Justin Jaworski (above) has emerged as one of the best players in the Patriot League during his junior season at Lafayette. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
In the classic thriller film Jaws, the titular shark terrorizes a sleepy beach town with a slow-but-steady approach, the famous musical score accompanying each time the massive Great White stalks its prey. There’s a gradual crescendo, starting quiet, then building to a fervent pitch.
On the basketball court, Jaws isn’t nearly as slow or quiet.
Justin Jaworski is a continuous motion machine within the 94-by-50, the Lafayette junior never coming to rest for long on either end of the floor. He starts one possession in the right corner, darts to the left, back to the right, back towards the left –– then a hard cut out to the right wing, where the ball finds his hands right as he turns and fires. A high arc, nothing but net. The next time down, he brings the ball upcourt, dumps it off to a big man, and he’s off –– one corner, another corner, back up top, a handoff, a pass, more cutting, and another 3-pointer.
“We’ve had a number of guys who could really move without the ball,” said Fran O’Hanlon, who’s been running his motion offense as the Leopards’ head coach for a quarter-century, “but I don’t know if I’ve had anybody better.”
Oh yes, this Jaws can run. And he doesn’t stop, for as long as he’s on the court, which he is for a team-high 32 minutes per game.
It’s a skill that Jaworski developed during his days at Perkiomen Valley, where Mike Poysden’s Vikings ran an offense similar to O’Hanlon’s –– relying on off-ball movement, back-cuts, open 3-pointers and layups –– though without the proddings of a shot clock. Perk Valley ran that offense to great success, winning the Pioneer Athletic Conference in 2017 and knocking off Roman Catholic in the first round of the PIAA 6A state tournament with patience, passing, shooting and defense, Jaworski running the show.
A strong outside shooter, Jaws –– who's not related to former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski –– studied the movements of two of the best in the NBA, analyzing what they do that allows them to get open even when the defense knows the shots are coming.
“JJ Redick loves to come off of those downscreens, ball-screen action, and Steph Curry does a great job, he might drive to the rim, kick it out and relocate,” Jaworski said. “So I try to take both of that and use it both in my game.”
But of course, that motor only pays off if the shots go in. And do they ever.
Saint Joseph’s found that out the hard way on Tuesday night, as Jaworski dropped a career-high 31 points on the Hawks at Hagan Arena in a 94-71 Lafayette win. Jaworski was 10-of-17 from the floor, 5-of-10 from deep and a perfect 6-of-6 from the foul stripe, finishing with the highest plus-minus on the team (+22) in 29 minutes.
Those types of efficiency numbers are normal for Jaworski: through Lafayette’s first seven games (5-2), he’s averaging 21.1 ppg, hitting 52% overall and 45.7% from 3-point range (21-of-46). Through the first 66 games of his college career (49 starts), he’s scored exactly 900 points (13.6/game), hitting 46.1% of his triples and 87% from the line.
He's a major reason the Leopards (5-2) have high hopes on a run at a Patriot League title after several losing seasons that have followed the program's last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2015.
Last year, as a sophomore, Jaworski was No. 2 in all of Division I in 3-point shooting out of players who hit at least 2.5 per game, going 85-of-174 (48.9%), en route to averaging 14.6 points, plus just about three assists and boards per game. Heading into play against St. Joe’s, he was within the top 50 in the country in 3-point percentage this season, though his track record suggests he’ll be rising up that leaderboard as regression sets in for many of those above him who are just off to hot starts.
Even though the NCAA pushed the 3-point arc back a foot this offseason, it doesn't seem to be bothering him in the least.
"I shot a lot of deep 3s anyways so it’s not something I really think about," he said, "but it definitely spaces the floor more. I’ve noticed that. So honestly I like the change, I was happy they did it.”
But more than just a strong outside shooter, Jaworski knows how to score in a variety of ways. Against the Hawks, he got his interior production on several backdoor cut layups, a few drives to the hoop, and even a mid-range jumper or two, including a one-handed chuck from 15 feet while being fouled that hit the backboard and dropped right through the hoop.
“He’s a bucket,” said Adam Van Zelst, who coached Jaworski in AAU going into his senior year. “I love him...he’s probably the most coachable kid I’ve ever coached.”
“That kid’s going to have a chance to play and make some money when he’s done, because of how well he moves and shoots the basketball...he’s elite, a big-time player” said an impressed St. Joe’s head coach Billy Lange, who’d spent the last six years coaching in the NBA. “What makes him really good is his fitness level.”
As a senior at Perkiomen Valley, Jaworski led the Vikings to an upset of Roman Catholic in the first round of the PIAA Class 6A state tournament. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Indeed, staying in constant motion takes a lot of work, so much that even Jaworski noted he can wear himself out at points during games. But after a quick stop on the bench for a water break, he’s back to work.
The need to be in tip-top shape set in “pretty quickly my junior year,” Jaworski said, and he looked up the best ways to stay in shape. That led to a running regimen in the offseason, as well as a habit he picked up the summer after he graduated from high school: swimming. Jaworski said he swims three days each week, year-round, whether that’s at his hometown YMCA in the offseason or in the Lafayette pool when he’s at school, getting some tips from Leopards swim coach James Dailey for some good cardiovascular workouts.
And as the clock ticks down in games, Jaworski notices when his extra preparation pays off.
“Something I look at a lot is body language,” he said, “so if I see [my opponent] hunched over, I’m like ‘alright, I’ve got them –– I’m going to keep running, keep running.’”
It’s year-round dedication to that ability to run baseline-to-baseline that has Jaworski not just playing but excelling at the Division I level after a standout career at Perkiomen Valley that almost saw coaches take too long to figure out just how good he could be.
It wasn’t until after the end of his senior season with the Vikings, after the win over Roman Catholic, after the school-record 1,514 points, after all the wins as a junior and senior, that American and Lafayette finally offered, joining a host of D-II programs who were hoping he would stay just under the radar.
“Jaws was at our camp, and we didn’t offer him coming out of camp, we didn’t offer him that fall...I’d seen Jaws, I liked him, but you’re looking ‘eh, size, blah blah blah,’ you know, and we didn’t offer him,” O’Hanlon said. “What sold me, he played Roman...when they beat Roman, I said, ‘I’ve got to have this kid.’”
Twelve days after the Leopards offered, Jaworski committed, and he hasn’t looked back.
“He’s a great friend, a great role model and inspiration about the value of hard work and the value of locking yourself in and demanding better of yourself,” Poysden said.
But when he’s playing those same Philadelphia programs who ignored him, told him he wasn’t good enough –– even though Jaworski knows Lange wasn’t coaching in college when he was playing in high school –– those memories flood back, of how long he had to wait, the other scholarship basketball and football offers he passed up on to pursue his Division I dream.
“I’m carrying that with me the rest of my life, there’s going to be a chip on my shoulder,” Jaworski said. “Every time I get in the gym, if I’m not feeling great on some days, that’s something that pushes me every day to work hard. People overlooked me, so I’m going to try to prove them wrong.”
One thing’s for sure: this Jaws isn’t sneaking up on anybody anymore.