Our Atlantic 10 Summer Sitdown Series continues, circling back to Philadelphia to talk Explorers basketball with La Salle Head Coach Dr. John Giannini. After losing a trio of veteran guards in Sam Mills, Tyrone Garland, and Tyreek Duren, La Salle reloads in the backcourt and looks to the frontcourt tandem of Jerrell Wright and Steve Zack to lead the way. Here's what Giannini - approaching his 10 year anniversary at the school - had to say:
Chris DiSano: Can you briefly describe your newcomers?
Dr. John Giannini: Sure... Amar Stukes is a classic point guard who is a very good defender and can really get in the lane. He's extremely unselfish. We think he can be a high level player. We'd like him to improve his shooting and we think he's doing that... and he's a winner in our minds.
Jordan Price is an outstanding scorer. He can really shoot. He set an all-time SEC record while he was at Auburn, making 11 straight threes in games. He's shot the ball really well with us and I think he's much improved his conditioning and his body. We think he'll be more than a shooter and has a chance to be a very good player.
Cleon Roberts is a 6-foot-6 guard, a transfer from Georgia Southern, who started there as a freshman. We think he's a good all-around player. He can shoot, he can put it on the floor, he's very athletic and I think he can be an excellent defender.
Those three guys were chosen - as a redshirt in Amar's case - and as transfers who would sit out a year in Cleon and Jordan's case, because we didn't want to replace Tyreek Duren, Sam Mills and Tyrone Garland with true freshmen who were young, didn't have a chance to develop their bodies and games and weren't used to playing against older guys... so we think we recruited three, older talented guys to play with three other older talented guys, and we think we have a chance to be really good with those guys on the court.
Johnnie Shuler is a true freshman. He was the Washington, D.C., Player of the Year. He led his team to a state championship. He is also a point guard who can score and shoot. We think he's tough and has great intangibles.
Tony Washington is a redshirt freshman at 6-10 who is long and athletic. We think he's really talented. Of course he needs to get stronger and tougher, but he has a high ceiling as well.
CD: How can the new guard corps - given that they are not wet behind the ears as you just mentioned - excel as a group?
Giannini: I don't have any doubts that they can play well, and that we can win with these guys, and that we don't have to drop off. That's why brought them in and that was the plan. I don't think I can say there's any one thing they have to do as a group. To win basketball games you have to defend, pass and shoot. Of those three, I'd look for Amar to improve his shooting, I'd look for Jordan to improve his defense... so other than a couple guys needing to improve in one area here or there, I think that overall they are very good players and they're ready to have a chance to win.
CD: Often times when we talk about two players having chemistry with one another it's often applied to guards, but how have you seen Jerrell Wright and Steve Zack develop chemistry, as big men, with one another through the years?
Giannini: Yeah, they've both improved every year. I think that a lack of team success hurt Jerrell's All-Conference candidacy last year. He was picked preseason All-A10 and he certainly had a good year. So I think it was one of those things where the teams that won got the recognition they earned and deserved. But individually I think that Jerrell has a chance to be the best big guy in the league and Steve has a chance to be one of those guys too. Steve led the league in rebounding and was on the All-Defensive team, so I'll put those two guys up against anyone, anywhere.
They've both had great off-seasons. They've significantly improved their strength and their bodies and - in Jerrell's case - his conditioning. I think we haven't seen the best yet and those guys are going to have a big year. Last year and the year before we counted on guard leadership and this year I think our big guys can lead us.
They understand the offense, they know how to play off each other, they can play high-low, they sense when to dive to the post when the other has the ball, and they both look for each other all the time. They have really good chemistry.
CD: You're coming up on your 10-year anniversary at La Salle (8/23/14). I'm sure you feel there are numerous ways you've grown professionally, but how are you a better coach a decade after taking the reins?
Giannini: I think I'm a better coach for these reasons: First of all, I understand the Atlantic 10 is more about chemistry and experience than it is recruiting. We all seem to recruit a similar level player, we all seem to play a lot of close games... and this league is more about developing your players and having a high level of chemistry and character than it is just trying to get a guy who's a little bit better than someone else.
The other thing is that La Salle [as an institution] deserves a lot of credit. They've allowed me to build something and after 10 years you learn a lot... and frankly I'm a better coach now because I have our staff the way I want it, I have our academic support the way I want it, I have our recruiting philosophy and the continuity in our program they way we want it - where we can replace graduating seniors with a plan in mind. We don't have to bring in large amounts of players in any particular year. We don't feel we have to rebuild. We feel like we'll be able to have a chance to win year-in and year-out, which is very hard in this league. And what you really hope for is just to have a chance.
And we have that every year and the reason we do is because La Salle has allowed me the time to learn and put together a program the way I think gives a program an advantage in the Atlantic 10.
CD: Finally, you've elevated Sean Neal to one of your assistant coach positions. What does Sean bring to the fold?
Giannini: Sean played at La Salle, was a grad assistant and video coordinator at La Salle, and was our Director of Ops at La Salle. So, in total, he's been at La Salle for about nine of the last 10 years. He was there when I got here. He was a great student, a great person, a high level worker, and is a smart person with good interpersonal skills.
You know, the whole idea of experience and contacts [as applied to hiring coaches], I think is overrated. I'm not saying those things are unimportant, but I would take a guy who:
1) has a great personality and knows how to talk to people and interact with a wide variety of people;
2) who can figure out situations;
3) who understands your program and conference, and;
4) who's gonna work as hard as he possibly can every day.
I've always been in favor of the type of guy who is hungry, who is loyal to his head coach, loves the guys he works with, and loves his school.
And Sean Neal is all those things. He's going to be terrific and have a great career in coaching. We've already seen our recruiting at a high level this summer. We're involved with a lot of different people and they're all good players... and Sean is a big part of that.
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