The nation’s most promising backcourt has a chance to overthrow the Big East’s power structure.
Point guard Shamorie Ponds will return to St. John’s for his junior season and he’ll be joined by junior transfer Mustapha Heron from Auburn. Heron’s decision, although under unfortunate circumstances (his mother is ill), is the best thing that could have happened to the Red Storm.
Sure, assuming Heron’s hardship waiver makes him immediately eligible to play, the team will gain the skillset of an NBA prospect and All-SEC Second Team awardee, but the best facet of Heron’s arrival is how his game will complement Ponds’ so nicely. Not to mention, the two already have experience and impressive track records.
Ponds’s accolades: the St. John’s freshman and sophomore scoring record holder, a former Big East All-Freshman selection, the reigning Big East scoring champion, and the architect behind the greatest stretch of four days in college hoops history. And Heron’s: a former five-star recruit (the first in Auburn’s signing history), a second-team All-SEC selection, a 1,000-point scorer after just two seasons, and the man who took Auburn to the tournament for the first time in 15 years. The very thought of their combination is probably causing Big East foes to shudder right this instant.
The Ponds-Heron duo will be positive not only for the two stars, but for the Johnnies as a program.
Why This Backcourt Will Work
Upon first impression, it may not seem that 6-foot-5, 220-pound Heron has much in common with 6-foot-1, 175-pound Ponds. But the guards have more in common than meets the eye, and it’s going to make the Red Storm a better team all around.
It would be easy to think that Heron and Ponds won’t work well together because they aren’t used to sharing. Heron had a 26% usage rate last season, and Ponds had the 18th-highest mark in the nation at 32%. However, this should play to their advantage. With two quality players to contend with, defenses won’t be able to apply as much pressure to one individual, giving the players space to set each other up and to take better shots. A little less responsibility will most likely improve the pair’s long-range game, something neither Ponds (25%) nor Heron (33%) particularly excelled at last year. With the ability to fall back on each other on bad nights, both players can sharpen their shot selection and cash in opportunities more often, using their aggressive scoring mentalities.
Aside from their past experiences as go-to players on the court, Ponds and Heron share another important quality: the ability to get to the line frequently and capitalize. Ponds drew an average of 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes, and Heron averaged 5.8. Both ranked in the top 150 in getting to the line in 2017-2018. Oftentimes, those fouls were on the shot, and Ponds attempted almost six free throws per game while Heron took roughly five-and-a-half. Good players get to the free throw line often, like this pair did last season. Great players make their shots. Both players made the most of their many trips to the charity stripe, each shooting over 80%. This shared trait will be important for the Red Storm in late-game situations. Having multiple players who can confidently take it to the rim and make free throws is a huge advantage, especially in college hoops where free throw shooting is often sub-par. They will demand attention late in games, which will not only create more chances at free throws but also more open opportunities for their teammates.
The similarities mentioned above make Ponds and Heron a great duo already, but it’s their differences that make them a better pair than most. Aside from the glaring size disparity, Ponds and Heron have distinct styles of play. While Ponds is a do-it-all true point guard with major scoring capability, Heron is a more traditional shooting guard who takes his shots and can rock the rim when he wants to. While Ponds has explosiveness and quickness, Heron has more power and should use it to help clear space for Ponds.
Just to put Heron’s power in perspective, check out this dunk from when he was in high school:
The players’ different strengths will allow them to thrive. With Ponds’s passing expertise and finishing ability, defenses will naturally gravitate toward him, leaving Heron with open looks and plenty of space to put up good shots. Heron’s length and power, as well as his mid-range game, will also draw attention. That will leave Ponds with more room to create by both passing and getting to the hoop. Ponds also has a great mid-range game and devastating pull-up and step-back jumpers that will come in handy when Heron is being guarded tightly.
The most important part of that highlight reel is this: Ponds is the focus of every team. He’s the driving force of the Red Storm offense. Without him, nothing goes.
Now, add Heron and you don’t stand a chance. Ponds was doing amazing things without any help, as the video above shows. Imagine what he’ll be able to do with another player of his caliber? Averaging 4.7 assists per game last year with an assist rate close to 30%, it seems inevitable for those numbers to rise, and you better bet half of his assists are going to Heron.
The Red Storm offense will kick things up a notch with Heron in the lineup, and the defense will get a boost too. He brings a 2.3% steal rate to the table, adding to the active hands of Ponds (3.6%) and Justin Simon (3.9%). As one of the nation’s best defenders, Simon will serve as a key third piece for the Johnnies’ backcourt. With so much talent on both sides of the ball, it would make sense to use a three-guard lineup. The length of Simon and Heron at 6-foot-5 each will be enough of a stopper, before Ponds’ quickness and anticipation are even factored into the equation. This is going to be one exciting team to watch thanks to Heron’s presence.
What Heron Means For The Team And The Program
If Heron’s hardship waiver clears (which it should), the short-term implications for the team are clear. The Johnnies will be set up for a great season in the Big East and most likely an NCAA tournament berth if they play to their potential. It may seem dramatic to say Heron’s presence will bring a fairly bad team to the big dance, but he’s the one player that this team needs to thrive.
The opportunity St. John’s has here also has implications for the future. Heron and Ponds are both looking to make the most of their junior seasons before heading to the NBA, so they have a stake in the success of the team. Have a good year, and the Red Storm could see their recruiting improve. The Big East draws major talent, and if Heron and Ponds can establish their squad in the conference, that would go a long way for the program.
The bottom line is that Ponds, who has the ability to drop 40 points every night, and Heron, who can do the same, are set up for an exciting season. As teammates, they will cause nightmares for their opponents while amplifying their other teammates’ abilities. Keep an eye out for the Johnnies in the Big East this year because they just might have the best backcourt in college basketball.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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