is averaging 24 points a game in his last five outings. (Nati Harnik/AP)
ROSEMONT, Ill. – A little more than eight minutes into things late Monday afternoon, Semaj Christon bounced the ball to the Allstate Arena floor somewhat casually near the top of the key. Xavier’s eruptive sophomore guard dribbled, then dribbled some more, entrancing anyone watching, including a DePaul defender. Then, in a hair-trigger spasm, his right shoulder twitched back.
And then he was gone.
Gone forward and knifing into the empty space in the lane, halfway to the rim before the Blue Demons’ Cleveland Melvin – a very athletic defender – realized Christon no longer occupied the spot he’d occupied a half-blink earlier. It was a first step propulsive enough to be monitored by mission control. An uncontested layup followed. Getting to know the most inconspicuous star in the Big East involves no small amount of surprise, assuming you can see him in the first place.
“I’ve always been pretty quick with the ball,” Christon said after an 84-74 win, leaning up against a wall outside the visitors’ locker room and grinning.
Another 27 points Monday made an average of 24 points during the sophomore’s last five games and at least made the discussion about the Big East’s premier player more interesting than presumed. It did not help Christon’s cause that Creighton had a thermonuclear shooting night at Villanova just a couple hours later, Doug McDermott included. A national player of the year candidate – let alone the favorite for the Big East’s local version of the award – co-starred in an atomizing of the No. 4 team in the country.
So, truthfully, it will require all kinds of conspiring circumstances to keep McDermott’s mitts off the top individual honors in the conference. But that doesn’t preclude room for another set of hands. Especially if Christon continues his torrid pace in Big East play, in which he’s averaging 21.7 points while shooting a preposterous 63.5 percent from the floor. And mostly especially if the Musketeers push for a league title, too, with their only league loss arriving at Creighton on Jan. 12 with the rematch set for March 1. Two games against Villanova loom as well. Christon merits a spot in the conversation already, and matching if not surpassing McDermott would be accomplishment enough.
"Anytime you can lead your team to a conference championship, that to me is every bit as important as how many points you get or how many assists you have," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "That part needs to be played out. We lost a tough one at Creighton. McDermott was phenomenal. But we have a lot of important games to go. So we’ll let the race play out and see how that conversation turns up later on.”
Christon only now creeps into consciousness, because in the most observable ways before Big East games, his sophomore season looked a lot like his first: 15.2 points per game last year, 16.3 per game this year overall. He was the Atlantic-10 freshman of the year, though, before his program migrated to a new home. So there was official testimony to his capability.
But he mostly lingered a couple rungs above anonymity. First because, while the Atlantic-10 was demanding enough, it was not the country’s premier basketball showcase. And now because he’d slid into a league with other names prescribed for the marquee before anyone played a game. Which was nothing new. “I’ve always gotten overlooked, so it is what it is,” Christon said. “That’s the reason I play so hard when I get out there. I really don’t smile too much or talk a lot, to anybody but my teammates. That’s why I do the things I do.”
But Christon is better, and not just because of the turbocharged scoring lately. As he has done with every other discussion on the topic, Mack started talking about Christon’s improvements by citing his defense, his enhanced awareness of the team concept and the other side’s offensive actions. It complements an inherent willingness to guard top scorers individually; the unofficial tally had Christon’s man scoring just one basket in the first half Monday as Xavier built an 18-point cushion.
“We have to be careful putting so much on them defensively that we wear them down on the other end, because we ask a lot of them,” Mack said of Christon and backcourt mate Dee Davis.
A slew of run-outs and shooting 9-of-12 on Monday – Christon didn’t record one bucket outside of point-blank range, really – underscored his ability to eviscerate defenses with the bounce and with deft, incisive movement off the ball. (Not unlike another prolific Big East scorer we know.) Part of Christon’s self-assessment regarding the differences from this year to last is the pure strength that enables him to finish at the rim in traffic instead of being bumped off-course. Christon shoots 46.2 percent from long range and will “take them if you really dare him,” per Mack, but only 26 of his 207 total attempts are from beyond the arc.
Mostly, Christon sees improvement where he hears improvement. He attended LeBron James’ camp last summer and his primary takeaway had little to do with what James did and more with what the Heat star said. Christon saw how James directed people on the floor and immediately decided to emulate it after keeping his thoughts mostly to himself as a sheepish freshman.
“Hearing LeBron talk, how he coaches players – he gets them to do whatever on the court,” Christon said. “He just controlled the court. His team, they all listened to him. Last year, for me, I was the young guy, I really wouldn’t say anything. This year, I’m a sophomore, we got some young guys. I can lead them and tell them the right things to do.”
Likewise, the Cavaliers practiced at Xavier before the 2013-14 season, with Christon enjoying a first-hand look at next-level communication. And there he was Monday, under duress from DePaul’s second-half pressure, looking for teammate Brandon Randolph but instead passing to an empty space where he expected Randolph to be.
Thus came the Christon correction, emphatic if not obnoxious: Hey, hey, Christon barked at Randolph, gesturing up court. Go that way, not this way.
“We’ve been on him,” Mack said. “Great players communicate. They tell their teammates what they see. They give them confidence. If you want to be a great point guard, you can’t be a mute.”
There’s little else Xavier can ask of Christon, although the sophomore recorded zero field goals in the final 12-plus minutes Monday even as DePaul threatened to eradicate that massive Musketeers advantage. Christon had the ball in his hands against the press and then more in half-court sets. He was aggressive in spots, just without a consistent finish. It was a nit to pick. It also was a double-digit Xavier win anyway.
Pile up more of those, pile up one well-rounded night after another, and McDermott’s solo orbit as the Big East’s premier talent may get more crowded. No one can sanely argue at this point that the league’s best-player honor is widely up for grabs. But Semaj Christon, launching himself front and center by late January, has an opportunity to make a case for a share.