Chereef Knox (above) has had to adjust to being part of a rebuilding program after doing nothing but winning at Imhotep. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Zach Drapkin (@ZachDrapkin)
Even 15 minutes from home, a lot has changed for Chereef Knox since starting college.
As a freshman at Saint Joseph’s, Knox has had to adjust to not just the challenges that come with living on his own for the first time, but also the drastic shift in tone from his high school basketball experience to his first year playing college basketball. It hasn’t been as simple as just moving from the Olney area to City Avenue.
Coming out of Imhotep Charter, Knox has high on-court expectations. Over his final three years at Imhotep, the Panthers went undefeated in the Public League and won three consecutive league and state titles under coach Andre Noble. Winning became almost a given.
The same can’t be said for the St. Joe’s program at the moment, however. The Hawks have gone three straight seasons without a winning record and are undergoing a transition under first-year head coach Billy Lange. That means losing more games than Knox is used to.
After a 2-1 start to the year, St. Joe’s had dropped eight straight contests in non-conference play before a win over William & Mary on Thursday night at Hagan Arena. For Knox, who lost a combined eight games in that remarkable three-year span whilst at Imhotep, it’s been a rude awakening.
“I knew it was probably going to be slow because it’s a new team, new program, everything’s new, but I did not expect it to be this slow,” Knox said. “I’m just so used to winning, it’s so hard coming here and not being on that side and having to really—I wouldn’t say we didn’t earn it at Imhotep—but having to really go out there and fight for it.”
While nobody on Hawk Hill is pleased with the rocky start to the season, the rebuilding phase of the program, amplified by injuries to certain key players, has allowed freshmen like Knox to garner plenty of minutes from the get-go and learn the college game on the fly.
Knox, who often used his 6-foot-5, 210-pound build to get inside buckets in high school, has had to adapt his game to better fit the collegiate level, and that especially includes developing his perimeter game and 3-point shot. The early reps are helping him adapt to the pace and physicality of college basketball.
“In high school, everybody’s the same height or they’re smaller so we didn’t really shoot a lot of threes,” Knox said. “In college, they shoot a ton of threes. You’ve got to be able to knock a three down or you probably can’t play.”
The adjustments have paid early dividends. Against William & Mary, Knox got his first start and played a career-high 32 minutes, scoring 10 points and shooting 2-for-4 from 3-point range. Lange joked postgame that Knox was so exhausted he “[had] IVs being poured into him.”
Luckily, Knox is in the perfect environment to build up his stamina so that those kinds of minutes become sustainable for him.
“I feel like me playing early in my career is actually going to help me better in the long run because I’m being out there, knowing the pace, knowing the game, knowing the physicality out there,” Knox said. “I’m getting used to it. It’s a huge plus to be out there as a freshman getting these minutes."
Knox is one of three freshmen who are playing 20+ minutes on a regular basis, along with fellow Philly native Rahmir Moore (RISE Prep, Ont.) and Cameron Brown (Eleanor Roosevelt, Md.). All are averaging at least six points and a couple rebounds; Knox is at 6.2 ppg and 1.9 rpg, shooting 34% from 3-point range (16-of-47), taking only 21 shots inside the arc through his first 11 games.
For Lange, it’s been a positive to have a player like Knox filling in that role during his first season at St. Joe’s. Knox was one of the Hawks’ first commits under Lange and not only helps fill out a roster that lost a lot of pieces after Phil Martelli's firing, but also plays a big role in the locker room.
“’Reef provides personality,” Lange said. “When you’re in a situation where the results might not be great, to have a guy that comes in and dances and does what he does gives you great energy. Chereef is no more important than anybody, else but his unique personality has given our team some spirit that we need.”
Knox was nearly swayed to play college basketball elsewhere, outside of Philadelphia, as he attracted offers from a number of Division I programs including Old Dominion, George Mason, and Hofstra and wanted to explore a little bit away from home. Ultimately, however, he feels like staying in his hometown and committing to St. Joe’s provided a good balance and was the right move for him.
As Knox put it, “it’s like I’m home, but I’m not.” St. Joe’s isn’t too close to his home that family is always in his hair and the West Philadelphia campus isn’t a part of the city that he had previously spent much time in. It’s been hard for him at times to cope with being on his own and having more responsibilities — and that’s part of the usual college experience being away from home. Luckily, he’s close enough to have the comfort of seeing family and friends come out to support him at games.
“Not too many people from Philly stay home,” Knox said. “It’s good to be still in the city and have people still by my side supporting me.”
It may take a while for St. Joe’s to reach the level of success Knox and the folks on Hawk Hill are accustomed to, and there’s still lots of work to be done. For both Knox and the Hawks, this year has certainly been a big adjustment, but it’s a step in the right direction. As Knox develops alongside the rest of St. Joe’s young pieces, the future of this program is looking up.
And for Knox, things are getting more and more comfortable, both on the court and on his own.
“I’m starting to get it together, starting to get the flow of the place,” he said. “I feel like it’s going to be good.”