After a brief hiatus, I am returning to provide original content for all levels of basketball. In this first matchup, a more experienced St. Thomas Aquinas team took advantage of the new-look Red Storm in the exhibition opener. Several standouts emerged on both sides, and it will be interesting to track how these players develop as we move through the non-conference season.
St. John's Player Notes
Christian Jones - While Jones played a very minor part in the Red Storm's success last season, he is likely going to be asked to take on a much bigger role this year, particularly in light of St. John's mass exodus (with Chris Obekpa transferring and Rysheed Jordan choosing to play professional basketball). Although I believe the expectation coming in was that he would be more of a locker room presence than a go-to option, Jones proved to be St. John's more reliable weapon in this contest. Throughout this game, Jones was the most active Johnnie getting in the lane and finishing through contact. He was an aggressive presence on the boards and created numerous second chance opportunities. Jones is thriving in his role as an energy player and has the requisite athleticism - despite being slightly undersized at 6'7 - to impact the game on both ends of the floor. On the defensive end, Jones was disruptive in passing lanes, forcing difficult shots for St. Thomas Aquinas big men and displaying active hands. He is a strong leaper and shot blocker as well. Overall, look for Jones to play a more prominent role this season as a seasoned returnee.
Federico Mussini - Mussini is arguably the most talented player on this St. John's team, with maybe the exception of Marcus LoVett, who the NCAA recently ruled as ineligible to play this season (LINK). Mussini is a quick lead guard with a nice handle and the stop-and-go moves to penetrate in the lane and create for his teammates. With that said, Mussini clearly has not adjusted to the college basketball learning curve just yet (to be expected for the freshman), as he forced numerous outside shots early in the shot clock in this one, over-dribbled and appeared out-of-control forcing the ball in transition with no numbers, and generally struggled with the pesky defense of highly improved James Mitchell. With that said, Mussini can get his own shot, though, and already has the requisite perimeter jumper to keep defenses honest. On the defensive end of the floor, Mussini is still very much a work in progress, and needs to work harder on-ball to contain penetration.
Malik Ellison - The son of basketball royalty (Pervis Ellison), Malik is very much an up-in-coming player in his own right. Standing at a sturdy 6'6, Malik has the requisite size, length, and athleticism to play at a higher level of basketball. In this contest, he demonstrated his unique floor vision and his ability to create for teammates off the dribble. Malik possesses a strong handle and his ability to penetrate and kick will be extremely important for the Red Storm this year. Like Mussini, he often over-dribbled at times, but also showed strong flashes attacking the basket. In addition, Ellison also possesses an effective jump shot and can score in a variety of ways. In contrast to Mussini's performance early in the game, Malik did a nice job picking his spots shooting the ball. Defensively, Ellison has the length to be effective in the Big East this season. All in all, it will be interesting to track Malik's learning curve and see how Malik's ball skills improve over the course of the year. I strongly believe that he is a future NBA prospect.
St. Thomas Aquinas Player Notes
Justin Reyes - The much improved Reyes dominated St. John's front line in the second half, taking his man off the dribble and converting at the rim. He also was able to collect rebounds despite his diminutive size (at 6'4) in comparison to St. John's bigs Darien Williams (6'8) and Yankuba Sima (6'11). Reyes appeared to be everywhere on the court at once, and was particularly effective on the defensive glass, where he boxed out the opposition and collected 10 boards. While he mostly opted for higher percentage shots around the basket, where he was able to use his physicality to score against the youthful St. John's bigs employing an old man's game, Reyes appears to have a decent (albeit slow) perimeter stroke. Reyes will play a vital role for his team this year as a much improved enforcer inside. Despite his strong hands, Reyes is a bit of a mixed bag defensively and is a bit slow laterally.
James Mitchell - Stepping into the role of lead guard following Marcus Henderson's departure, the diminutive, 5'9 Mitchell appeared to be the most improved player on this squad. Mitchell was electric in his debut against St. John's, running the Spartan offense to perfection and really getting progressively more comfortable with the ball in his hands as the game wore on. While he initially connected on some questionable perimeter jumpers, his shot selection improved considerably by the end of the game. He ultimately was orchestrating the offense and facilitating for just about everyone on the floor. While many of his passes were not finished due to strong contests at the rim, Mitchell put his big men in a position to score many times. He is adept in the pick and roll, and is not shy from the perimeter when the ball is kicked out. Mitchell should be able to keep defenses honest as the season progresses. On the defensive end, Mitchell was a pest, fighting through screens, contesting out of bounds plays, and generally wreaking havoc to the tune of four steals. The Mitchell/Watler backcourt will be a defensive force to be reckoned with once Division II play begins.
Aaron Cust - Cust is an explosive, 6'1 guard who can get to the basket in a hurry and finish with the best of them. He was particularly effective early on against the Red Storm and did a nice job completing plays. Cust is a willing passer when attacking the basket, and is more than capable of serving as a point guard. While he doesn't have the prettiest jumper, Cust was able to connect from deep on one occasion.
Jonathan Lawton - This outstanding freshman also left his mark on the game driving to the rim and finishing from the perimeter on kick out plays. Lawton is a serious perimeter shooting threat. While still assimilating with teammates, it is clear that he will be in for a much bigger role as the season progresses.
Image Sources: Newsday.com and stacathletics.com