Perhaps no team in college basketball is associated with the word talent like St. John’s. If you don’t believe me, check out these comments from national writers over the past week:
St. John’s: Many still believe this group has the most natural basketball talent of any team in the Big East. – Matt Norlander
Georgetown pounding St. John’s, 61-32. Steve Lavin has a ton of talent, but you know who he misses? Mike Dunlap. – Jeff Goodman
The Red Storm have too much talent to be suffering embarrassing setbacks like a neutral court loss to Penn State and a 17-point thrashing at Georgetown on Saturday. – Seth Davis
St. John’s may have the most talent in the Big East, but that doesn’t mean it will be able to win in the Big East. – Jon Rothstein
The association of St. John’s with talent is interesting because St. John’s is not particularly good at playing basketball, at least when you judge them on whether they could make the NCAA tournament, let alone win a game or two once there. They’re currently ranked 73rd in my ratings. In Big East terms, it’s the type of team that will be competitive with the best teams at home, as they were earlier in the season with Syracuse and possibly Saturday when they host Villanova. But it’s also going to struggle to pick up road victories.
While national writers don’t agree on much, they agree that St. John’s has a lot of talent. How did this come to be? Well, I thought maybe talent is just a code word for athleticism. That would explain why a team that is maybe the sixth or seventh-best team in a ten-team league could be considered its most talented. Being athletic can be very helpful in playing basketball well, but there’s clearly more to being talented in the sport than that. Besides, if that’s what is meant, why not say it that way?
Maybe people really mean potential talent. After all, St. John’s had the third-ranked recruiting class in the country in 2011. (Though the best player from that class, Moe Harkless, is currently playing for the Orlando Magic.) I took a look at the top Big East teams and how many highly-rated recruits were on each roster. (Data from verbalcommits.com.) In addition I pulled NBA draft projections from DraftExpress.
Recruit Rank Draft T25 T50 T100 R1 R2 Villanova 0 2 6 0 0 Creighton 0 0 0 1 0 Georgetown 1 2 6 0 1 Xavier 0 1 2 1 0 Marquette 0 3 5 0 0 St John's 1 3 6 0 2
If you base talent on recruiting rankings, the Red Storm compares favorably to the top of the Big East, though it’s not obvious they are the best by this standard. Their highest-ranked recruit, Rysheed Jordan, was exactly 25th, so you can’t say they have anyone on the roster you’d have classified as a can’t-miss prospect. And they currently don’t have a player projected as a first-round pick, although it’s certainly possible that either Chris Obekpa or JaKarr Sampson will be one eventually.
But if you were evaluating the current state of a team’s talent, you wouldn’t want to use recruiting rankings. Those are basically guesses, though often useful ones, at how a player will perform in college. Doug McDermott was not rated in the top 100 and he’s the consensus best player in the Big East. I’m not sure if people would say he’s talented, but I think by any definition he is. I have to think he’s the most talented player in the Big East. Creighton doesn’t have any top 100 players, but I hope people wouldn’t say they’re the least-talented team in the Big East. (For what it’s worth, Gary Parrish’s CBSSports.com’s top-100 player ranking issued before the season featured just one St. John’s player, the 85th-ranked Sampson, which figures to be a more relevant indicator of the team’s current talent level.)
McDermott may rarely dunk, but among his many talents is making shots. And this is an important skill to have in the game of basketball. It seems like people exclude this skill from their consideration when identifying talent. Yet, clearly making shots requires talent. Not everyone can put the ball in the basket with the frequency of McDermott, especially given the defenses he faces. JaKarr Sampson can work and work and work, and I don’t think he will ever be the shotmaker that McDermott is, just as McDermott can work and work and work, but he will never block as many shots as Sampson does.
And that’s the problem with describing St. John’s as being talented. Its players are not very good at making shots, ranking 168th in 3P%, 196th in 2P% and 200th in FT%. You might say they lack talent in that area. Sure, you can blame some of it on their system. They definitely have a curious obsession with taking mid-range shots. And whenever one of the quotes above appears in pixels, it’s an open invitation to criticize Steve Lavin’s coaching ability. I’ll leave the coaching evaluation to others, but I doubt this group of players in the hands of John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski would be a Big East contender, either.
St. John’s probably has the best shot at sending multiple players from its roster to the NBA, and in terms of recruiting rankings it has the most recognizable names. Its players may be able to win some sort of Big East vertical leaping contest. But in terms of the kind of skills it takes to consistently win college basketball games against quality opponents, we’ve seen a lot from the Red Storm over the past season and a half, and they don’t appear to be well-stocked in the kind of talent it takes to do that.