B.J. Johnson (above) is one of five players on the La Salle roster in their fourth or fifth year of college. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Theoretically, as La Salle head coach John Giannini sees his roster, nobody should be bored.
The Explorers are split almost down the middle at the two extremes of college basketball experience: everyone’s on their way in, or on their way out.
With five fourth or fifth-year players and four freshmen on the roster, plus two sophomores who barely played a year ago, the majority of the Explorers are entering individually defining campaigns, on a program hoping for a statement year of its own.
Therefore, as Giannini hopes, there’s nobody on his team who shouldn’t have some extra motivation for the 2017-18 season.
“I think for any person, the first time you’re on a job, you’re excited,” the 14th-year head coach said after practice last week. “If someone tells you this is your last chance to do something you love, you’re excited.
“All our seniors have the sense of urgency that you want seniors to have,” Giannini added. “They get that it’s their last chance and they want to lead, they want to make the most of this. You can tell that they love basketball and they want to go out on a very high note.”
Redshirt senior B.J. Johnson and redshirt junior Pookie Powell, both fifth-year transfers, will be facing that urgency head-on as two of the team’s leaders for the upcoming season. They’re just two of five who are at least fourth-year student-athletes, along with fifth-year seniors Amar Stukes and Tony Washington as well as true senior Johnnie Shuler.
Johnson played his first season in gold and blue last season, following in his father Bobby’s footsteps after spending two years at Syracuse. Despite leading the Explorers in scoring and rebounding in what was really a breakout year, he wasn’t satisfied.
With the end of his collegiate career fast approaching, the former Lower Merion standout is hungry for wins. Last year, La Salle went 15-15, a disappointing ending after being 11-5 (5-1 Atlantic 10) at one point in mid-January.
“Last year was a good year, but we didn’t win games so I guess that’s kind of a failure in my book,” Johnson said. “Winning games is the biggest thing in my mind right now. Everybody here, our goal is to play on the next level, and not winning makes things harder.”
After experiencing the same thing in his first season with La Salle, Powell shares this ambition with Johnson. The Memphis transfer has waited his due time for his collegiate breakthrough, sitting out a year as a non-qualifier and redshirting another, and he definitely came into his own last year, logging 31.2 minutes and 13.7 points per game.
Now entering his final season, Powell will carry an even heavier load for the Explorers, following the graduation of Jordan Price and Cleon Roberts. Together with Johnson, Stukes and Washington, he’ll spearhead a talented group of upperclassmen aiming for some Atlantic 10 redemption.
“It’s just a bigger role for me and B.J.,” Powell said. “I’m just ready to showcase, just go out here and play with my team, and just win games and lead.”
On the flip side of the roster is the inexperienced underclassmen. Sophomores Saul Phiri and Isiah Deas each saw a handful of minutes last year, but not much more. Then there’s the freshmen: redshirt freshman Cian Sullivan and true rookies Jamir Moultrie, Dajour Joseph and Miles Brookins.
With so much youth on the roster in addition to the experience, leading by example and passing the torch will be key to both La Salle’s short and long-term success.
“It’s me, Amar, B.J. leading by example. Coming here early, being first, being the last ones to leave, just showing the young guys the ropes, how it is,” Powell said. “We’ve all got a good bond. We’ve been in college for a long time.”
“We do a lot where the young guys stay out of the drill and watch the old guys do it. Them watching the older guys is better than listening to a coach,” Giannini added. “The picture of seeing other people executing correctly helps learning more than any words from a coach ever could.”
La Salle is likely to stick with a more seasoned rotation this season, mixing in Deas and Phiri, who had the chance to observe the older guys last season. The freshmen on the roster will really have the opportunity for a smooth transition to the college game, not only from the sidelines but also learning through experience and mistakes.
“When they start, they’re excited and when they don’t start, they know they can start the next day or they’re gonna be in soon,” Giannini said of his sophomores. “And the freshmen are learning. Jamir and Dejour are where Isaiah and Saul were a year ago. And they’re great role models for them. They’re talented kids.”
The overarching theme for the Explorers, however, will be the integration of these young players into substantial roles alongside veterans with something to prove. Brookins, a 6-10 big man out of Mater Dei (Cali.) has already stood out to Giannini as a player who can contribute immediately, and if he’s as good as advertised, that will provide a big boost.
Ultimately, though, it’s about the experienced guys with something to prove. If they can play better as a unit this year and stay consistent throughout the year, we could be in for the best La Salle season since 2013’s Sweet 16 run.