From the moment news broke that LJ Figueroa had entered the transfer portal, there were two immediate reactions dripping with hot takes.
1. St. John’s is doomed.
2. It won’t miss him.
Neither is accurate.
St. John’s will clearly miss Figueroa, the 6-foot-6 wing who led them in scoring a year ago and is unlikely to return. But his absence won’t cripple the program, either. I actually think losing him isn’t as impactful as if Greg Williams Jr., Marcellus Earlington and Julian Champagnie were transferring. They are the program’s core, young players with at least two years remaining and are the key to the Johnnies returning to the NCAA Tournament.
Figueroa struggled offensively under new coach Mike Anderson, shooting just 37.9 percent from the field and 36.5 percent from 3-point range. Too often he was hunting shots, settling for long and contested jumpers. The transition from being a role player to The Guy was not easy.
It, however, should not be minimized that he was the player teams would game-plan for, the guy who drew the opposition’s top perimeter defender, the one counted on to produce in big spots. Williams, Earlington and Champagnie may not finish nearly as strong as they did without Figueroa around.
Losing talent and experience is never a positive. That’s what transpired on Tuesday. But it’s a loss that can be mitigated as well, especially with the player development the coaching staff showed it is capable of in its first season.
Below are some other thoughts on what transpired:
— Everyone seems focused on Figueroa’s loss from an offensive standpoint, since he was the most established threat on the roster. But I think his defense will be missed more. He led the Big East in steals at 1.9 per game. His length and nose for the ball were key assets in coach Mike Anderson’s pressing style. St. John’s will now be losing arguably its two best perimeter defenders in Figueroa and Nick Rutherford, who graduated. Together, they averaged 3.7 steals per game, a major factor in the Johnnies forcing 16.8 turnovers per game, 13th-most in the country.
— It would be unfair to think junior college All-American Vince Cole can just fill the void left by Figueroa. I expect the 6-foot-5 Cole will start at the three. He’s a better shooter than Figueroa – Cole shot 44 percent from 3-point range and averaged 18.7 points last year — but not as big or athletic. It’s also not fair to expect Cole to step in and produce immediately. It usually takes junior college transfers time to adjust to Division I. Look for St. John’s to replace Figueroa’s scoring by getting a little more from a variety of options, and not to rely on Cole to score big out of the gate. Balance will have to be a strength.
— There was a sense that St. John’s had egg on its face for not taking Monmouth graduate transfer Ray Salnave because it didn’t have any room, only for Figueroa to enter the transfer portal two weeks after Salnave committed to DePaul. St. John’s had positioned itself well with Salnave before it got encouraging news about Figueroa, and then backed off the Queens guard, who was ready to commit to Anderson’s program. But the staff wasn’t sold Salnave would be a difference maker, believing he was too similar to guards it already has on the roster like Rasheem Dunn and Williams, and didn’t fit the up-tempo style. Where the Figueroa delay actually hurts is that it held St. John’s back from all-out pursuing transfer wings like Jose Perez of Gardner-Webb and Dimencio Vaughn of Rider. The staff gambled that Figueroa would return, and it got burned.
— It remains to be seen what direction Figueroa goes in here. Going pro still seems very possible, as his name is still in the draft pool and he’s already 22 years old. So does a transfer, obviously, though he would need to get a waiver to avoid sitting out a full year as a non-graduate. In his mind, a return to St. John’s isn’t out of the question, either, although it remains to be seen if he would be welcomed back. The staff will not be pursuing him, according to sources, and is ready to move on after he entered the transfer portal last spring upon Anderson’s hiring, only to return. Ultimately, if he asked to come back, I don’t think he would be told no. But that appears like a long shot.