New kids on the block

“Oh, they’re all going to play,” said Norm Roberts. “They’re all going to play.”

It was a response that the Red Storm men’s basketball coach Norm Roberts gave without thought or hesitation to a question asked about the roles of his seven incoming freshmen. And the answer probably reflects more necessity than choice.

But these are the cards Roberts was dealt. In his fourth year he will be coaching a roster that is nearly half freshmen. You’ll probably hear some new names-D.J. Kennedy, Paris Horne, Sean Evans, Dele Coker, Mike Cavataio, Justin Burrell, and Malik Boothe-called a lot over the PA at Carnesecca this season.

The mass exodus that occurred after last year’s season puts a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the new guys. Five major impact players left in total: Lamont Hamilton, Aaron Spears and Daryll Hill graduated, while Qa’rraan Calhoun and Avery Patterson both transferred after their first year with the Storm.

The departure of those five players means this year’s team is going to have to replace 1685 minutes, 573 points, 277 rebounds and 74 assists. It’s a good thing that this freshmen class is generally regarded as Roberts’ best recruiting job so far, because he is going to need them to perform right away. Even the leaders on the team know they are relying heavily on the freshmen.

“They’re not coming in as freshmen, they’re coming in as NCAA players,” Anthony Mason, Jr. said.

“I think they don’t have a chance to be freshmen,” echoed Eugene Lawrence.

In the Red Storm’s season opener against St. Francis, six freshmen saw the court, of which four tallied at least 21 minutes.

Collectively they scored 42 of the team’s 72 points and it was Burrell’s emphatic dunk in the closing minutes that put St. Francis away for good.

“When I put guys in the game, I think I’m putting players in the game,” Roberts said. “I never think of what grade they are in. I don’t think of how young they are, I think of their talent level and what they bring to the table.”

And this is a very talented group, most coming from top-of-the-line programs, bringing something of their own to the Johnnies. D.J. Kennedy is 6-foot-6 and has a long wingspan. He was a first-team all-state selection at Schenley High School in Pittsburgh and was ranked as high as 35 among all small forward recruits.

“There was a lot of freshmen coming in, so we had to take the roles,” he said. “I think we knew coming in the type of pressure we were expecting. We don’t even look at it as a big deal no more.”

Paris Horne is very athletic, able to rebound, and score both close to the rim and from mid-range. Malik Boothe is an energetic and explosively quick point guard. At a diminutive 5-foot-9, 185 lbs, what he lacks in size he makes up in speed and vision. On the defensive side, he considers himself to be a lot like Lawrence.

“We both like to pressure the basketball,” Boothe said. “We both like to be in-your-shirt defenders.”

Lawrence holds an equally high opinion of Boothe.

“He has a tremendous on-the-court presence,” Lawrence said. “He sees things on the court as a freshman that I didn’t see as a freshman.”

Dele Coker is a significant defender inside and an above average shot-blocker who is working on his ability to run the floor-the style of play that Roberts believes his roster is best suited for.

“Ever since I got here, we’ve been doing a lot of running and conditioning,” Coker said. “I think we conditioned a bit to meet the task of the way we want to play this year.”

Justin Burrell, meanwhile, can flat out score. Last year’s number-two ranked prep prospect has lofty goals for this year as well.

“If I work as hard as I can and perform the way I feel I’m capable, I have a good chance of winning Big East Rookie of the Year,” he said. “I just want to prove the critics wrong who say St. John’s is this, they are not capable of that.”

The optimists are calling this team young, fast and exciting. They say fans are going to see a new kind of Red Storm basketball, where running the floor and transition baskets are the emphasis. Pessimists are saying the team is inexperienced and will be greatly overmatched by the competition in the Big East. Whichever turns out to be true, one thing remains certain: this year’s freshmen are going to be a big part of this year’s team.

“I think they all stand out on different days,” Roberts said. “Justin Burrell had days that he stood out. Paris Horne had days that he stood out, and that is what you are going to get with freshmen at times. But the one thing that’s going to stand out with ll of them is that they compete. They really do compete.”