Through two Big East games, against a hot-shooting Creighton team and the 12th ranked Providence Friars on the road, Chris Mullin and St. John's (7-8, 0-2) have been relatively competitive, showing signs of promise and hope.
One player that has stood out in a positive way has been freshman center Yankuba Sima, who has scored 24 combined points on 12-of-22 shooting while grabbing 13 rebounds and has been by far the best player on the team. The big man only recorded one block in the two outings and struggled a bit with the physicality of Geoffrey Groselle and Ben Bentil, but his offense is coming along as he has provided the Johnnies a spark on that end of the court.
The Spain native had a particularly strong second half against the Friars on Saturday, where he crashed the offensive glass, made solid post moves, and showed the ability to finish around the rim. He needs to continue to develop his left hand, but his shot has potential and he has adjusted to the flow of American basketball, showing a soft touch near the basket and a nice feel.
"Sima is going to be a great player in this league for a long time," Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said.
If Sima can get stronger this offseason and improve his defensive rotations, this is a player that has great potential to be a force in the Big East Conference and the anchor for this rebuilding process for years to come.
Earlier in the season, the Red Storm's main problem was their inability to take care of the ball as they committed more turnovers than their opponent in their first three match-ups, had 18 total giveaways against UMBC and of course who can forget the 27 turnovers in the preseason versus St. Thomas Aquinas.
The Johnnies had only 25 combined turnovers in their two games this past week (12 versus Creighton and 13 versus Providence). While the Blue Jays' defense is not exactly stout, St. John's handled the ball with success despite playing in a sold out, rowdy Dunkin' Donuts Center with one of the best defenders in the country in Kris Dunn defending the lead ball handler. Federico Mussini only played 16 minutes in that contest due to match-ups, but Malik Ellison and Felix Balamou did a solid job of finding the open man without giving Providence the opportunity for run-outs. The Johnnies were able to creep back into the game in the second half (they cut the Friars lead down to six) because Ed Cooley's team was unable to create enough transition looks off live-ball giveaways.
Not for a lack of effort
The one thing about this St. John's team that stands out above all else is their determination and effort level. It may not be something that the fan base wants to hear, but in a rebuilding process it's important that players are sticking to the script and committing to improving on a day-to-day basis.
"I like their team," Providence head coach Ed Cooley said. "I like their energy. I like their passion. I think their coach is doing a really good job...Hopefully they can develop."
Ellison on the attack
The three-star recruit sat out eight games during the non-conference slate with a foot injury and was still finding his footing in three games against Incarnate Word, NJIT and South Carolina, but in the last week, Ellison has made a terrific leap.
In the Creighton showdown, the freshman was attacking the hoop consistently instead of settling for long jumpers, leading to a career high 17 points along with six rebounds. He followed his best performance of the year up by scoring just three points on Saturday, but he had the ball in his hands a lot when the Johnnies flipped to a bigger lineup in the second half in order to match Providence's bigger guards.
Ellison committed just three turnovers in the two games and has earned himself plenty of minutes moving forward thanks to his steady presence.