St. Joe’s team made their remarkable run to the Elite Eight in the 2004 NCAA Tournament, the Hawks have made the tourney just twice in the last eight seasons. But with Newkirk’s improved play and unselfish leadership, the Hawks are in contention for the NCAAs.
“That what we were looking for,” Martelli said of his point guard. “We were looking for a guy who played the point guard position but understood winning and the better his teammates looked the better you look at the point guard position. I’m glad he’s with us.”
While talk of tourney heats up on Hawk Hill, Newkirk is doing his part to keep his team focused.
“We don’t worry about stuff like that,” Newkirk said. “We live in the now and present. If we go get into trap of talking about what’s down the road, we pull each other aside and say there’s a time and place for everything. We can’t get to March Madness without taking care of what’s in front of us now.”