Before last season, the worry going in was that the defense was going to be an Achilles heel. How could a team with so many scoring options NOT score?
After last season, the worry has to be how is this offense going to work?
The offense’s struggles undid the work of a defense that had excellent stretches of keeping foes off the scoreboard — in a conference that had the third highest per-possession scoring average in the nation.
Per KenPom, the Red Storm dipped from an adjusted efficiency of 109 points per 100 possessions (90th in the nation) to 106.5/100 (141st); in conference play, the Johnnies went from 101.6 points/ 100 (8th) to 98.9/100 possessions (9th).
In at least the five close losses, that lack of offensive efficiency is the difference between a winning record and a losing one.
That difference changes the narratives around the program.
We will talk about the defense, for good and bad later, but the offense was:
- ninth in Big East conference play, only thanks to DePaul’s ability to be even worse on offensive shot-making and shot choices (except when playing St. John’s);
- entirely based on the creative power of one player, Shamorie Ponds, which makes for great numbers but did not make for high-level offense;
- 228th nationally in three-pointers attempted as a percentage of shots from the field, 259th in assists per field goals made and 264th in free throw attempts drawn;
- unable to replace the shooting of Federico Mussini and Marcus LoVett.
Below is a graphic using KenPom rankings from 2017 (in gray) and 2018 (in red) to show how the two years were quite different. A wider pentagon is better, meaning that the team is more highly ranked in comparison to other Division I teams in the five selected metrics —
- efg% — effective field goal percentage (FG% modified to account for three-pointers made, which are worth more points that two-pointers)
- 3pa% — percentage of total field goal attempts that are three -point attempts
- ast/fgm% — percentage of shots that are assisted by teammates
- ftr% — free throw rate, the ratio of free throws attempted to field goals attempted
- to% — the percentage of team possessions ending in a turnover.
What this says: St. John’s got even better at protecting the ball and ending a possession with a shot, 43rd in the nation with a turnover rate of 16.4%. That turnover rate, which get better in conference play (16.2%, 4th in the Big East), was the work of decisive offense and good ball handling.
The turnover rate did go up in the three games Ponds missed (away to Seton Hall, home to Butler, away to Providence), indicating that Shamorie Ponds’ ballhandling skills was a driver for that low turnover number... even though Ponds’ turnover percentage went up year over year (from 11% of his possessions to 13%).
But the rest of the offense hit struggles, because they were decisive about being a jump-shooting team.
If a team chooses to be a strictly jump-shooting outfit, they need to be excellent at it.
Take, for example, Villanova and Michigan.
Both teams were not keen about hitting the offensive glass, both were ranked lower than 250 in percentage of free throws drawn.
But they both took a high percentage of three-pointers, made a high percentage of threes (Michigan’s shooting was far less consistent on a game-to-game basis than Villanova’s) and were very effective inside the arc.
St. John’s combined with 59% shooting at the rim, 35% shooting on longer twos (and quite a few more of those long twos, considered the least efficient shot in hoops), and a passable but not spectacular 33.7% three-point conversion rate.
For comparison: Villanova shot 67% at the rim and 46% on two-point jump shots, along with 40% from beyond the arc. Michigan shot 66% at the rim, 35% on two-point jump shots and 35% on threes.
The Red Storm offense could sparkle for stretches but were limited; and from year to year we can see two areas where the team lost ground, and one where they remained nearly neutral, but need to improve.
The lonely line
St. John’s went from a free throw ratio of 36% to 30% between 2017 and 2018, and in conference play that number dove from 38% to 27%. Surprisingly, St. John’s was only eighth, behind the sharpshooting squads of Marquette and Creighton.
But those teams took 46% and 42%, respectively, of their shots behind the arc and were much better inside the arc; it stands to reason that they were not drawing free throw attempts, Andrew Rowsey’s “The Thing” be damned.
St. John’s managed that feat while being sixth in three-pointers attempted in Big East play, 36% of their attempts.
A table, including only players who logged 25% or more of the team’s minutes in each year, helps explain that the Johnnies replaced 2017’s players with players who didn’t get to the line.
St. John’s Free Throw/ Field Goal Ratio: 2017 vs 2018 Big East play
In league play, Justin Simon and Ponds combined for 72 free throw attempts apiece, but with far fewer shots, Simon drew the most fouls by free throw rate (37% to Ponds’ 25%). Bashir Ahmed was at 30%; Marvin Clark at 23%; Tariq Owens at 18% and Bryan Trimble Jr. at 6% (3 free throws taken in conference play).
The difference from the previous year? In conference play, Ponds was over 40%, with 97 free throws; LoVett, Ahmed and Malik Ellison also were over 40% free throw to field goal ratio.
For perspective, Marvin Clark took around the same percentage of the team’s shots while on the floor, but went to the line far less than Mussini.
Three the hard way
In conference play, an inability to hit three-pointers hurt the offensive attack. During the 11-game losing streak, the Red Storm shot above 33% on shots beyond the arc three times — a 50% mark at Seton Hall, 35% in a home blowout loss to DePaul and 46% on the road at Xavier.
[During the four-game winning streak, the Red Storm shot 47%, 40%, 40% and 50% from outside the arc (and 42% in the loss at Marquette).]
You might think that that was a problem exclusive to 2018. But the percentage in conference play, 33.7% was a slight improvement over the previous year’s 32.9% mark.
The change in personnel helped, as did an improvement in Bashir Ahmed’s shooting (32% to 34%).
Marcus LoVett’s 38% shooting on 77 shots was replaced by Marvin Clark’s 39% on 102. Bryan Trimble Jr. brought some decent shooting; at 39%, his percentage was a slight improvement on Federico Mussini’s 38% shooting in conference play. But Trimble couldn’t find spaces to take shots quite in the way Mussini did, given the minutes he played.
Malik Ellison’s 29% on 48 shots was replaced, in part, by Tariq Owens’ 33% on 33 shots.
But Shamorie Ponds’ made three-pointer percentage fell from 31% to 25%, and he took up a higher percentage of offensive possessions.
The team needed another shooter to help spread the floor — or at least, provide a high-usage outside threat that would be harder to guard for opponents.
Share sharing the wealth
Justin Simon assisted on 30% of his teammates’ shots in Big East play, Shamorie Ponds assisted on just over 31% in conference play and... every other player was in single digits in assist percentage.
If you would rather raw numbers: Ponds had 76 assists in conference in 15 games. Simon had 101 assists in 18 conference games. The rest of the team combined for 59 assists.
Making the pass was to be a hallmark of this offense — spreading and sharing the ball, getting the ball to the shooters, keeping the defenses moving.
In major conference programs, St. John’s overall assist-to-field goal percentage is only better than:
- Miami (decent offense, solid emphasis on their center’s scoring),
- Butler (good offense, solid emphasis on center’s scoring),
- Syracuse (bad offense, emphasis on attacking slashers),
- Texas (poor offense, emphasis on center’s scoring),
- Washington (bad offense, some emphasis on center’s scoring),
- California (my eyes are burning! Some emphasis on center’s scoring),
- and Rutgers (I can’t unsee that! emphasis on attacking slashers)
That’s not many programs, and includes mostly poorly-functioning offenses based on the talents of one or two players to create out of nothing — opposed to creating out of the flow of the offense/ team concept.
Additionally, the Johnnies were extremely perimeter focused. The Red Storm probably need a little more interior presence next season for a better offense — or need to share the ball and hit threes.
The future of the offense
The offense, ninth in the conference and 141st in the country per KenPom’s adjusted ratings, needs to do more — hit more shots inside, hit more shots from beyond the arc, draw more fouls.
The Red Storm’s offense of “give-it-to-Shamorie” made for spectacular games, but an inability to take advantage of what was one of the 30 best defenses in the country (and sixth-best in conference play) helped lead to losses when Ponds was on the court.
The team was 228th in three-point attempts, 229th in points from three-pointers and 259th in assists per field goal made, despite playing fast, looking for transition points (which should come with assists) and despite being led by perimeter talent.
Assuming Ponds returns, adding Mikey Dixon and LJ Figueroa should add shooters who can hit shots (for Ponds to pass to) and also slashers to take defensive attention away from Ponds. Both Dixon and Figueroa have been willing passers as well, which should improve the looks for the overall offense. Their presence should allow Ponds to rest at times, and see less defensive attention otherwise.
What help will Ponds have, if he returns?
Can Sedee Keita provide an inside game? Can having more shooters on the perimeter generate more slashing chances for the likes of Simon and Greg Williams? Will Bryan Trimble Jr. be a two-way player who helps by keeping opponents honest?
Chris Mullin’s team needs to find more offensive explosiveness, either from beyond the arc or the free throw line.
With a deeper roster, will the team share the ball and learn to better create and exploit mismatches? Will the team go to the free throw line more, or continue to be a jump shooting team that struggles to make jump shots enough?