Mike Anderson remains encouraged. Optimistic, even.
LJ Figueroa’s likely departure – last year’s leading scorer recently entered the transfer portal – hasn’t dimmed his high hopes for the program. In fact, the St. John’s coach believes his roster has improved even if Figueroa isn’t on it.
“The pieces are there. We got more answers than we had last year,” Anderson told The Post in a phone interview, believing his returnees and incoming recruiting class equal a talent upgrade.
As for Figueroa, Anderson took the high road. On March 28, Figueroa announced he was testing the NBA Draft waters. Then, on May 26, he put his name in the transfer portal. By waiting so long, St. John’s was precluded from being more active in the transfer market.
“I wish him well in whatever decision he makes,” said Anderson, who went 17-15 in his first season at St. John’s and had his team likely headed for the NIT had the coronavirus pandemic not canceled the season on March 12. “We’re in an unprecedented time. As I said when he put his name in the draft, I support him 100 percent. The thing about it, everything’s been pushed back. His name is still in the draft. But at the same time, I’m committed to the guys who are here, the guys that are coming in, and we’ll move forward.”
Anderson touched on a bunch of players. He believes rising senior guard Rasheem Dunn will be much improved after adjusting to play in the Big East. He praised the development and progress made by sophomore Josh Roberts, Greg Williams Jr. and Marcellus Earlington, and expects All-Big East freshman team selection Julian Champagnie to continue his upward trajectory.
“I want to see some guys continue to emerge,” he said.
As for the newcomers, junior college All-American Vince Cole has been projected by many to fill Figueroa’s spot on the wing, after averaging 21.4 points and shooting 44.6 from 3-point range, though Anderson said there could be an adjustment period for the 6-foot-5 guard as he moves into a higher level of basketball. He also believes incoming recruits Isaih Moore, Posh Alexander and Dylan Wusu can all contribute. One intriguing newcomer is George Washington graduate transfer Arnaldo Toro, a 6-foot-8 forward with the ability to score in the post, something St. John’s lacked a year ago.
“He’s experienced. He’s a man, he’s not a little boy,” Anderson said. “That’s a welcome piece to this basketball team.”
Anderson has remained in contact with his players during the pandemic. They’ve had four team-wide Zoom sessions and the Johnnies finished the virtual spring semester strong academically. He made a point of texting players during “The Last Dance,” the Michael Jordan documentary, to discuss the show, emphasize things he saw — such as the work ethic it takes to excel at the highest level — and hear their reactions.
St. John’s closed Anderson’s final season well, winning three of its last four games, and was up at halftime of the Big East Tournament quarterfinal against Creighton when the tournament was canceled. The hope is the team will be back on campus in July for the second summer session to resume workouts, though that will depend on if government officials allow colleges to reopen in New York City by then. It would help get everyone on the same page.
“The key is going to be, how do we get those [new guys immersed] into what we want to do, so we can make that next level jump,” Anderson said. “That’s what I’m looking for us to do, make that next level jump.”