To get a great perspective on St. John's and how they've fared so far into this young season, we talked to Norman Rose (pico), managing editor of the fine St. John's SB Nation affiliate, Rumble in the Garden. I also answered some of his questions on Nittany Lion hoops, so be sure to check that out, too.
I'd like to thank Norman for taking the time over this holiday week to provide some great takes on the Red Storm for us. Be sure to follow him on twitter. Let get to it!
Black Shoe Diaries: It's suddenly (at least to me) year four of the Steve Lavin era in Queens. What's the temperament around the program? I know there have been health setbacks and eligibility issues, but after missing the Dance the last two years, does optimism still abound for this season and beyond?
Rumble in the Garden: As happens with any coach entering his fourth season who hasn't won a title or had a court named after him, the answer varies from fan to fan. From a distance, the Red Storm are stocked with talent, are regularly mentioned in the media, have exciting new gear, and have the potential to finally come together and deliver the kind of winner on the court New York hasn't seen in a long time. There is optimism.
In the weeds, though, the die-hard fans are frustrated with the slow pace of growth of the players, the repeated mistakes (such as the deep dependence on long two-point jump shots) and the fact that the Johnnies struggle to dispatch middling opponents.
There have been health issues and setbacks; it's hard to know how much of that plays into the actual struggles and how much of that is narrative to mask the bumps and bruises of program-building. But this is a "put up" year, according to the media, and the year that Steve Lavin has been working towards, in his own words. Optimism now hinges on results, not just gaudy numbers and big-name recruits. This weekend and this season are huge for the perception of the program.
Steve Lavin knows that he's building the team, and that's a reason for optimism. He's building the team to peak in February, like his UCLA teams and his first St. John's side. "The teams that improve the most between tonight and the middle of March," Lavin said, "are the ones that best position themselves for a post season run."
BSD: Jakarr Sampson passed on the NBA after taking home Big East FOY honors last season. What makes Sampson an NBA talent, and what does he still need to improve before he takes his game to the next level?
RitG: JaKarr Sampson's athleticism and size make him a point of intrigue for some NBA scouts. But as Draft Express mentioned during the Big East Tournament, above all things, no NBA team is going to draft a small forward who cannot hit three-pointers at all.
Right now, he's a good athlete who can rebound a little, but he needs a lot of work for NBA consideration. He needs to have a consistent and smoother shot; he needs to be able to find and generate his offense; he needs to show defensive tenacity; he needs to hit more threes; and he really could use to advance from "point compiler" to a leader who can put the team on his back. He's not that yet.
In recent games, the offense has looked to a number of different ways of getting players shots, and Sampson hasn't been featured in the pick and roll or catching and isolated on the wing 15 feet out (the Johnnies had him play that way vs Wisconsin). When he gets touches, we'll see how much he's advanced.
BSD: His numbers are ridiculous in this department, but just how good of a shot-blocker is sophomore Chris Obekpa? Is he susceptible to foul trouble? What have other teams tried (and apparently failed) to neutralize his effect around the rim?
RitG: Chris Obekpa's great skill is defending without fouling. Even as a freshman, he could hunt shot blocking opportunities (on other players' men) without bumping the opponent. As an on-ball defender in he post, he has quick enough feet to move backward and still alter a shot, but that part of his game still needs progress.
Bucknell and some other teams have driven straight at him to get buckets; this works best, of course, when St. John's is playing man-to-man to, say, stop deep shooters.
BSD: It's going to be hard to keep up this pace, but St. John's is shooting just 21.8% from 3 so far. Was perimeter shooting a concern coming into the season? Or is this just a very slow start for guys who will shoot better as the year goes on?
RitG: If any team can keep up the pace....
I made a table for our Marc-Antoine Bourgault preview with St. John's three-point shooting woes every year; in ten years, they've topped the breakeven 33.3% (which would be 1 point per three-point attempt) four times. Perimeter shooting was a huge concern for this team. St. John's was one of the five worst teams at three-point shooting efficiency last year.
They brought in a new shooter, Max Hooper, hoping he could be the sniper that Marc-Antoine Bourgault was not for the Red Storm. This year, Max has barely played, and St. John's is one of the five worst teams at three-point shooting efficiency. Most of the players should get better, but fans were hoping for much better shooting from this team.
BSD: Rysheed Jordan appears to be a factor early for the Red Storm (when he hasn't been suspended). What have the early returns been on his game and his potential impact down the road?
RitG: So far, he's not getting shots to fall, but his length and athleticism is a factor on defense. When he's on, he gets his teammates the ball deep in the paint for dunks. When he's off, he takes a number of shots that don't fall. But down the road, Jordan should be the kind of guard who can break down opponents in isolation, drawing defenders, and kicking the ball out to a scorer. He adds an offensive dimension that the Red Storm really lacked. If he can be consistent as a scorer and shot creator, he should elevate the offense.
BSD: It seems like the Red Storm have stumbled a bit out of the gate this season. They haven't lost any clunkers yet, but what's your biggest concern for St. John's coming into the Barclays Center Classic?
RitG: The first concern is that some games find the Johnnies struggling to make smart, team-oriented basketball plays. They pass the ball around, but then move into isolations or take jump shots from a distance. With the athleticism on the team, it would be reasonable to expect some slashing into the paint.
The second concern is that the team is also struggling with cohesiveness. There have been turnovers for the normally careful team. There is intermittent team passing, despite having a pair of passing-oriented newcomers on Orlando Sanchez and Rysheed Jordan.
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