Quietly hidden among this young gem of a season that's been dubbed "The Year of the Freshmen" has been the performance of Brooklyn native and St. John's freshman floor general Shamorie Ponds.
Kentucky's Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox, North Carolina State's Dennis Smith, Jr., Kansas' Josh Jackson, UCLA's TJ Leaf and Lonzo Ball and Washington's Markelle Fultz, among others, have headlined a class that has dazed and amazed during the 2016 portion of the season.
But low-key, Ponds has proven to be on par with his more celebrated classmates. In last night's 76-73 upset of No. 13 Butler, he finished with 26 points, including four made free throws in the final 9.1 seconds to secure the win.
In the Red Strom's previous game, a shocking 93-60 smack-down of Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, the crafty lefty product out of Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York had 21 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four steals, one block and no turnovers.
For the second time this year, he's been named the Big East Freshman of the Week and is among the top first-year scorers in the country.
Scouting Ponds on the high school level, I was struck by how smooth and poised he was, with a scoring arsenal that was incredibly advanced for a small, young point guard. Watching him scrimmage against his more celebrated cohorts with bigger national reputations at the closed-door practices for the 2015 Elite 24 game, his flair, boogie, shiftiness, floor generalship, vision, mid-range and attack-the-paint game conjured up images of Nick Van Exel and the current Boston Celtics' little big man Isaiah Thomas.
Ponds plays with an aggressiveness that is embedded in the psyche of a New York City point guard. It is enhanced by his control and speed when operating in the open floor. But he's not a chucker simply looking to get buckets. His drive and dish repertoire is superb.
While some thought his lack of size at the next level might be a liability, I had no such concerns because of his ability to create space, which he accomplishes through the intelligent way that he changes speeds, takes advantage of angles, utilizes head and pump-fakes and the slick handles he employs to keep his defenders wobbly.
He has a very sweet touch on his jumper and can finish through contact, up close, at difficult angles. I was also impressed with his anticipation and commitment on the defensive side of the ball. One thing you can't teach at the college level is instincts, and Ponds has them in abundance.
Over the first 14 games of his St. John's career, he is averaging 18 points, six rebounds and four assists per outing. While the other elite freshman have been getting all the headlines and national television appearances, Ponds been toiling in relative obscurity as the key piece to head coach and NBA Hall of Famer Chris Mullin's reclamation project at his alma mater.
Last year, Mullin's first as head coach, the Red Storm had one of the worst seasons in program history, finishing 8-24 overall. They only won a single game in Big East Conference play. The lowest points came during a 16-game losing streak and in losing at home to Incarnate Word and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
A late November loss this year to Delaware State and falling to LIU-Brooklyn on December 11th had some program supporters grumbling, but Mullin's crew seems to have turned the corner thanks to the play of Ponds and his fellow freshman in the backcourt, Marcus LoVett. Mullin has also been getting some excellent guard play from 6-foot-7 junior Bashir Ahmed and Frederico Mussini, a native of Italy.
Mullin inherited a bare cupboard on Utopia Parkway following the graduations of D’Angelo Harrison, Phil Greene IV, Sir’Domenic Pointer and Jamal Branch, and the departures of Rysheed Jordan and Chris Obekpa. The St. John's legend was forced to assemble a roster quickly that was void of experience and elite talent.
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The tough stretch early on was to be expected, but new expectations are rising. With the program making inroads on the recruiting trail, this year's rebuilding phase should give way to a St. John's resurgence next year. Mullin is staking his future on keeping the New York area talent close to him, like his former coach Lou Carnesecca did in establishing the program as one of the nation's elite in the mid-'80s.
And leading that charge will be Ponds - the slick, crafty lefty from Brooklyn. Check him out when you get a chance. And if Mullin can get some elite big men to sign on for next year, he and Ponds will have St. John's on track for a college hoops resurgence that New York City has been dying for.