It’s time to finally tell the story of the Hitman.
And no, I’m not talking about WWE wrestler Bret Hart or #CoachDunlapsBat. I’m talking about D.J. Kennedy, the swingman from Pittsburgh who has quietly turned himself into the marquee face of the St. John’s basketball program as he enters his senior year.
Two years ago, when St. John’s welcomed Howard into Carnesecca Arena, I had the pleasure of doing play-by-play on WSJU Radio as a then-sophomore Kennedy could not miss a 3-point shot in the game’s opening minutes. After announcing the third Kennedy 3-ball of the game, Keith Arias, who did color commentary with me that day, said of Kennedy: “You might as well call him ‘The Hitman!’ He’s a real sharpshooter out there!”
Needless to say, “The Hitman” moniker has remained a fixture of every St. John’s men’s basketball broadcast on WSJU since.
Let’s talk current reality, and the reality is that “The Hitman” and his eight fellow senior classmates are the key to Steve Lavin’s maiden voyage at the helm of the Johnnies. All nine of Lavin’s fourth-year players bring their own style to the court, and each will be an integral part of the team’s success in the 2010-11 campaign. You’ll get to know each one more as we profile each senior in the latest edition of the “Daly Dribble“.
1. D.J. Kennedy – The man who wears No. 1 on his jersey is player No. 1 to be profiled here. Kennedy is, without doubt, the most recognizable player the Red Storm has on its roster. In his three years in Queens, “The Hitman” has blossomed from a role player into a scorer. A 6-6 swingman, he is Steve Lavin’s type of player: a small forward that can also move into the backcourt while simultaneously maintaining his dynamic slasher/facilitator ability. Kennedy has progressively increased his scoring output in each season, peaking at 15.1 points per game in last season’s campaign where the Johnnies went to the NIT. Look for Kennedy to see more opportunities this season, potentially resulting in yet another improvement to not just his stat line, but his rising draft stock as well. (Kennedy is already regarded as a potential mid-to-late 2nd-round pick)
2. Paris Horne – Some would argue that Dwight Hardy is a bigger key to the Johnnies’ season, but while Hardy is indeed important to Steve Lavin’s lineup, Paris Horne is just a little more valuable. The Delaware-born, Philadelphia-bred Horne is deceptively quick on either side of the ball, especially on defense. Coach Lavin has already told college basketball expert Jon Rothstein of 1050 ESPN Radio in New York that he is “extremely excited” with Paris’ versatility and that Horne has a big year ahead of him. Fans of the Johnnies are clamoring for Horne to return to his sophomore year form, where his 14.6 points per game were good enough to lead the team in Horne’s first year in the starting five, replacing Anthony Mason Jr’s production – he was lost for the season after just three games.
3. Dwight Hardy – Call him whatever you choose, (some refer to him as “D-Buckets”; I call him “The Sheriff” since he comes out shooting) but the one thing everyone can agree to is Hardy’s natural talent. Hardy reminds me a lot of Seton Hall’s Jeremy Hazell in that he has a scorer’s instinct, and can make plays that swing the momentum of a game faster than you can change the channel on your television. Hardy demonstrated that this past January against Cincinnati at Madison Square Garden, where his Reggie Miller-esque performance in the final seconds of regulation got the Johnnies a pivotal Big East win. (You can hear it for yourself by clicking here, as Johnny Jungle’s own David Berov was on the call for WSJU.) Entering his second season in Queens, the Bronx native comes off a stellar campaign in which he averaged double figures in scoring off the bench, firing 38% from beyond the arc.
4. Justin Burrell – The original “JB” was once the best player in a Red Storm jersey, back in 2007 when Norm Roberts trotted out seven true freshmen on a nightly basis. No longer the sole option for the Johnnies, Burrell has adapted to the players around him and has changed his game accordingly, becoming a willing role player off of the bench. Burrell has also developed an outside shot over the years which can be a defense-stretching X-factor when unveiled. If Coach Lavin uses him in the starting lineup as many expect now that Anthony Mason Jr. has graduated, Burrell could easily be a contender for the Big East’s Most Improved Player award.
5. Sean Evans – Like fellow Philadelphian Paris Horne, the 6-8 Sean Evans was easier to recognize in the box score during his sophomore season, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t contribute as a junior. A big, athletic forward whose points usually come in bunches, Evans continues to develop as a solid and reliable rebounder, second to D.J. Kennedy for the team lead last year and the team leader in boards as a sophomore.
6. Malik Boothe – The shortest player on the court is arguably the most criticized of the Red Storm, but that doesn’t stop Malik Boothe from doing what he does best – exploit defenses and make plays without showing off. The senior has become faster over the years, and is not afraid to dish it out or drive fearlessly and take the shot. At the end of last season, he made some shots from the perimeter, like his game-tying three in the final seconds of regulation against Marquette. While college basketball experts may feel there are better point guards in the conference than the little man, fans of the Johnnies have nothing to fear, as the extremely underrated Boothe will once again be proving his critics wrong this season.
7. Dele Coker – They say a change of scenery does you good. Dele hasn’t left, but Steve Lavin was brought in and may have more work for the brawny center than the single digits he averaged in three years under Roberts. The team leader in blocked shots each of the last two seasons, Coker will need to learn to channel his aggressiveness to avoid getting into foul trouble.
8. Justin Brownlee – “JB2,” as he is often called, played solid minutes in his first year as a Johnny after transferring from junior college in Florida; and much like the man who shares his initials and first name, (Justin Burrell) Brownlee became an indispensable asset off the bench for Norm Roberts. He could return to the same productive sixth man role under Coach Lavin, or even more with his athleticism and versatility.
9. Rob Thomas – Three years ago, he was an inspiration before even making his on-court debut. Now, Thomas is still quietly asserting himself and looks to rebound better than ever after an injury-plagued junior season. Two years ago, Thomas posted double figures in nine games while also serving as a spot starter when Justin Burrell was shelved with an eye injury in December of 2008.
The Red Storm also have incoming freshman Dwayne Polee, as well as sophomores Malik Stith and Quincy Roberts, who returns from a medical redshirt last season. However, the nine seniors listed above remain the most critical aspect of the Johnnies’ immediate future. In order for the Lavin era to kick off positively, the seniors need to channel their experience and improve on their past performance if they are to return the Red Storm to its first NCAA Tournament since 2002.