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St. John’s 2019-20 season preview: hard to predict

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A look at the Red Storm before the games start — after an offseason of turnover, who are these guys?

Mustapha Heron will lead this team of Johnnies, but is the talent there for a strong year?
Wendell Cruz

St. John’s Red Storm 2019 Record: 21-18, 8-10 Big East (NCAA Tournament First Four, lost to Arizona State)

2020 Returning Minutes percentage: 36.2%

Graduated Seniors: Marvin Clark II (F)

Early departures/ transfers: Shamorie Ponds (G), Justin Simon (G), Sedee Keita (C), Bryan Trimble Jr. (G), Eli Wright (G)

Incoming talent: Nick Rutherford (transfer G from Monmouth, SR), Damien Sears (transfer F from Western Oklahoma State, JR), David Caraher (transfer W from Houston Baptist, SO), Rasheem Dunn (transfer G from St. Francis, then Cleveland State, JR), Ian Steere (transfer C from NC State, SO), Julian Champagnie (F, FR), Thomas O’Connell (transfer G from Maryland lacrosse, SR), John McGriff (G, FR)

Likely top 6: G Mustapha Heron (SR), W LJ Figueroa (JR), F Josh Roberts (SO), G Nick Rutherford (SR), F Ian Steere (SO), F David Caraher (SO)

Mike Anderson shouts commands
Wendell Cruz

St. John’s last season

Last season was decent on paper, but for so many, the Red Storm team that was felt like wasted potential. A guard-heavy lineup leaned on the talents of the creative Shamorie Ponds, on good ball protection and on forcing steals in an uptempo offense.

But the rest of the on-court product included an inability to get shots at the basket, a lack of free throws drawn, poor defensive rebounding (and eschewed offensive rebounding by choice), all while fouling and allowing a high rate of outside shots.

The team limited the ways it could score... and allowed opponents to get points in all kinds of ways. It was hard for the Red Storm to stop an opponent when that opponent got rolling.

The Red Storm were fairly lucky not to have given up more points from outside — or the scrambling defense did enough of its job on perimeter shooters. But a lack of heft inside (yet again) meant the team played with a figurative hand behind its back. Opponents who could attack inside feasted on the soft middle, and the skilled team needed jump shots to fall for any measure of success.

St. John’s Red Storm this season

Honest assessment: shoulder shrug emoji.

The pundits have picked this team at the bottom of the league table, and for good reason; while the rest of the teams return lots of talent, the Johnnies, now with a new coach, return two major contributors and a number of unheralded players around those two.

Wendell Cruz

There are a number of Red Storm players who could be good, who could outperform their “we didn’t read about you from the recruiting reporters” preseason evaluations.

The new head coach, Mike Anderson, comes with a system filled with pressure looks, and has experience elevating unheralded players to competence. In eight years at Arkansas, he had three recruiting classes in the top-30, and he picked JUCO players, lesser known talents and the occasional top-50 forward.

I’ve added that tidbit in not to say that some of the Red Storm players currently in the program will be stars, but that Anderson clearly knows how to get some set of his team rowing the right way and working towards wins.

He knows what he wants his team to look like, he is hands-on and won’t fade into the background while assistants do the work, and he has an eye for talent outside of the top-100 recruiting rankings or up-transfer market.

All that and a few dollars will still just get you a hot dog, of course, if the players don’t deliver.

Roster preview

At issue for this Red Storm team is talent, especially at crucial positions.

Forwards

The lack of reliable bigs is glaring, though 6’9” Josh Roberts looks to make some kind of impact inside, as could 6’9” Ian Steere.

Josh Roberts, who showed length and energy in his spot minutes, was the emergency forward who was broken out for the Providence, Xavier and second DePaul games; he showed potential, but also had nearly no game experience.

Roberts showed speed and flashes as a freshman, despite shooting 42%; his offensive rebounding rate (13.8% of opponent misses) was a wholly missing skillset on the floor for the Red Storm). He blocked shots (7.1% of opponent twos were blocked while he was on the floor, which is very good) but fouled a prorated seven times per 40 minutes.

Wendell Cruz

This season, he will at least be a rim-running forward on the fast break. Can he hold position inside on defense in the half court, and give the Johnnies a chance to stop opposing bigs? Can he block shots without fouling? Can he rebound on both ends?

Ian Steere was a top-100 forward, has a big strong body, and played five minutes at North Carolina State. We can’t extrapolate over five minutes, and we have not seen much of him except in the tip-off game. He looks bouncy, and will need to play a major role for the Johnnies on the glass.

For both Steere and Roberts, the freedom of Mike Anderson’s system also comes with the question — do they know their own offensive limits? Many players want to take long jump shots when open, but that is not always the right shot in the right moment.

Damien Sears comes off the bench, and will need to provide some junkyard dog strength and rebounding. If the 6’7” forward can make a difference on the defensive end and get some putbacks, he will play a major role in stopping opponents and allowing the Red Storm to run. As a freshman at Jacksonville University, his offensive rebounding was solid (8.8% of his team’s missed shots were grabbed by him), but his defensive rebounding and free throw shooting needed improvement.

Freshman Julian Champagnie earned a start in the exhibition game; it wasn’t a great start, but the potential to be a hard-working, versatile player who causes chaos and knows his responsibilities is there. He is 6’8”, fluid, and looks like he may play a smart on-court game.

Julian Champagnie defends
Wendell Cruz

Wings

At wing, the Red Storm will be led by the talents of Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa (listed as two of the top 10 players in the league by a number of our blog colleagues in Paint Touches’ countdown). They will need to provide scoring; but with that known, they will also need to provide playmaking all around the floor.

Both Figueroa and Heron are solid rebounders on the defensive end, and attackers on offense.

For Heron, the question will be about whether the 6’5” guard can stay healthy enough to spearhead the scoring attack. At his best, he can assault individual defenders with strength and crafty moves, getting to the line and also scoring from deep. Taking fewer long two-point jumpers is an area for improvement; he shot 25% on long twos last season, many off the dribble.

LJ Figueroa found ways of influencing the game without the ball, as Shamorie Ponds and Heron did a lot of the shot-creation. The 6’6” Figueroa, thrust into a lead role, will need to continue to be a high-flying do-it-all (except sell hot dogs) player who can also score efficiently on all three levels — while rebounding, stealing the ball and minimizing turnovers. A few more free throw attempts drawn would be nice.

Marcellus Earlington goes up for a shot
Wendell Cruz

Behind them, Marcellus Earlington has a chance to shine as a greedy glue guy. In limited minutes last season, the 6’6” Earlington looked hard to stop on offense — physical and able to take a crack in the defense to drive to the basket. In extended time, he will be expected to help on the boards and be a credible defender. Can he shoot that three-pointer he keeps attempting? That would open up his offensive game.

David Caraher was a star at Houston Baptist, and came to St. John’s to work on playing more like a guard. Like Earlington, there will be questions about whether the 6’6” Caraher can play credible defense — both in the press and in the half court. While his shot was not falling in the exhibition game, his ability to stretch defenses and score will be critical to the team’s success.

Guards

But the point guard situation is the position that will likely, in quiet, subtle ways, lower the ceiling for this team.

Nick Rutherford goes for two
Wendell Cruz

Nick Rutherford looks to be the player who gets the first crack at playing point guard. A strong and physical 6’3” player, he’s got solid passing sense. But his ability to score is in question; he rarely takes threes (and made them at 27% at best two seasons ago), shot 21% on long twos, and 48% at the rim last season.

On the plus side, he draws fouls, blocks shots and forces steals; he may have a lot of run-out opportunities and, playing with more talented players, could have a chance to improve his numbers.

With Rasheem Dunn possibly sidelined for another year, and John McGriff out for the season with a shoulder surgery, Greg Williams Jr. will see time.

Williams, 6’3”, has a chance to show that his tenacity can make an impact on the court. He wisely took his shots either at the rim or from beyond the arc; at the rim, he showed very good potential. When aggressive and able to go downhill, Williams can make an impact.

Greg Williams goes for the block
Wendell Cruz

If the 6’2” Rasheem Dunn plays, he provides a confident scoring option from the perimeter, one who can draw attention and make passes. Dunn is a solid rebounder and an eager scorer — perhaps too eager, judging by the career high of 28% from outside the arc — but will make a chaotic impact if he gets on the floor.

If not, the team may need to get contributions from walk-on Thomas O’Connell, who played lacrosse last season at Maryland, or 6’2” guard Justin Cole, who has been with the team for his previous three years

How will the St. John’s season shake out?

We are mostly guessing here, with so many fresh new faces.

It’s possible to imagine a year where there are few injuries, where Heron and Figueroa draw attention from defenses while David Caraher and Greg Williams Jr. provide consistent scoring.

It’s possible to imagine Nick Rutherford being an excellent caretaker who makes defensive moments happen.

It’s possible to imagine Marcellus Earlington being a strong x-factor, while Damien Sears grapples down low and puts in a few points to go in with his board work.

It’s possible to imagine Ian Steere and Josh Roberts becoming a notable tandem inside.

Mike Anderson has squeezed good performances out of young, undersized teams before.

It’s also possible to imagine that an injury could make this team have real struggles to maintain defensive intensity and to score. Williams, Roberts, Steere and Earlington have not yet proven they can be consistent contributors. Caraher is moving up a level, as are Sears, Dunn and Rutherford.

So with that in mind, my prediction:

St. John’s goes 8-4 in non-conference play, losing to Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Arizona. The team goes 6-12 in Big East play, crushing Creighton’s at-large hopes along the way. Mike Anderson has his only losing season UNLESS the Johnnies choose to play their young roster in the CBI (which should get them two wins).

What’s your prediction?

What will we say about this season after it’s concluded?