This is the second installment in a multipart series serving as a preseason primer to all things Saint Louis University Men’s Basketball for the 2021-22 season. Part One can be found here.
As addressed in part one of this manifesto, the Billikens have a lot of turnover. They also have a total glut of talent, which is excellent on the one side of the coin. On the other side of that coin is that very little of it has been proven inconsistent in long-term ways for all that talent.
Javonte Perkins is about the only thing we know to be sure of in terms of output and production capabilities. Yuri Collins is a starter and definitive point-guard, but can he step up and be a second option on offense scoring-wise? Does he even have to be?
There’s a lot of answers to unravel there. But let’s start by introducing the new additions to the Billiken bench and understanding where they came from and some reasonable expectations of them.
Who are the new Faces?
Four brand new Billikens were welcomed into Midtown since the last time we saw them take the floor, and one will be making his formal introduction on the hardwood to the SLU faithful this fall.
Saying goodbye this offseason were Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French, who have made the jump to the pro ranks in their own respective ways. Demarius Jacobs transferred to Ball State, Phil Russell transferred to SEMO, Josh Hightower graduated, and Jimmy Bell Jr transferred to Moberly Community College.
Francis Okoro is the first new Billiken I’ll address as he’s not exactly new. Okoro, a Nigerian native who spent formative years in Normal Illinois, was a redshirt last year with the Billikens after transferring from Oregon. As a Duck, he started 40 games over two years, appearing in 66 games.
To me, it seems that Okoro’s impact at Oregon has been significantly underplayed since arriving at SLU. In his freshman season, he was instrumental in getting the Ducks to the NCAA Tournament (at the same San Jose regional that SLU played in, funny enough), replacing an injured Bol Bol who was expected to be an NBA lottery pick before getting injured. Okoro came in, and the Ducks won their next 10, including four Pac-12 tournament games (leading to a championship) and two NCAA games.
ESPN ranked Okoro the eighth-best center in his recruiting class, was a four-star recruit by all relevant recruiting agencies and was given a 96 ranking by 247. If he was a freshman recruit, he’d be considered one of the best gets in SLU history. Unfortunately for him, he had a challenging sophomore season…primarily off the court. He missed time in the middle of the season to return to Nigeria to grieve the passing of his father. He was struck by a car as a pedestrian in front of Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena, forcing him to miss time. He played through a shoulder injury and later an ankle injury. All this culminating in the end of the season being canceled due to the pandemic and him never really getting an opportunity to fit back in.
Ultimately, all this stress led to a desire to be closer to home in Normal, Illinois. Okoro played his AAU ball for Brad Beal Elite and was teammates with Yuri Collins, TJ Hargrove, and Fred Thatch. So, SLU became home both geographically and relationally.
Okoro sat out 2020-21 and is now 100% healthy and thriving, I’m told. Travis Ford raves about Okoro’s athleticism, highlighting his footspeed and attention to detail. He also highlights the drive and work ethic Francis displays. A desire to “be the best.”
Francis’s stats at Oregon were not sexy; he averaged just over three points a game in both seasons, but his less visible skills are highly encouraging. He’s invested in being a team player, he understands how to play a role on defense, and as a rebounder, he’s used to being the lone big man on the floor and how to move the ball in and out to create space.
Playing as an underclassman and lone big man in a power five conference likely means we’re not seeing an accurate statistical representation of what he will or could be in the A10. The potential for Okoro is through the roof. He’s a true center in a league without many of those. If he progresses physically and shows the touch he hinted at in Oregon, he could be an all-conference type powerhouse in his first season.
Jordan Nesbitt is another new face to the Billikens but is hardly a new face to St. Louis.
After spending a couple of months in Memphis playing for Penny Hardaway and not seeing the outcomes he wanted, Nesbitt, a top 75 recruit in the country, decided to move back to his hometown and play for the local school.
That description is a little blunt, and there is more nuance there, but the reality of the situation is that Jordan has returned home and feels like he’s in the right place now. For the longest time, Nesbitt was predicted to end up at SLU, but the last-minute arrival of the NBA Star turned college coach swung his opinion. I am told, though, that Jordan’s regret about attending Memphis began almost immediately, and the shine of Memphis dulled like so many of the recruits that come through the turnstile that is Penny Hardaway’s program.
Jordan is essentially a top recruit in the country masquerading as a low stat getting transfer, so his hype is certainly dulled. He did very little in Memphis, but his circumstances didn’t precisely provide opportunities to excel. He arrived essentially as a High-School, graduating a semester early so he could enroll at Memphis and start early, joined a team already halfway through a season, had virtually 10 games to make an impact, and just never fleshed right. Nesbitt is a great player, but starting your career in that situation isn’t conducive to success.
Now he’s back with the Billikens, essentially as any typical recruit would be if they were starting their career traditionally. He’s a freshman with full eligibility. If he hadn’t made a stop off at Memphis and tanked his statistics by having limited opportunities, he would not be seen as the low-impact transfer many national commentators seem to categorize him as.
On the court, Billiken fans can expect a physical wing scorer who may have the most complete offensive arsenal any SLU freshmen has had in a very long time. He has the strength, mobility, and creativity to get to the basket consistently. He is a confident and capable outside shooter and (to me) most importantly I’ve been told he has the confidence to be the point of attack on offense. He will not shy away from using his skills and defer if the opportunity arises.
In many ways, we may be looking at a thicker (than when he arrived) Javonte Perkins to partner with Javonte Perkins. Which will only make both of their lives easier. Perkins gets a guy other teams to have to extend attention to, and Nesbitt doesn’t have to be the star in year one and will likely get lesser attention, meaning he can capitalize when given a chance. A symbiotic relationship.
It’s hard to get a real sense of who Jordan Nesbitt is on defense, which I only mention because we have ample evidence to suggest that if defense is a question…on Travis Ford teams… you’re going to be challenged to find the total playing time you deserve. But I have been told Nesbitt shows a natural assertiveness in his approach, and his strength/size projects him to be an excellent man-to-man defender at the very least.
Jordan Nesbitt is the type of player who profiles as the next Billiken to be an NBA Draft pick. Young, offensively talented, and physically gifted. He is not getting the hype he deserves because of his transfer situation and history. But he could very well be the next break-out star from SLU.
Rashad Williams and Deandre Jones are the two older transfers into the program. They will be serving more traditional grad transfer roles as mercenaries. Williams comes to Midtown through Oakland University in Michigan, where he led the Golden Grizzlies as a shooter and point guard¬¬. He also led the nation in three-point shooting attempts and was fifth in the country in makes. Jones transfers to SLU after four years at Central Arkansas. He scored over 1000 points and set the school’s all-time assist record; he was also 4th in steals all-time at UCA.
Both players will be vital to managing the backcourt and being role players on both offense and defense. Both players can do similar things in the grand scheme but bring different strengths to the table.
For example, both players will be asked to be backup point guards to spell Yuri Collins’ minutes and act as insurance when he gets into foul trouble. Jones is the more traditional PG, but Williams can also step into that role when need be and has been asked to do so more and more in practices this summer. Both are great three-point shooters, Jones shot over 50% in his injury-shortened season, and Williams was a national leader in volume. However, Jones is the more proven defender. With a roster more heavily favored to score this year, having a defensive-oriented point guard who can also play distributor at an elite level may be preferable.
The primary question for both gentlemen is how effective they can be in the more limited roles they will be put in. Williams simply will not have the time, never mind the green light, to put up close to 300 threes next year, but his 33% could still be valuable if he’s able to maintain that at a more realistic volume.
To his credit, watching his tape shows a guy who had the go-ahead to shoot from three 12 times a game because he was truly the best option; a covered deep three was probably better than a lot of options on the floor. So, he took the shots. It stands to reason that he can be far more efficient and effective if he picks his spots.
On the other hand, Jones may be more tooled to be effective in shorter spans with more minor adjustments to his approach. His game more resembles Yuri Collins in that he looks to pass first but will take advantage of a relaxed defender and burn you if you let him. He had a higher usage rate, so Jones more often attacked on offense rather than distributed. Still, he has the experience to play in the system effectively.
The final new addition is Lassina Traore, a latecomer to the Billikens from Cote d’Ivoire (or the Ivory Coast). Traore prepped at Victory Rock Prep (where Markhi Strickland also played), a school Travis Ford has forged a relationship with over the years dating back to when its program director was coaching Ford Stuen at IMG Academy.
Traore is more of a long-term project who will see limited minutes. He’s very raw but has excellent make-up and will benefit from practicing against guys like Okoro and Marten Linssen every day. He will also be an excellent practice squad guy to help prepare the starters centers like him–which is to say stronger, taller, internal presences. For example, he has an incredibly similar build to St. Bonaventure star Osun Osunniyi.
Traore is a low-risk/high reward type player. He will be an exciting guy to watch for the future.
All of this is to say, The Billikens have loads of talent, both new and familiar. But there aren’t a lot of assurances as to *exactly* what they will look like when they take the floor. We have a general sense, but it’s hard to precisely say how these guys will behave and perform when mixed with the returning talent. Talent that has continuity, chemistry, and history.
What do the lineups look like?
For example, my expectation (or maybe prediction) is that a starting lineup would look like this: Collins, Thatch, Nesbitt, Perkins, Okoro. A solid combination of youth and experience, new friends, and old faces. I could be convinced that Nesbitt doesn’t debut as a starter, that it takes some time to become familiarized with the system. Still, I think Travis Ford has shown a willingness to start freshmen (Jimmy Bell Jr) and being a starter doesn’t necessarily mean being a minutes leader…that goes for everyone.
That leaves a bunch of exciting and versatile weapons, shooters like Gibson Jimerson and Rashad Williams. Deandre Jones also was a high-volume shooter and reliable point guard. Then you have Terrence Hargrove Jr, who will look to make the leap from energy guy to a more consistently used super athlete/shooter/defender. Markhi Strickland is also waiting in the wings in a similar mold to Hargrove as a super athlete looking to ascend.
There’s a whole other lineup there, each of which you could make a good argument is the first guy off the bench¬–and that ignores the fact that Marten Linssen is probably the only bench player clearly defined as number two in the depth chart. All of which will want playing time, deserve playing time, and make a case for playing time. If each of these role players excels as hoped for, the Billikens will look to not only be the best team in not only the conference…but the nation.
But it’s more likely than not everyone is everything we hope for every night (or afternoon). So, it will be about playing the hot hand and allowing everyone to “have their night.” It’s not an enviable position for Travis Ford and his staff. “How long is too long” “Why didn’t he go to X sooner” “It’s so obvious X isn’t the guy, why did it take 12 minutes to figure that out”. All things I’m sure we will hear ourselves thinking, reading, or tweeting throughout the Bills 31+ games.
The most exciting part of having this much talent is, if the coaching staff is courageous enough, you could see some really interesting/fun combinations on the floor. A small ball, get-out-and-run lineup of Collins, Nesbitt, Perkins, Strickland, and Hargrove. A super shooter lineup of Williams, Jones, Jimerson, Perkins, and Linssen or Okoro to grab the rebounds. Travis Ford mentioned that he will also be looking to run the 1-3-1 zone defense that won them an A-10 Championship in 2019; so, a top anchor of Terrence Hargrove Jr, with Okoro under the net, and a pick three of Collins, Thatch, Jimerson, Nesbitt, Perkins, Strickland, Jones, Williams, across the middle…talk about tying up passing lanes.
The combinations are bountiful in finding different 2-man games to run different versions of offenses and defenses you like. You have core pieces to build around, for example, most lineups are going to include at the very least Yuri Collins and Javonte Perkins (as they should), but the rest of the spots lead to some very tantalizing creative opportunities.
It’s going to take time to work out the kinks of the rotation, to allow everyone to find their voice, role, confidence, and chemistry in how the Billikens want to play. But they will have five games to open the season to work out some kinks before they face their first true test.
But more on that next time.
This is the second in a multipart series serving as a preseason primer to all things Saint Louis University Men’s Basketball for the 2021-22 season. Follow @ScoopswithDannyMac & @ChapleyMedia for updates on subsequent parts!
Carter Chapley has burst onto the scene becoming one of the most trusted voices in Billikens Athletics and beyond for Scoops with Danny Mac.
Starting at the University News, Carter joined Scoops in 2019 and has provided coverage primarily on Saint Louis University Athletics, including Basketball, Soccer, and Baseball. He has also written on such major events as the NCAA Tournament, Arch Madness, the NHL All-Star Game, the founding of STL City FC, and the NCAA reaction to the Covid-19 Pandemic.
You can find Carter more on Twitter at @ChapleyMedia where he will always be talking Billikens, Sports, and More!