We are entering year three of the Chris Mullin era at St. John’s and the Red Storm are finally ready to make a potential leap into the NCAA Tournament conversation.
SJU is loaded with talent in the backcourt (Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett) and welcome in two high-major transfers in Justin Simon (Arizona) and Marvin Clark (Michigan State).
While the Johnnies won only eight games in year one under Mullin and were four games under .500 in the Big East last season, the Red Storm possess a different level of talent heading into 2017-18 campaign. This versatile, athletic roster has a chance to run-and-gun their way to a top half finish in the Big East standings.
2016-17 record: 14-19 overall (7-11 in Big East)
Key Returnees: Shamorie Ponds, Marcus LoVett, Bashir Ahmed, Tariq Owens, Kassoum Yakwe, Amar Alibegovic
Newcomers: Justin Simon (Arizona transfer), Marvin Clark (Michigan State transfer), Bryan Trimble Jr. (three-star guard)
Departures: Federico Mussini, Richard Freudenberg, Malik Ellison, Darien Williams
1. How will the three-guard lineup of Ponds, LoVett and Simon mesh?
Big East coaches realized how difficult it was to game plan for the two-headed monster of Ponds (17.4 PPG) and LoVett (15.9 PPG) last year during conference play. While the duo had some mental freshman mistakes (turnovers, playing too fast and taking poor shots, etc), they were lethal in transition, athletic and speedy and had the ability to make plays inside-and-out.
Now imagine Ponds and LoVett on the court at the same time as former four-star recruit and Arizona Wildcat commit, Simon.
That’s a lot of quickness, athleticism and pure talent in one lineup.
And the thing is, all three players have different tendencies (even though Ponds and LoVett both are left-handed and are effective passers) that will make them awfully tough to defend.
Ponds is best at playing off the ball, where he can spot up for jump shots with his unlimited range, and attack the basket, finishing with a floater or short pull-up. He isn’t necessarily strong but his savviness, poise and confidence should make him one of the top scorers in the Big East this season.
LoVett operates more as a true point guard, but also likes to get his own with a sweet mid-range pull-up, the occasional three-pointer and the ability to finish in the paint with his left hand.
Finally, the newcomer, Simon, is long, physical and is the best athlete on the roster. At 6’5″, Simon can defend numerous different positions and can help cover up for Ponds and LoVett’s lack of height. The California native can defend the opponents best player but can also make plays offensively in transition, finish around the basket using an array of moves and get to the free throw line.
While he’s still not a great outside shooter, some compare Simon’s game to former Xavier point guard Edmond Sumner.
It may take time for Ponds, LoVett and Simon to get used to playing with one another, however, the good news is all three players are unselfish and are capable of playing off-the-ball when need be.
2. Will Ahmed take his game to the next level?
Ahmed is one of two seniors on this St. John’s roster — Alibegovic is the other — so he is expected to not only be a leader but to take his game up a notch after last year’s up-and-down campaign.
While the former JUCO prospect averaged the third most points on the team in 2016-17, Ahmed had mental lapses when he either put his head down and drove into traffic or forced up a jump shot from the outside. He often got into foul trouble and didn’t use his size and strength to his advantage.
The 6’7″, 210-pound forward is like a bull when he gets a head of steam into the paint, but he needs to understand the balance between making the right play within the confines of the offense and taking it upon himself to score points.
Defensively, Ahmed has the physical attributes to be a versatile defender similar to Simon. However, he must limit his body contact and stay away from reaching for the ball.
The reports on Ahmed’s offseason work have been positive and he played well in Wednesday night’s exhibition against AIC. But when the bright lights come back on during the regular season, will Ahmed revert to his old ways? Or will the new Ahmed help space the floor from the four-position while also becoming more efficient?
3. Does the lack of height hold SJU back?
One major issue that the Red Storm had last season was rebounding as Yakwe regressed, they lost Yankuba Sima midseason and Owens was the tallest player on the roster.
In fact, Ponds (at 6’0″) was actually leading the team in boards at one point during the season and Ahmed finished the year as the top rebounder on the roster.
This year, even if Yakwe continues to struggle, the Johnnies still have Owens and Ahmed while they add two crucial pieces that can drastically impact their production on the glass: Simon and Clark.
Even though Simon will play on the wing, his height, long arms and activity make him a strong candidate to consistently crash the glass.
And then there’s Clark. He only stands at 6’7″, but is strong, physical and tough. He’s comfortable grabbing a rebound, dribbling the ball up the floor and launching a three-pointer, something that will give the guards the opportunity to get up the floor quicker.
In addition to his veteran leadership (anyone coming from a Tom Izzo program is going to be a plus in the locker room), Clark will provide the Johnnies with their first “bruising” big man in the Mullin era.
The Johnnies are still thin up front and don’t have great size, but if Clark and Simon can commit to grabbing rebounds on a consistent basis and Yakwe and Owens can protect the rim, this team can hide their major weakness.