As St. John's concludes its non-conference schedule on Friday against UNC-Asheville, they will welcome a new player to the Red Storm roster.
Jamal Branch became eligible as the fall semester ended this past weekend, and is ready to make his St. John's debut. After sitting out a calendar year in accordance to NCAA transfer rules, Branch will finally join Steve Lavin's back court.
Ranked nationally by ESPN as the 51st-best recruit entering his freshman campaign at Texas A&M last year, Branch was one of the most anticipated point guards of the class. But a coaching change and an undesired fit changed his decision to stay near his high school in Texas.
But perhaps this new fit may be more conducive for the 6'3" guard from Humble, Texas/ Kansas City, Missouri. It is no secret that St. John's is in dire need of a distributive guard, someone who thinks pass-first and is willing to manage the offense.
The Johnnies (8-3) rank only 156th nationally in assists per game, with no player averaging more than 3.4 dishes per contest. D`Angelo Harrison and Phil Greene IV have picked up almost all of the back court slack, but neither of them are natural point guards.
"Sitting on the bench as I transferred and watching these guys attack the rough schedule of the best conference in college basketball, I've learned a lot," Branch told the Rumble last month. "I kind of say 'yes' [that I'm a veteran], but then again I haven't been in the fire yet."
And that is what differentiates Harrison and Greene from Branch. The two Red Storm sophomores have each played 43 games at the college level, racking up well more than 30 minutes per game.
Branch, however, only played in 12 games for the Aggies before he decided to transfer last December. Though he may feel more natural at the position, there is no replacement for experience.
"I just want to be that coach on the floor, as a point guard," Branch continued. "The three of us - me, Phil and D'Angelo - it really doesn't matter who brings the ball up the floor because all of us know the system well."
The advantage that Branch does have as he enters his first real game with the Johnnies is that he's been practicing with the squad since the day he enrolled at the school last January. He says it is Lavin's fast-paced, frenetic system that captivated him - and he's had plenty of time to become acclimated.
"I decided to transfer to find a place that could suit my style of play. I had originally committed to Coach [Mark] Turgeon [at Texas A&M], and once he left we had a new coach in Billy Kennedy. I just felt like it wasn't the right place for me," Branch said. "My great relationship with Coach Lavin and his style of play attracted me here."
It is uncertain as to how significant Branch's role will be once he gets implemented into the rotation. How well he has been able to develop his game during a long absence away from true competition will be the ultimate determinant.
With such a young roster, the Red Storm cannot afford Branch to play to his limited experience.
"Last year, I was blessed to have Dash Harris, the senior guard at A&M. I got the chance to observe him in his role as the leader of that team," Branch said. "It's been a blessing for me to have Darrick Martin here, who played in the NBA and was mentored by Magic [Johnson]. He's helped me with all aspects of my game. We've worked on the pick and roll and my mid-range game primarily."
When Branch left Texas A&M, he did so without much sense of where he'd land next. In fact, it wasn't until after he left the Aggies that St. John's became a potential destination for the young guard. Outside of Ron Artest and Mark Jackson, St. John's meant nothing to him.
Now, Branch finds himself in an interesting position at the school he now calls home. A year at St. John's has taught him a little bit more about the program's basketball history.
If he plays his cards right, perhaps he will one day find himself a part of that tradition. But for now, Branch looks ahead to hearing his name announced at Carnesecca Arena for that first time.
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