Jordan maturing at St. John's

NATE SHRON/GETTY IMAGES St. John's guard Rysheed Jordan brings the ball up as Villanova's JayVaughn Pinkston pursues.
NATE SHRON/GETTY IMAGES St. John's guard Rysheed Jordan brings the ball up as Villanova's JayVaughn Pinkston pursues.
Posted: January 15, 2014

NEW YORK - Villanova entered Saturday's game as a compilation of polished technicians. They traveled to Madison Square Garden to deal with St. John's impressive assemblage of raw talent.

Emphasize: raw. The Red Storm, considered by several Big East coaches to be the best group of athletes in the reconfigured conference, has been little more than a blustery squall: 9-6 overall and now winless in three Big East games.

No one typifies the Red Storm's unrealized potential better than freshman Rysheed Jordan. No one gave a better glimpse of the hurricane the Red Storm could become.

A year ago, Jordan was leading Roberts Vaux its first Class A state title, earning Pennsylvania's player of the year honors and the Phoenix Award as the top male player in the Public League. He was a top-20 recruit by anyone's measure; one service even had him No. 3. At 6-4, with superb body control, natural passing instincts and an Olympic vertical, Jordan was basketball royalty.

A year later . . .

The Prince of North Philly had been mingling with the commoners. He entered Saturday averaging 19.5 minutes; this, from a player expected to average 19.5 points. The preseason Big East Rookie of the Year, Jordan had reached double figures in points just three times in 12 games.

Most of his teammates had played 14 games, but Jordan was suspended for one game - team rules, officially - and missed another to visit his ailing mother and grandfather. The particulars remain murky, since St. John's coach Steve Lavin has not let Jordan speak with the press this season.

About 2:15 p.m. on Saturday, against the class of the Philly hoops scene, the Prince began a re-ascension.

Predictably, Villanova played without panic and left with a 74-67 win.

Surprisingly, Jordan found himself.

He hit six of seven shots in the second half. He commanded the team. He dominated the court.

"When he gets it going like that, he can go for 30," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, who scouted Jordan for years. "I've seen him play 100 times."

Wright had seen Jordan like this: Cutting to the hoop and laying one in; driving from the point to the rim; driving again, absorbing contact, making a floater.

In those first few minutes of the second half even Jordan's body language changed. He began to stalk, to swagger; Jordan's tongue began to peek out, just like his namesake.

He drove again, one-on-two, absorbed contact - this is the Big East, after all - and converted another floater for a 56-55 lead.

During play stoppages, Jordan grabbed teammates by their jerseys and gathered them into on-court huddles. He shushed them and hollered at them and ran the offense like a true point guard should.

He had not done that yet this season.

"He was very aggressive. Came out of his shell a little bit," Red Storm junior guard Phil Greene IV said.

"That's what we need him to do, especially at the guard position," said sophomore forward JaKarr Sampson, who is the leading rebounder and is second on St. John's team in scoring. "It's so important for him to be a leader on the floor. But we need him to do that all the time, day in and day out."

Villanova adjusted defensively, switching and hawking Jordan, who effectively deferred to teammates. Without Jordan, St. John's might have gotten blown out in the second half.

St. John's needs Jordan to play aggressively, to own the court, for both halves every game; especially against a team like Villanova, on Saturday. He was anything but regal in the first half.

In the first 12 minutes, Jordan had his shot blocked twice, missed consecutive layup attempts - one an airball - and had Ryan Arcidiacono drop a pair of three-pointers on him. Arcidiacono, a Philly-area native, expected more from Jordan.

"He dominated me and dominated the game when we played in high school," Arcidiacono admitted.

Jordan didn't look lost, or timid. He looked . . . thoughtful. As if he was thinking about which shot to take, which defender to focus on. He played with the fluidity of a robot.

When Jordan's instincts did take over, even in the first half, he was lovely to watch.

Jordan set up Max Hooper for wide-open three-pointers twice and Greene once, but Hooper and Greene missed. One of Hooper's treys came on an inbounds pass; Jordan caught Hooper's defender napping. In fact, Jordan often triggers the Red Storm's inbounds plays, a big job for a true freshman.

And that, it must be stressed, is what Jordan is: A freshman, in the truest sense of the word. He cannot defend the fastbreak. He loses his man. He helps on defense but doesn't recover. He does not aggressively receive passes, and so defenders step into the lanes.

"Every game is going to be like that for him," Lavin said. "Every day, he grows. From Monday to Wednesday, you'll see progress. He's going to go through the natural maturation process that freshman go through, as he has since the first day he hit campus."

Jordan's practice habits helped him earn his starting spot back Saturday. Lavin lauded Jordan's second half on Dec. 15 against unbeaten Syracuse, which helped him earn 31 minutes, a season high matched Saturday. Jordan scored 17 points off the bench at Xavier in the Red Storm's Big East opener and, in the three games leading into Saturday's, he seemed to find himself offensively, hitting nine of 18 shots.

He managed just over 21 minutes in those games, though, mainly because he committed four fouls in the first two and fouled out in a bad loss at Georgetown. He did not commit a foul in the first half Saturday.

"That's an example of his maturation," Lavin said.

Fate had framed what could have been an awful Saturday afternoon for Jordan. St. John's gave fans a poster of him dunking during a public preseason practice. He was the featured trivia subject (favorite player: Dwyane Wade; favorite food: chicken).

Then, the second half happened.

Jordan wasn't flawless. Down by five with 38 seconds to play he threw the ball away. That sealed Villanova's win. If anyone believed the pros were in his immediate future, he looks far from being an NBA prospect. Frankly, he is barely on his way to being a competent collegian.

Perhaps the growth will happen quickly.

He took a quantum leap this weekend.

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch


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