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Jonah Charles shines in Palestra debut as Penn downs Lafayette

11/16/2021, 11:00pm EST
By Joey Piatt

Joey Piatt (@joey_piatt)

After three years with the Penn basketball program, Jonah Charles finally made his Palestra debut. The significance of the moment was not lost.

“For me, it was pretty cool,” Charles said. “It was just great to be out there with the team. You work so hard [over] the past two years...waiting for this moment. It was great to see it all come together.”

Jonah Charles (above) is second on Penn in scoring through four games (12.8 ppg). (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Charles, a 6-foot-4 junior guard and Rutgers Prep (N.J.) product, came to Penn ready to instantly take a place in coach Steve Donahue’s rotation. He comes from a basketball family, with his brother Karl Charles having played college ball at Holy Cross. 

His upbringing helped him show flashes in his freshman preseason, including a breakout performance at the team’s annual Red and Blue scrimmage. But after breaking both of his feet, Charles was forced to miss his entire freshman campaign. When he finally recovered, the coronavirus had shut down not just the Ivy League, but the entire basketball world. 

Charles has been a big part of Penn’s offensive game plan this season. He has started each of the Quakers’ first four games, and in all but one has scored double-digits. He has been the team’s most prolific 3-point shooter and has already sent fourteen through the net on the young season on 34 attempts (41.2%).

In Tuesday night’s matchup with Lafayette, Charles led the team in scoring for the first time this season, going 4-of-7 from beyond the arc en route to an 18-point performance.

If his first four games are any indication (12.8 ppg), it likely is far from the last time. 

Although Charles’ situation seems unique, it is a shared experience for the Quakers and has become a prevailing storyline in their 2021-2022 story. The team is playing live games for the first time in nearly two years, and until tonight, it hadn’t played a home game since March 2020. There’s rust that comes along with such a long gap between games, even though the Quakers’ players spent that entire time practicing and simulating that environment every way they can. 

“These kids were playing; they were going down to the Sixers facility as a team, playing pickup with European pros,” Donahue said. 

Despite Charles’ and the Quakers’ efforts to prepare, their first few games did not turn out how they expected. The team suffered two lopsided losses: a 35-point defeat at Florida State and a 21-point defeat at George Mason. Even in the team’s first victory, a narrow 73-68 contest at Bucknell, Charles struggled to find his shot, going 0-4 from beyond the arc. 

“What I probably underestimated was throwing [them] in an environment like Florida State and George Mason, too,” Donahue said. “Two good teams right out of it, that was too much for them.”

Though the start of the season was rough, Charles and his teammates have seen progress, which has helped them stay focused on continuing to get better. 

“There is some rust, but I do feel as if we’re getting better every single day,” Charles said. “It’s really cool to see how far we’ve come since Florida State last week and now here at Lafayette. It’s pretty cool to see the development and how people are starting to lock in.”

Tuesday night’s game against Lafayette felt like the culmination of months of hard work and days of reevaluating what went wrong last week. Penn jumped out to an early lead and never looked back, rolling past the Leopards 85-57. 

The Quakers’ efforts were paced by Charles, who made several deep 3-pointers that drew a reaction from the 1,700+ in attendance for the team’s home opener. Penn was also helped by a pair of younger Quakers, both of whom have stepped up to be critical parts of the team’s rotation. 

Nick Spinoso (above) had his best game yet with 12 points and six rebounds against Lafayette. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Clark Slajchert, a sophomore point guard from Thousand Oaks (Cali.), first joined the team midway through his freshman year in the spring of 2021, when he was able to practice with Penn in a limited capacity under COVID-19 guidelines. It didn’t take long for Slajchert to catch Donahue’s eye, and his strong offseason helped him to secure a spot in the Quakers’ rotation. 

So far, he’s shown flashes of the player Donahue thinks he can become. In his first game, he made all eight of his free throw attempts, something never done by a Donahue-coached player at Penn. Two games later, he scored 13 on the back of three for four shooting from beyond the arc. Against Lafayette, he had perhaps his most complete game as a Quaker, scoring 11, dishing out four assists, and running the offense with a veteran-like poise. 

“I think you saw a little bit tonight, he’s going to be a great player in this league,” Donahue said. “He’s got some confidence about him, quickness, shot-making, all three levels. He competes defensively. [He] doesn’t look the part. He’s six foot, 160, but he’s tough as nails.”

Like Slajchert, freshman big man Nick Spinoso, a 6-9 forward out of Kellenberg Memorial (N.Y.), has had an instant impact for Penn this season, averaging 5.8 ppg and 4.8 rpg through four games. Unlike Slajchert, however, Spinoso’s role was less scripted. 

“Nick’s [playing time] is probably by opportunity,” Donahue said. “We need a backup ‘5,’ and Nick has been terrific. He’s confident, skilled. We can really run our offense similar to how we’ve always done here.”

Also similar to Slajchert, Tuesday night’s contest with Lafayette was Spinoso’s most complete outing as a member of the Red and Blue. He was perfect from the floor, connecting on all five of his field goal attempts, which included two 3-pointers. He also added six rebounds to complement his 12 points. 

In college basketball, depth is a luxury. But in a competitive conference like the Ivy League, it is also a necessity. Fortunately for Donahue, players like Spinoso and Slajchert have helped him feel confident that he can find playmakers in addition to centerpieces like Charles. 

“I think I have eleven guys I’m comfortable starting,” Donahue said. “I do think we’re going to be a team that plays nine, 10, 11 guys...keeping energy high.”

Penn’s depth will play a big role in its success this weekend, when the team travels down the coast to play in the Myrtle Beach tournament, where the Quakers start with a Thursday tip-off against Utah State (1-1). 


Shorthanded Quaker women hold off D-III opponent

Unlike their male counterparts, depth is not a luxury enjoyed by Penn women’s basketball. The team’s upperclassmen were recently dealt suspensions of four games apiece. Those suspensions are to be spread out over the course of the team’s first eight contests, which included Tuesday night’s home opener against Division III foe King’s College (Pa.). Coach Mike McLaughlin opted to play all of his starters in Sunday’s season opener at Hartford. On Tuesday, however, he sat three of his starters, including leading returning scorer Kayla Padilla, starting point guard Niki Kovacikova, and veteran forward Kennedy Suttle

The team had no trouble handling the Monarchs on Tuesday, with sophomore forward Jordan Obi leading a unit made up mostly of reserves. Obi notched her first career double-double with 29 points and 12 rebounds and showed just how big of a role she’ll play this season, especially during these first eight games. 

“Jordan’s a super talented kid,” McLaughlin said. “She was going to play a huge role anyway...we’re in a position now where we don’t make excuses, we [have to] go forward. The situation is what it is at this point. We are going to be playing short players and we’re going to have to find a way to survive.” 

While some of these tests, like Tuesday’s contest, will be more manageable, others could pose a challenge. The team will face its next hurdle on Thursday when it travels to face St. Francis Brooklyn.

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