Kitt Najee Walls (above) will take on a leading role for East Stroudsburg this season as a junior. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
Jeff Wilson’s program is in unfamiliar territory.
Following a stretch of three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, the Warriors have missed out on the national postseason tournament in their last three seasons. After back-to-back losses in the PSAC semifinals in 2014-15 and 2015-16, Wilson’s team had its season end with an 85-71 loss to Shippensburg in the quarterfinals last season.
East Stroudsburg has won 19, 21 and 18 games, respectively, in its past three campaigns. The Warriors are hoping this season they can find their way back to the NCAAs.
They will have to do so without their top two scorers from last year, Rasheed Moore (18.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and Quindell Brice (11.1 ppg). Good news for East Stroudsburg is that 6-7 forward Steve Harris is back for an extra year. Harris was averaging 12.4 ppg and 10.4 rpg before losing his season to an injury.
Along with Harris, East Stroudsburg returns three other seniors. Ryan Krawczeniuk scored 9.8 ppg in about 20 minutes per game last season, while Montrel Morgan and Ralik Wise are poised for expanded roles in their finals seasons.
Wilson is looking for junior guard Kitt Najee Walls to step up and lead the team as a co-captain with Harris. Walls, a La Salle College HS grad, averaged 9.8 ppg and 4.0 apg as a sophomore.
With the fast-paced, full-court press style Wilson likes to play, the Warriors will also have to have several youngsters play key roles.
Here are the (copy-edited) highlights of our conversation with Wilson:
City of Basketball Love: What sort of senior class did you graduate?
Jeff Wilson: We graduate two. Rasheed Moore, who was a first team all-conference player. He’s actually the first player in school history to be a four-time all-league player. He’s actually playing in Germany right now. And we lost Quindell Brice who started for us last year. They were both our captains last year as well. Quindell averaged somewhere around 11 per game, so we actually lost our top two leading scorers from last year’s team.
CoBL: And you get Steve Harris back?
JW: Steve Harris did get another year back. He got a fifth year due to the fact that he got hurt last year and only played five games, so the NCAA granted him a fifth year. We need to keep him healthy. He got hurt again early in the summer. He’s limited right now. He has not done very much with us. He’s a question mark, but he’s going to be a big piece for us if we can get him healthy. That’s a big thing for us. Obviously, he gives us a lot of experience. Last year, before he got hurt, he was averaging a double-double. He has a good mix power in the low post, very good athleticism. Good shooter from about 15-16 feet. He adds a lot to our team, but again we have to get him healthy and keep him healthy for the rest of the year.
CoBL: Kitt Najee Walls is a Philly guy, Catholic League guy from La Salle. He had a pretty decent year for you guys last year. Can he possibly have a breakout year?
JW: He’s been very solid his first two years. Year one as a freshman, he led the league in assists. Last year, he had a good year, very similar to the year before, his assist went down a little bit. We talked a lot, all of us, about how do we get him to take the next step? And some of that is just our wing play needed to improve. We brought in a couple guys we really like, a couple younger kids in the program, we hope their better. We didn’t get a lot of easy shots in transition last year, which I think took his assist to turnover ration down a little bit. Najee’s been very solid for us, a two-year starter.
He has taken on more of a leadership role, so when you start talking about can he have a breakout year? We’re hoping so. He’s going to be one of our co-captains with Steve Harris. I think he had a very good summer. His body’s gotten better. He’s playing really confident right now from what the guys are saying in workouts. He’s been really good. He’s been a leader. I think he’s poised being able to take on that leadership role and being able to have even more of an impact for us than he’s had in the past.
CoBL: Which of the younger guys will really see an addition in playing time because you lost two guys that took up most of your minutes last year?
JW: On the wing, we have a lot of young guys who are capable. It’s going to be really interesting from a competitive standpoint who takes that role on. Some guys that are back from last year, Montrel Morgan from York High School. He was hurt a lot of last year, then he had mono, an ankle injury, hip injury, so he was limited in his ability to play for us last year, but he did a good job learning, changed his body completely over the summer, looks like a totally different person, and he’s in tremendous shape right now. As long as we can keep him healthy. We know last year he had the ability to get on the floor for us in stretches, but it was short stretches because of injury. So we’re excited about Montrel.
NIck Giordano didn’t shoot the ball great last year. He shot the ball very well as a freshman. Nick had a very good summer from all reports in the Philadelphia area. He’s another guy that’s local down there, local ties, Marple Newtown. And we need him to shoot the ball like he did as a freshman. He shot 40 percent from 3-point range as a freshman. Last year, he was down to like 34. And that’s a big difference for Nick. First and foremost, he’s a shooter and was a little bit up-and-down last year, which I don’t think is Nick. I think Nick is going to have a very good year for us shooting the basketball.
And then Kobi Nwandu, he’s going to be a little bit of a hybrid guy for us. He’s from Northeastern York, about 6-5, 6-6. He’s really athletic. We’re going to play him a little bit at the wing and a little bit at the undersized forward. He can be a mismatch I think in both spots. Athletically at the wing spot because of his length and size. Excited about what he’s doing there. His skill level, with the summer working on his skill level, he’s become a little bit more skilled. And then inside, he’s really quick with guard skills. Not your traditional back to the basket guy or anything like that, but playing four, he’s going to have the opportunity to take guys off the bounce and be a tough mismatch for some guys on the perimeter from the big spot.
Two local guys who can come in as freshmen and make an impact. Marc Rodriguez from Father Judge. Marc’s been very impressive. He’s an attention to detail guy. In the workouts, he’s shooting the ball as well as anyone right now. I’m excited about Marc. We were excited about him when we got him in recruiting. And then Mike Millsip from Neumann-Goretti. He’s played [the] '4', he’s played '3' a little bit like Kobi Nwandu in the past. Physically, he did a really good job this summer getting in great shape. He’s got a little bit of a hand thing now, but we know he’s going to be back. So I think all of those guys are going to be in the mix to play minutes.
And then another guy who’s kind of a hybrid the other way is Jakwan Jones from Imhotep. Jakwan is a redshirt junior for us. He plays one, he’s going to play some two. Really in good shape right now, can guard the basketball. Obviously being a point guard he gives us more skill at that wing position being able to pass the ball. Two things that Jakwan can give us is he’s probably one of if not our best ball defenders. It should help us defensively and we need to be better there than we were a year ago. And offensively, being able to handle the ball, pass the ball a little bit better than we did a year ago. We’re going to experiment with two point guards on the floor at the same time. When you start throwing all those names out there, there’s a lot of guys who are capable and I’m excited to see what happens when we start competing.
CoBL: What do you see going into this season as the strength of your team this year?
JW: Probably depth. We’re going to be a little bit inexperienced in spots. When I started throwing those guys out, with the exception of Jakwan everybody was a freshman or sophomore there. At the wing spots Jakwan and Najee are both juniors, so all those guys are going to have this year and multiple years to come. But we do have a lot of guys that we like. Competitively, I think guys right now in the program know that they’re going to be fighting for minutes. I think that’s going to make us better. I like our depth. We play like to play fast. We run a press. I’m trying to play 40 minutes as fast as we can. We’re going to need 10 guys, so our depth’s going to need to play. Right now, I like where our depth can be if we can get there and then we have some experience inside.
We talked about Steve Harris. Chris Bing started when Steve went down last year, he’s from Central in Philadelphia. Chris had a good year for us last year. He’s in much better running shape than he was a year ago. He’s lost some weight. He’s moving much better than he did a year ago. We think those two guys, there could be some times where we put both of them on the floor together, they’re both 6-8, they can complement each other a little bit. We have a lot of ways we can go. It’s just going to come down to who’s going to earn the minutes and that type of thing is. When you ask what the strength of our team is, it can be a lot of things, but depth comes to mind for me because of the way we play.
CoBL: You mentioned the inexperience. How long does it take for those guys to kind of figure it out? At what point in the season are you looking for everybody to be up to speed?
JW: As a coach, you’re hoping right away. Obviously, that probably won’t happen, but for us the biggest thing is if we can continue to work like we’re working right now, we’re doing morning workouts, the guys are in the weight room working hard, condition hard, and I like our team chemistry so far. It’s going to be a process. Every year is. The biggest thing is, we talked out a couple guys having to stay healthy or get healthy, that’s going to be a huge component for us that will accelerate our growth. We’ve had teams where the young guys have really helped us and given us enthusiasm and some of our better teams have been young. It’s just determined by what the chemistry is going to end up being, how they come together. If we start adding some success, sometimes it can snowball.