Throughout the magical 2015-16 season for Saint Joseph’s basketball, most of the big storylines centered around the soaring athleticism of DeAndre' Bembry and the remarkable improvement of Isaiah Miles.
But, in many ways, what made the Hawks tick was an effective platoon at point guard with Lamarr “Fresh" Kimble and Shavar Newkirk essentially playing equally, but almost never at the same time.
Now, as the Hawks prepare for life without Bembry, Miles and Aaron Brown — the only three players on last year’s team who scored in double figures — Kimble and Newkirk are going to be asked to not only play together in the same backcourt but also carry much of the scoring load on a very young St. Joe’s squad.
In fact, along with junior swingman James Demery, the two point guards are the only players who saw significant action during last year’s run to the Atlantic 10 championship and the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Luckily for the Hawks, the partnership they are working to develop seems to be a promising one — and a balanced one too.
“Fresh is a great leader,” said Demery, the Hawks’ top returning scorer. “He’s very vocal on the court, and off the court as well. Shavar’s more of a villain and Fresh is more of a hero, making sure everyone’s doing well. Shavar is more like, ‘You guys gotta pick that up.’ We gotta have that on the team — a negative and a positive but in a good way.”
Interestingly enough, Kimble’s positivity helped him be named one of the Hawks’ three captains along with seniors Javon Baumann and senior Brendan Casper, becoming the third sophomore in program history to achieve that honor.
For head coach Phil Martelli, who had another sophomore captain two seasons ago in Bembry, that distinction means a lot — not just for Kimble but for his teammates wanting to rally behind him.
“I salute his teammates for recognizing captain and leadership doesn’t come in one form,” Martelli said. “It doesn’t have to come from just seniors or just starters. I think for a Philadelphia kid to lead on the court, lead in the locker room, lead in the classroom, is extraordinary. It’s a testimony to the way he’s been raised. I think it sheds a positive image for us and for our program out in the community that with all the pressures you have as a Philadelphia kid at a Philadelphia school, you can achieve success.”
Kimble, a former Neumann-Goretti star, certainly has a lot of promise after a strong freshman season, which was capped by an 11-point outing vs. top-seeded Oregon in the Big Dance. And he may be joined in the starting lineup by another Philly kid who could be the star on Hawk Hill: 6-foot-7 freshman Charlie Brown.
On a team that needs an immediate offensive jolt, Brown could very well be the answer.
“Charlie Brown can score the ball and we’re a team that struggles to score,” Martelli said. “He can really shoot. He has unlimited range.”
Two other Philly natives, guard Chris Clover (Saint Joseph’s Prep) and forward Jai Williams (Philadelphia Electrical & Technical Charter), could also take a leap after waiting their turn on the bench last season. So could sophomore Markell Lodge, who Martelli said will “bring people out of their seat “ with his high-flying athletic ability.
But the Hawks will certainly be hurt by a season-ending knee injury to 6-foot-8 Italian forward Pierfrancesco Oliva, who emerged as a starter last season. How will Martelli plan his course of attack without Oliva, Miles and the graduated Papa Ndao, all players who were able to stretch the floor with their size and athleticism?
“I pray a lot more,” he said. “A lot more prayer.
“You’ll see we will play with a bigger player,” the longtime Hawks’ coach added. “And we’ll play with less reliance on long-range shooting. We’re really trying to get this team to drive the ball as much as we can.”
And whether or not, the Hawks have success in that regard will largely come down to how Kimble and Newkirk are able to run a very young team, starting with Saturday’s season opener vs. Toledo at Hagan Arena (7 p.m).
“It’s comforting to know the two primary ballhanders are the most vocal,” Martelli said. “When it gets tough Saturday night, it’s gonna be Shavar and Lamarr. I’ll be communicating to them and I expect them to communicate to their teammates.”
For what it’s worth, Kimble says he’s ready for the challenge, admitting he wasn’t surprised to be voted a captain even though he’s a sophomore and offering an encouraging account of his friendship with Newkirk, even though they playfully rib each other about their differences being from Philly and New York.
“It’s definitely good,” Kimble said. “We’re both brothers and we’re gonna try to do the best we can to lead the team. I believe in him and he believes in me — so that’s how it goes.”
Saint Joseph's at a glance
Head coach: Phil Martelli, 22nd year
Last year: 28-8, 13-5 (won Atlantic 10 championship, advanced to second round of NCAA Tournament)
Top returners: Jr. F James Demery, So. G Lamarr Kimble, Jr. G Shavar Newkirk
Key losses: F DeAndre' Bembry, F Isaiah Miles, G Aaron Brown
Impact newcomers: Fr. G Charlie Brown
Games to watch: Nov. 30 vs. Temple; Dec. 3 at Villanova; Dec. 14 at Princeton; Dec. 30 vs. George Washington; Jan. 21 vs. Penn (at Palestra); Jan. 31 vs. Davidson; Feb. 7 at Dayton; Feb. 18 at La Salle
Best-case scenario: The young players grow throughout the season and St. Joe’s remains in the postseason/NIT conversation until March, all while building toward next year with everyone returning.
Worst-case scenario: The backcourt combo of Kimble and Newkirk doesn’t jell as well as hoped, shooting issues become too much to overcome, and the Hawks fall to the bottom of the Atlantic 10.