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St. John’s point guard Shamorie Ponds has the sixth sense. The 6'1" point guard possesses the inscrutable a priori understanding of basketball that bends three-dimensional space into dazzling drives and glorious jump-passes. Ponds, currently No. 49 on SI’s latest NBA draft big board, is primarily described as “creative” or “crafty”. But away from the evaluations, a term like artistry comes to mind—his game flows. It manifests itself in lightning-quick motion, ambitious passes and impressive shotmaking.
“Since I was young, I’ve been a great passer and seen the floor well,” Ponds says. “And my teammates, I pass to them and they knock it down, so it makes me look good.”
St. John’s will need every bit of his vision in its First Four matchup against Arizona State. The Red Storm started the season 14–1 but struggled of late, losing four of their last five and limping into Dayton after a 29-point loss to Marquette in Madison Square Garden. Ponds has struggled as well, shooting 42% from the field in the last five games, down from his average of 45.5%. His 175-pound frame limits his defensive abilities, and St. John’s as a whole has struggled this year on that side of the ball (111th on kenpom). But the Red Storm still found their way into the field of 68 and on Wednesday night will have a chance at their first NCAA tournament win since 2000.
The storied program has seen an extended downturn since the program’s heyday of the 1980s and 1990s, including the 1985 Final Four team led on the floor by current head coach Chris Mullin. After coach Steve Lavin was let go in 2015, the program faced another extended rebuild. The turnaround wasn’t instant, but when Ponds, the No. 42 recruit in the country, chose to stay in the city where he grew up and play for St. John’s, the Red Storm found their foundation.
“He’s got a lot of God-given instincts and ability, but he works hard at his game,” Mullin said. “I was always told good players do for themselves and great ones do for others. He’s making players around him better.”
Ponds put St. John’s on the map in 2018 when he led the Red Storm to an upset win over Duke, dropping 33 points and upstaging Grayson Allen along the way. Ponds tested the NBA waters after his sophomore season but decided to come back to school.
“I took all the advice ... improving efficiency, being a better playmaker, and tried to use it,” Ponds said.
The 2018–19 season has seen Ponds take another step forward in offensive efficiency. His effective field goal percentage has risen from 46.4% in 2018 to 52.2% this year, and his three-point shooting has jumped from 25.1% to 35.5%. The Red Storm also bolstered by the addition of Arizona transfer Justin Simon, a brilliant on-ball defender with some offensive upside who took home Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors. Simon shares the hard work that keeps this team afloat with freshman L.J. Figueroa, an athletic forward who can shoot from outside. Another transfer, former Auburn forward Mustapha Heron, has given the team depth and solid defense. But the losing streak has seen the team’s cohesion break down. After its last game of the Big East tournament, an 86–54 loss to Marquette that set up a nervous few days until the bracket was released, the team looked utterly demoralized.
“I told my guys to take a break,” Mullin said. “They need a break mentally, physically and from each other. We'll get back together [Selection Sunday].”
The team will need to regroup to deliver the victory all long-suffering St. John’s fans want on Wednesday. While the Big East season ended on a sour note, this week offers one last chance to recapture the Red Storm’s early-season promise. It’s hard not to see their First Four matchup against a similarly fast but flawed Arizona State team as a referendum on Ponds and the last four years of Chris Mullin’s tenure. Depending on the outcome, it could also be Ponds’s final appearance for the Red Storm if he decides to leave for the NBA draft.
Ponds will need to muster his early-season form to outduel Arizona State. Sun Devils point guard Remy Martin injured his groin in the Pac-12 tournament but is expected to play in Dayton.
Wednesday night’s game might come down to which weakness rears its head first: Arizona State’s poor shooting or St. John’s much-maligned defense. Whatever the case, Ponds will be an integral part of St. John’s efforts while also putting on a show. Beautiful basketball is hard-coded into his game; he doesn’t know any other way to play. Get ready for some fireworks.