Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
In the next installment in our offseason Q&A series, Josh Verlin talked with La Salle head coach John Giannini. The Explorers had a forgettable 2015-16 campaign, but their immediate future looks much brighter thanks to the addition of a handful of transfers.
Josh Verlin (CoBL): If you had to come up with one word to describe last season:
John GIannini: Terrible.
CoBL: It seemed like fairly early on you realized what you were in for--
Giannini: I’ve apologized so much for it and it’s over, I really want to move on.
CoBL: Fair enough. Let’s talk about the three guys you had sitting out last year for transfer seasons: B.J. Johnson (Syracuse), Demetrius Henry (South Carolina) and Pookie Powell (Memphis). As the season went on, did you start integrating those guys off the scout team and in with the guys who they’d be playing with this year?
Giannini: Don’t assume anybody being integrated with anyone. We’re not basing anything we do next year on this year. Don’t assume any lineups.
CoBL: Just to start to get some familiarity with the guys.
Giannini: We never settle on starting lineups until right before the season, so they’ve played mixed-up lineups all last summer and all last fall. So they’ve played with each other and against each other plenty. There’s no integration or getting used to each other whatsoever. They played together every day for three or four months.
CoBL: After going most of 2015-16 with just a six or seven-man rotation, is it just overall depth that’s the biggest asset from a year ago?
Giannini: No, I think it’s talent, depth and experience. It’s not just more players, it’s the quality of the players. Depth means you have a lot of players, that has nothing to do with quality. It’s quality, depth and experience.
CoBL: What does that trio bring to the table?
Giannini: They’re talented. You’re talking about a guy who started at Memphis, you’re talking about a guy who started two years in the SEC and B.J. is one of the most talented players I’ve ever coached and he’s the one who didn’t get as much playing time at Syracuse, but when he did he excelled terrifically. They’re just talented players and they’re experienced and they’ve played at a high level.
CoBL: The transfers you’ve brought in have generally been successful: Ramon Galloway, Earl Pettis, etc., it’s worked out well for those guys. Has that made it easier for you to sell it to other transfers, to say, it’s worked for these guys?
Giannini: I just think we’re a great fit for transfers because we are what they’re looking for. We’ve had some great high school recruits but frankly, I think we’ve worked extremely hard and we haven’t gotten some of the kids that I think our work and our school would merit. But this story sums it up perfectly: I was recruiting one of the area’s better high school players for two years, and recruiting him really hard and we couldn’t get him to take an unofficial visit, we couldn’t get him to drive five miles down the street. Now I’m recruiting Demetrius Henry, who’s a former top-100 recruit, who starts two years in the SEC, I have one phone call with him and I ask him when he wants to visit. And he says “Coach, I know Cleon and I know Pookie from Florida I know you need a big guy, I’m coming. I don’t need to see any buildings.”
Transfers are looking for a level that they like, they’re looking for a place where we fit in, and they’re looking for relationships. And those are the things that we offer. Frankly, there’s 750 transfers every year now because a lot of high school kids just go to the biggest school that recruits them and the relationships, the fit, are often not what they’re looking at. They’re looking at facilities, they’re looking at conference, they’re looking at exposure, and that’s not what makes you happy, and that’s not what makes you successful. I think a lot of freshmen are looking for things where transfers have been at places with wonderful things. Pookie Powell played in FedEx Arena, 20,000 people, B.J. Johnson coming from the Carrier Dome. They’ve played in gigantic places, but things and places don’t make you happy, people do. And there’s no 18-year-old--very few--that aren’t going to be impressed by 20, 30-thousand-seat arenas.
But once they do that and they realize that the building isn’t as important as their role and their success and the people around them, those are the things they look at the second time around. And that’s what La Salle is, La Salle is a family-oriented, smaller school with great people and a place where you can fit in and be with people that you trust. And I think more transfers are looking for that than younger guys who are easily excited about facilities and big names. Because quite honestly, when you grow up watching basketball, you’re watching the Carrier Dome on TV, you’re watching the bigger arena on TV, and because that’s what you see that’s what you dream of.
CoBL: Do you think that’s something that you’ve learned over your 12 years here, or do you think that has to do with the changing nature of college basketball during that time?
Giannini: There’s more transfers than ever now, because I think more kids are making poor decisions, that just makes sense. The more kids that realize ‘hey, this isn’t the best place for me, maybe I should go somewhere else,’ well that number is growing every year and is at an all-time high. So clearly people are making poor decisions and the climate has changed. And that may help us, because as I said I think La Salle is a high-substance place and I think the transfers are looking for substance. I don’t think that it’s anything that I’ve learned, it’s something that is becoming more prevalent and La Salle is the kind of place that can benefit from that.
CoBL: Speaking of high school prospects, you’ve got a few coming in this fall as well. Let’s start with 6-4 guard Saul Phiri, out of Putnam Science Academy. What does he bring to the table?
Giannini: Saul is a scorer, he’s really skilled. He reminds us in terms of his body type of being in that Earl Pettis, Jordan Price, Khalif Wyatt-type mold. We obviously hope that he turns out to have that kind of college career, but that’s the kind of scoring ability and body type that we see in him.
CoBL: You also have the big man, Cian (KEE-ann) Sullivan out of St. Andrew’s in Rhode Island.
Giannini: Cian stunned me when I saw him. When you hear about a kid who’s 7-foot-1 -- and he’s 7-foot-1 with no shoes on, he could easily be listed at 7-2 or 7-3 -- when you go see a kid who’s 7-1 and who’s not highly-recruited, you expect to see someone who is really raw and getting used to the game of basketball, you expect the person to be a little bit awkward and unskilled. I go in the gym, this guy is running full speed, catching the ball, over his shoulders and laying it in. He’s using his right hand and left hand on little hooks, he’s pushing the ball up in transition on fast break, he makes some jump shots and I’m just stunned by his skill level and effort. On the other end, he’s going up against a guy who’s like a Jerrell Wright, a 6-8 really strong guy and he’s really struggling to guard this guy. And it became clear to me at that time, this guy’s a really good basketball player, he just has to get stronger. When you’re that big, your center of gravity is a little high and if you’re not really strong you can get moved around or knocked off balance and once Cian can go up against those stronger guys, the sky’s the absolute limit for him. I really think his potential is through the roof--now how long it takes him to approach that, I don’t know, but he has a great work ethic and we’re willing to give him the time to get there.
CoBL: When do those guys get to campus?
Giannini: Second summer session at end of June.
CoBL: When do you start summer practices?
Giannini: Our first ones are coming up May 23.
CoBL: This is the third or fourth year now that we’ve had these summer practices. Do you feel like you’ve found a good rhythm with them?
Giannini: No. I think that different things work for different teams. This rule came around, the first year was before the Sweet 16 year (in 2013) and we really worked hard and made it a point to out-work people in the offseason. The last few years, everyone on our team pretty much stayed the whole summer, we’ve done Navy Seal training, we’ve done a trip to Europe, so we’ve pushed our kids really hard. It really didn’t, in hindsight, it really didn’t help us the last couple of years. I know going into next year, I think we’re a pretty talented team, and I think if we’re healthy and excited in September, we can have a terrific year.
I talked to [Penn head coach] Steve Donahue and we both had the same opinion: he worked his kids really hard in the summer at Boston College, we’ve worked our kids really hard over the summer, and we both thought when the kids go home August 4th and they come back August 26th, there’s no sense of a new start or new excitement or missing your teammates or missing your coaches. And when you’re about to start an eight-month season that’s going to be really challenging, it would be nice to be excited at the beginning. So I do think you can out-work people and we’ve done some of that, but for where we are right now, if we want to do kind of what St. Joe’s did last year. If you talk to St. Joe’s, they really focused on their shooting and did a lot of individual work and not a lot of practicing. When you practice you become more critical and you make it competitive and it’s hard to do that 10 or 11 months per year.
Right now, how we play next fall and next winter is far more important to me than how we play this summer. I want our guys to have some time off this summer, I want them to miss practice, i want them to miss basketball a little bit. We’re talented enough where if we’re excited in the fall and our pre-season has a lot of energy and excitement, I think we can have a really good year. The Ivy League, and Stevie and I had this discussion, the Ivy league does not have summer practice, they don’t allow it. The Ivy League has won in the last three NCAA Tournaments. This year, if we can get a little stronger and improve their shooting, it will be a positive thing, but I’m not worried about our offense or our defense or our toughness or our turnovers or our rebounding in May, June or July. We’ll start that with a full head of steam next fall and we’re going to do things a little bit differently.
CoBL: Does it help that you have so many upperclassmen, that you feel comfortable backing off a bit?
Giannini: No, it’s motivational. I want to be excited in the fall. It’s hard to compete at a high level for nine, 10 months per year. I just want to be excited in the fall, and I can tell you right now, when you’re in the gym May, June, July and the start of August, September is nothing special. I want September to be special.
CoBL: I know you’re a long way from figuring out exact rotations, but you know with this roster, you’re going to have a lot of options. Do you enjoy that challenge, the puzzle of it?
Giannini: Listen, for a coach who finished a tremendously difficult season, it’s a wonderful problem to have a lot of good players. I’m thrilled, and listen, you always have, there’s no coach who doesn’t have things they have to figure out, and to have to figure out how you’re going to utilize a lot of good players is a wonderful thing to think about coming off last season. And we will figure it out and it’s going to be competitive and the best players will rise up. But we want to give everyone a chance and we want to try to utilize as many guys as we can. But it’s going to be competitive. But the real world is competitive, if someone wants to play basketball after college, unless you’re one of the top 5 draftees in the NBA, there’s no guarantees. If you want to be a point guard, they’re going to have four or five other guys in camp and they’re only going to keep two of you, that’s competitive. Sometimes I think I can do a better job of teaching guys how to compete. Sometimes I think we’re so loyal to kids throughout recruiting and into careers that maybe we give them every opportunity in the world but we didn’t teach them how to work for it and compete for it. The real world is awfully competitive, especially in professional basketball.”
CoBL: Last thing--you brought in Matt Brady to the staff. How far back does your relationship go with him and what does he add?
Giannini: Matt and I worked basketball camps together in 1991 or 1992 at Rowan. You’re talking about a coach who got James Madison to the NCAA Tournament, he also had consistent success, he had five of eight years 19 wins or more, and four out of eight years 20 wins or more, so you’re talking about a proven head coach. The last year he was an assistant coach, he was an assistant for the No. 1 team in the country. If you look at the St. Joe’s and Marist players who’ve made it to the NBA, they did it through developing and getting better. If you talk to any of those players, they will give an awful lot of credit to Matt Brady. Whether you’re talking about recruiting at an elite level as an assistant and identifying the right guys or talking about player development or talking about a guy who is a proven head coach, Matt Brady checks all of those boxes. I’m still pinching myself that he was available.
And what makes it even better is we’ve been friends for almost 25 years and now that we’re together every day, we’re shocked at how much we have in common. We both like Wendy’s, we both never let our assistants pay for anything, we both come and go out of the office and we’re not big on being locked to a certain schedule. We both are always looking at two or three sides of an argument and trying to be thorough but at the same time it seems like we confuse ourselves because we look at it every possible way. So we’re finding out that we’re really, really similar in a lot of ways that we didn’t even expect. Oh and we never have cash with us, either, our wives don’t let us carry cash. Neither of us have an ATM card, we’re obviously not trusted.
CoBL: What’s the Wendy’s order?
Giannini: We both get chicken and we both like it spicy--but he’s in better shape than me, so he gets the fried stuff, and I get the grilled stuff.