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Player in review: Yankuba Sima

The team's center logged a solid number of minutes... but may have been slowed down by his hand injury.

Yankuba Sima
St. John's freshman center Yankuba Sima steps up to the free throw line in an exhibition game versus St. Thomas Aquinas.

Like so many of the St. John's incoming recruits last season, Yankuba Sima was (and is) a developmental project, the kind of player a team usually likes to bring along slowly, feeding bits of playing time as carrots while the player hits the film and weight room.

Ah, but not on a team that lost over 90% of their minutes. And not on a team where the mercurial Chris Obekpa chose to transfer to UNLV after initially accepting a chance to play for Chris Mullin's Johnnies. From the first game, Yankuba Sima needed towork out his development on the court - and for the most part, he showed promise.

None of which is to say Sima should be absolved of errors in play or that he should be overly lauded. in fact, picking apart Sima's game, it's hard to know just HOW to evaluate a true center in college, except inasmuch as he can make some impact on the defensive game (by rebounding opponent misses and/ or blocking shots and/ or reducing the opponent' 2-point shooting percentage), provide some efficient scoring, and actually stay on the court.

Sima managed to play heavy minutes - 23 per game in all games, and 20 minutes per game in league play - while finishing the season 2nd in total blocks in the Big East. There's room for improvement, however, as Sima transforms from a player who blocks shots to a complete center - one who can score, rebound, defend the post AND be a deterrent on defense.

[SeeOur Yankuba Sima player preview from before the season]

Yankuba Sima scoring stats, 2015-16 season


Yankuba Sima tempo-neutral/ rate stats, 2015-16 season [glossary of terms]


Yankuba Sima scoring stats, conference play


Yankuba Sima tempo-neutral/ rate stats, conference play


Season/ career high points: 17, vs St. Francis

Season/ career high rebounds: 14, vs NJIT

Season/ career high defensive rebounds: 8, vs UMBC

Season/ career high blocks: 6, vs. Rutgers

Three things about Yankuba Sima

Did his hand injury derail his season? Looking for answers on Yankuba Sima's effect on the team, I looked at how the Johnnies fared with him and without him - but more on that later.

In trying to quickly look at that effect, it was hard not to see an effect from getting injured in the middle of the third league game against Xavier. Sima may have been touching heights that he didn't reach at the end of the season. The Spanish freshman scored 12 against Creighton on New Year's Eve, 14 against Providence, then was injured at home against Xavier... and reached double figures only twice more over nine games at the end of the season (against Creighton and Xavier, actually).

In those latter games, he looked a step slow at times, remained susceptible to centers who established early position and had three games with zero blocked shots.

St. John's was also mired in a historically bad losing streak - which may mean that players were pressing, or that they were emotionally deflated, or maybe the opponents were getting better, or maybe St. John's was playing him differently with the emergence of Kassoum Yakwe. So maybe there are other factors besides Sima's broken hand.

Here are some before-and-after numbers of Yankuba Sima's play - in all games before the hand injury and in all games after the hand injury. Sima played nine games after his return on February 6th, a month after his initial injury.

tos/ 40
fls/ 40
Pre injury
Post injury

Note the reduction in two-point shooting percentage, offensive and defensive rebounds (orb and drb percentages), the decrease in blocked shots and the increase in fouls per 40 minutes.

Sima has offensive promise, but what's the ceiling? Sima hit a number of different educational institutions/ training programs in his development. On his way to college from the Catalonia region, he played locally in Spain at Sant Josep Girona, then at the Canarias Academy, then Arlington Country Day in Florida, and finally at Elev8 Academy.

In that time, he went from an unknown to a member of the Spanish Under-18 and Under-20 squads, attracted the attention of Maryland and Arizona, and has already transformed from a player who is athletic and energetic as a rebounder into one with some offensive skill.

Sima came to the Red Storm with a raw reputation, but showed more post offense than any St. John's center since Lamont Hamilton (if you consider him a center), who graduated in 2007.

With an 18% usage rate, Sima showed a willingness to try to score as a creative force, though he has a way to go in diversifying his moves plus building strength and endurance.

How far can he improve? He showed a jump shot at times (and even hit a three-pointer, which I personally don't remember seeing), but his touch was a bit heavy at times. He is willing to pass - showing some anticipation and quickness to move the ball the way (we think) Coach Chris Mullin wants the ball to move, but he threw a few passes into the hands of an anticipating defender as Sima tried to fling the ball out to the wings.

And that free throw shooting... 66 shots is a fairly small sample, but hitting 38% of free throws is very bad. Shaquille O'Neal's worst shooting year from the free throw line had him at 42%, and he was a 53% shooter from the charity stripe.

Still, it's important to remember that Sima was at times mechanical - which may mean that with practice, he can be a much more fluid and natural offensive player.

FUN FACT! Yankuba Sima was the sixth-best player in terms of assist percentages among major conference centers. Here, major conference includes the Power Five FB leagues and the Big East, and centers are as they are listed on their roster, which, as we know, isn't always the most accurate. He was also the best freshman, assisting on 11.2% of teammates' shots, besting Jessie Govan of Georgetown (9.1%).

Defensively stalwart? Yankuba Sima had eye-popping numbers as a shot-blocker. But a trio of issues stand out:

  • his shot blocking rate dipped to 6.7% of opponent shots in Big East play; he blocked 10.4% of opponent shots in all games.
  • Sima's defensive rebounding percentage - in other words, his ability as the tallest player on the court to end opponent possessions - was 16%. That's decent, but that's also around Chris Obekpa's rebounding numbers.
  • Physically, Sima often needed help to defend the post players.

A pair of the starkest examples were when Vanderbilt assaulted the paint area early and often. Creighton's Geoffrey Groselle went 17/19 in two games against Sima and St. John's. And to counteract Sima's struggles to hold big men far from the paint early and steadily, the Johnnies often sent double teams inside.

Those double teams had a huge effect in the Red Storm's struggles all over the court on defense.

Here's how it worked: the guards - already not defensively quick - then were shading inside. But if the ball came out of the post, those guards were not in good defensive position. An opponent could blow by or take a three-pointer with that crucial moment to set up the shot, unbothered.

Three-point defense can be kind of a crapshoot (read more on how three-point defense is hard to control at least for the defense)  - but it's generally helpful to not give an opponent a wide-open jump shot like it was practice.

The team without Yankuba Sima

Here's an addendum.

Sima's absence - and remember, this was over a seven-game stretch in the middle of conference play - didn't make the defense worse. in fact, opponents shot 51% from inside the arc with Sima out - and 55% with him on the floor in Big East play. Opponents also turned the ball over a bit more (22% of possessions in Sima's absence and 19% while he was available).

Where Sima's absence was felt was on the offensive end. The Johnnies' two-point shooting was 38% in that stretch - compared to 47% when Sima was on the floor. That stretch included terrible interior scoring games against Georgetown (39%), Marquette (33%), Villanova (31%), and at Seton Hall (27%). Then the Red Storm shot 52% inside the arc at Xavier.

(Outliers happen.)

For what it's worth, Chris Mullin's squad found a stroke from outside the arc, nailing 35% of their three-pointers - the number was 30% when Sima was available in league play. But they also went to the free throw line fewer times per game.

With Sima available, the Red Storm scored 91 points per possession, which is pretty poor... but with him out, the team scored 85 points per possession, which is EXTREME offensive futility.

Looking forward

It's hard to balance the need to say "Sima and the team have a lot to work on" with "this player showed a lot of promise".

Big men who can really run up and down the court are not easy to find; and ones who can stay on the court without fouling out every game, who are able to initiate some offense, who can provide resistance at the rim, those players are hard to come by.

Sima isn't one of those players who came to college after having dominated opponents, the kind of player whose upside is limited. With his agility, he can get a lot better.

His fit on the team will be intriguing next season as well. Not in the sense that he needs to worry about losing time to Tariq Owens - we don't know enough about him to say that one way or another.

The real questions are about whether Sima can defend the post on his own... and whether the team around him can slow down opposing guards and disrupt long enough for Sima to gain the upper hand inside... and about which player will block shots and which will rebound between Kassoum Yakwe and Sima (and possibly Bashir Ahmed).