Isiah Deas (above) scored 11 points in his collegiate debut at Temple last year. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Corey Sharp (@ByCoreySharp)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
Isiah Deas hit his first career shot – a 3-pointer – as he started his first career game as a freshman in La Salle’s opener at Temple last season. He finished the game totaling 29 minutes, dropping 12 points and snatching seven boards in an overtime loss against the Owls.
Coming in as a late signing from Coastal Academy (N.J.), the Brooklyn native entered the season with zero expectations, and instead found himself thrown into the fire immediately.
“The first game, I still get chills,” he said. “Starting your first college game was just amazing in itself -- on the road, at Temple, it was ridiculous.”
The 6-foot-6, 170 pound wing was floating on cloud nine, but his role in the rotation quickly diminished.
Deas played 17 minutes combined over the next three games, then sat in five of the next six. He found his way back into the rotation a little bit, playing double-digit minutes in six of the next eight, and then only played in five of the last 12 games, never seeing more than seven minutes of action any of those.
Deas’ struggles last season -- to his admission -- came more off-the-court, which in turn affected his on-court play and trust with head coach John Giannini. He admitted the standards of being a student-athlete was difficult.
It was around the middle of non-conference play when the light bulb went off for the sophomore. He realized this wasn’t high school anymore, and college was a different animal.
“Once I sat down with myself and looked at myself in the mirror and say ‘hey listen, you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing,’ then I kind of understood why, the situation I was in,” he said.
Deas didn’t go through his struggles alone. A hard look in the mirror and a team manager Deas confided in helped him see the bigger picture.
“Last year, this guy Jack DiMatteo, he [was] one of our managers,” he said. “He’s one hell of a guy. He guided me everyday. He hosted Bible studies. He did so much for me. I always asked him for advice for what I was doing wrong, watching a lot of film just to see how I’m looking at practice on the court.”
Saul Phiri, seen practicing during his freshman year, dropped 20 pounds before his sophomore season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Saul Phiri, a fellow sophomore, was in the same boat as Deas in the rotation. The 6-4 wing played 11 minutes at Temple in the opener, but didn’t log double-digit minutes again until late January, when four of his next six games he played he saw at least 10 minutes. He didn’t play double-digit minutes his last seven games of the year.
Phiri did, however, experience the same flash-in-the-pan moment as Deas did last last season. The guard scored a season-high 11 points in 17 minutes in a loss to VCU in January. It’s something he can hang his hat on as a breakout performance entering his second season.
All throughout Phiri’s career, including his high school days at Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut, this was his first experience as a part-time player. It was something he learned to cope with, but realized he wasn’t as far along as he would’ve liked.
“I wasn’t prepared last year,” he said. “Just kept looking forward to practice and getting ready to prepare for this upcoming year, definitely excited for it.”
Phiri’s freshman demons stemmed from his weight. Last year, he played much of his rookie season close to 230 pounds. He’s come into the fall much slimmer, getting his weight down to under 210.
“It was completely [Saul’s] conditioning,” Giannini said. “He weighed 209 yesterday and last year, throughout the year he was in the 220s, so Saul was heavy and inexperienced.”
After the Explorers jumped out to an 11-5 start, they finished the year at 15-15, getting bounced by Davidson in the second round (opening game) of the Atlantic 10 conference tournament.
La Salle graduated two fifth-year wing seniors, Jordan Price and Cleon Roberts. Price was the team’s second leading scorer behind swingman B.J. Johnson (17.6 ppg).
Johnson, now a senior, is primed for an even bigger role in the offense without Price. Junior Pookie Powell, the third-leading scorer a year ago (13.7 ppg), returns as a combo guard. Seniors Amar Stukes and Johnnie Shuler will return to man the point.
Giannini considers his two sophomores to be in the mix as consistent rotational players, or more, as much as anyone on the roster.
“I think it’s likely that one of those guys will [start],” Giannini said. “It’s very possible. At this early date, I would used the term ‘very possible.’”
The Explorers ranked last in the A-10 in scoring defense, defensive field goal percentage, and defensive three-point field goal percentage. Giannini acknowledged the team wasn’t tough enough on that end of the floor, and has emphasized those concepts all throughout the summer and fall.
Phiri and Deas clearly got the memo.
“The only thing he told me is to play defense, and everything else will work out,” Deas said.