Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(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.)
2017-18 La Salle Explorers Primer
Coach: John Giannini, 14th season (199-207, .490)
Last Year: 15-15 overall, 9-9 Atlantic 10
There was a good deal of buzz around the Explorers heading into last season, as a trio of players were eligible after sitting out the year before, and a program that won just nine games in 2015-16 looked primed for a significant step up. Then they sputtered out of the gate, losing to Texas Southern at home on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, and though the Explorers were at 6-4 after the non-league schedule, it came without a true quality win in the bunch. League play brought a string of five wins following a loss to Dayton, but then losses in nine of 12 negated all of that momentum, with the season coming to an end with a one-game appearance in Pittsburgh.
Jordan Price (above) and his 1,600-plus points graduated after playing his final three college seasons in a La Salle uniform. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Key Losses: PF Demetrius Henry (5.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg), SG Jordan Price (15.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg), SG Cleon Roberts (7.0 ppg)
Both Price and Roberts transferred to La Salle back in 2013 after spending their freshmen seasons elsewhere, sitting out the 2013-14 season due to NCAA transfer regulations before playing out their final three seasons of eligibility in Explorers uniforms. Price, an offensively talented 6-5 guard from Auburn, scored 1,623 points in his three years at La Salle, pouring in 17.2 ppg as a sophomore and 19.2 ppg as a junior before a deeper Explorers rotation had him at 15.3 ppg as a senior. Roberts, who started at Georgia Southern, also had his best season as a junior, averaging 12.9 ppg and 3.6 rpg, before becoming more of a reserve (13 starts) as a senior.
Henry, another transfer, had a shorter stay in Philadelphia. The 6-9 forward played his first two years at South Carolina, then came to Philadelphia, where he played in 29 games last year (18 starts) before electing to turn pro this offseason.
New Faces: PF Miles Brookins (Fr./Mater Dei, Cali.), G/F Dajour Joseph (Fr./Combine Ac., N.C.), G Jamir Moultrie (Fr./Bishop McNamara, Md.)
Joining the Explorers this season are three true freshmen, all of whom bring vastly different skill sets to Tom Gola Arena. With seven upperclassmen above them, all with quite a bit of Division I experience, there is some room for this group to get minutes, though Giannini won’t need to put any of them out there if they’re not ready.
Of the three, Brookins seems almost guaranteed to see playing time, as Henry’s departure opened up some significant minutes up front. At 6-10 and 210 pounds, Brookins comes to La Salle by way of Mater Dei (Cali.), where he went up against five-star 2018 Bol Bol every day in practice, and early returns on Brookins have been that he’s much further along than expected. He’ll have a chance to play minutes at the ‘5’ when Washington is off the floor, and could also play some ‘4’ if the Explorers want to go big.
The two perimeter players will really have to perform to see the court. Moultrie, a 6-1 guard, has the more college-ready game, coming out of the tough WCAC, where he was a first team all-league selection after averaging 18.3 ppg as a junior -- he didn’t play as a senior -- but he comes in at a position the Explorers have quite a bit of; next year, he’ll need to play a lot more. Joseph, a 6-6 wing out out Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.), comes to La Salle by way of Combine Academy (N.C.). Like Moultrie, he faces several upperclassmen in a battle for minutes at his position, and is likely a year away from a significant contribution.
Starting Frontcourt: SF B.J. Johnson (17.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg), C Tony Washington (5.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
This one’s a no-brainer. Johnson, a Lower Merion grad, spent two years at Syracuse where he struggled to keep his head above water, playing in 35 games with four starts but averaging just 3.4 ppg and hitting only 23.4 percent from 3. But the 6-7 wing clearly felt a lot more at home at the school where his father Robert Johnson played in the late 1980s, leading the team in scoring and rebounding while making 36.2 percent of his 3s (64-of-177). As a senior, he’ll be expected to carry an even bigger load, while playing a combination of the ‘3’ and ‘4’ depending on lineups.
Washington, a 6-11 center, will move back into the full-time starting role he occupied two years ago. As a redshirt sophomore in 2015-16, he averaged 7.7 ppg and 7.4 rpg, then saw his minutes drop from nearly 27 per game down to 16, committing nearly seven fouls per 40 minutes. As the only experienced big man on the roster, the Explorers need him to play close to 30 minutes this year and stay out of foul trouble to be effective defensively.
Amar Stukes (above) is the defensive and emotional on-court leader for the Explorers. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Starting Backcourt: SG Isiah Deas (3.2 ppg, 1.1 rpg), G Pookie Powell (13.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg), PG Amar Stukes (8.1 ppg, 4.3 apg)
Though it’s quite possible his scoring average is the lowest of the five starters, there’s no doubt that Stukes is the most important member of the lineup, the cog that holds it all together. The 6-3 guard out of La Salle College HS is a fifth-year senior who’s played in 94 games in a La Salle uniform with 70 starts, averaging more than 30 mpg each of the last two years. The best on-ball defender on the team, Stukes has an assist-to-turnover ratio of over 2:1 and sets the table for the Explorers’ bevy of scorers.
Powell fit right into La Salle’s four-out, dribble-drive offense last year, as the 6-1 Memphis transfer knocked down 36 percent of his 3s and 84 percent from the foul line, chipping in 3.1 apg and a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio as well. Perhaps the best athlete on the team, Powell gets up and down the court in a blur, and doesn’t typically force the issue offensively. The fifth starting spot will be either Deas or fellow sophomore Saul Phiri, but for now we’re putting Deas in as he gives them more length defensively at 6-6 than Phiri at 6-4; it very well could be a “six starters” situation throughout the season unless one of the two really starts to outshine the other.
Bench: PF Miles Brookins (N/A), G/F Saul Phiri (1.8 ppg), G Jamir Moultrie (N/A), PG Johnnie Shuler (2.8 ppg), C Cian Sullivan (N/A)
As much experience as there is in the Explorers’ starting lineup, there’s almost none of it coming off the bench. The only reserve who’s seen more than spare minutes at the college level is Shuler, who played more than 35 mpg as a sophomore in 2015-16, averaging 9.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg and 3.0 apg before playing just 12.9 mpg in 27 games off the bench last year (one start). Given the similarity between his game and Moultrie’s, it wouldn’t be surprising to see either one of them take a redshirt this year, considering both Stukes and Powell can play point as well.
Phiri, a muscular 6-4 wing guard, played in 24 games a year ago but only saw double-digit minutes five times, scoring 11 points in a January game against VCU but otherwise just getting his feet wet at the Division I level. He should split time at the ‘3’ with Deas, but can also slide over and play the ‘2’ if the Explorers want to go with a bigger lineup. Brookins will likely become the first big man off the bench while Sullivan, a 7-2 redshirt freshman, is still a year or two away from being a steady contributor at the Division I level.
Three Keys to Success
1. Stop the ball. Scoring the rock hasn’t been an issue for La Salle in Giannini’s free-flowing, guard-heavy offense. But after also being one of the tougher teams in the A-10 to score against during their Sweet 16 run five years back, the Explorers fell off to become a below-average squad defensively; last year, according to hoops statistician Ken Pomeroy, they were 251st in Division I, allowing an adjusted 1.09 points per possession. They were especially atrocious at defending the 3-point arc, allowing opponents to make 39.4 percent of their triples, which was 336th in the country. It’s a matter of effort -- if they make a commitment to stopping the man in front of them, the Explorers will be at least average defensively, which is enough with their offense to win a bunch of games.
2. Sophomore wings. With only five players on the roster with any real prior Division I experience -- and three of them being point guards -- the Explorers are going to have to rely on some up-and-comers to be productive if they want to have a successful year. The two sophomores, Isiah Deas and Saul Phiri, are a pair that could be make-or-break for La Salle this year; they don’t have to be outstanding, but they have to be solid. If they can combine for 16 points and eight boards while splitting time at the ‘3’, that’s plenty; doing it efficiently will be key. They can co-exist on the floor together, and so if they’re making shots and playing defense, that just gives Giannini even more flexibility in his lineup.
Tony Washington (above) will move back into a full-time starting role as a redshirt senior. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
3. Hit the (offensive) glass. The Explorers were 10th in the Atlantic 10 in rebounding margin last year, getting slightly outrebounded on the year (-0.5/game), and were 11th in league play alone (-1.9/game). With their four-out attack, they’re not going to be an elite team on the glass, but they certainly could be better than they’ve been. Washington needs to be closer to a double-double threat in his senior year, and they’ll need the guards and wings to chip in; Powell (4.5 rpg) is solid but Deas and Phiri really need to hit the glass too. The Explorers were specifically bad on the offensive glass last year, picking up only 25.7 percent of their own misses, which was 282nd in Division I; defensively, they grabbed 72.4 percent of available boards, which was a solid 101st.
Click here for a complete breakdown of La Salle's 2017-18 schedule
Quotes from opposing coaches on this team
“They’ve got a good mix of talented guys, I think they’re versatile, they can score the ball. Defensively they’ll be a lot better this year, I know Jordan Price was a prolific scorer but I think he gave up a lot of points, not to just single him out, but he gave up some easy opportunities for the opposition last year with his lack of interest on defense. But I think they’ll be a lot better, defensively for sure. They have versatile guys, can switch ‘1’ through ‘4’, offensively they do a good job of spreading it around, they’ve got good role players that fill a role and help impact a game from a winning standpoint.”
“La Salle has arguably one of the best players in the city in B.J. Johnson. I think Pookie Powell is going to be key for those guys, how consistent he is, in terms of being that secondary guy that gives those dudes that added scoring presence, is going to be key for La Salle. I think with B.J. Johnson, you have one of the best players in the city, so they have somebody they can play through. It’s a matter of if those other pieces come together for La Salle.”
“I would think La Salle is feeling good about things, with obviously B.J. Johnson being back. Feel like there could be some addition by subtraction with Price. Pookie Powell and B.J. Johnson are two pretty good players, if they could get a little more physicality and a little more from their bigs in particular, I thought Amar Stukes has gotten better and better … shot looks good and that’s been a bugaboo for him. I think they have a chance to be good.”
Though the departed seniors (and junior) certainly took a lot of points with them, there's a thought running throughout the city that the Explorers will be better off defensively, which as we said is crucial for any potential success this year. If that is indeed the case, this could be a rather effective team -- they've got good size on the perimeter and inside, a bevy of shooters and scorers, and some intriguing youth that could chip into the mix as well. Giannini has been looking for the right chemistry mix for the last five years since the Sweet 16 run, and as long as the seniors step up and bring a consistent high energy on both ends, they could be very successful indeed. By the end of the non-con, a best-case La Salle squad has won at least two of four games against Villanova, Temple, Northwestern and Miami, with a record of no worse than 10-3 heading into Atlantic 10 play. The Explorers continue on their way to a top-4 finish in their league, securing a berth back to the NCAA Tournament with at least one win in Washington D.C. in March.
If La Salle can't figure itself out defensively, this season could look a lot like the last. They'll be tough to guard in spurts and have enough weapons to beat the bottom of the barrel in the Atlantic 10, but inconsistencies and defensive lapses will cost them against a tough non-conference -- including a much-improved Big 5 -- and the A-10 as well. Another .500 season (or slightly worse) isn't out of the realm of possibility, especially if they can't get any traction in the first five or six weeks of the season. Though Johnson and Powell have strong individual seasons, the sophomores fail to produce on a consistent basis and the chemistry never clicks.