Jay Wright values experienced players on his team. When the game is on the line, he leans on older guys who have been there before to execute and make the right play. Sometimes he may lean a little more than he should, but he has two National Championships so he can do whatever he wants. The point is Wright has built trust with those players, and that trust is a very important part of Villanova’s system.
But on occasion, because of necessity or talent, Jay has decided to put the ball in the hands of a true freshman point guard. It doesn’t happen often. Only five times in his seventeen seasons at Villanova has Wright handed the keys over to a kid that’s only been on campus a few months.
As you can guess, there was a wide range of outcomes. When starting from scratch, the freshman guards went through growing pains but also experienced a quicker learning curve. When paired with a more experienced point guard in the back court, the Wildcats often found regular and post season success.
Villanova fans hope that trend continues as all signs point to Jahvon Quinerly becoming the newest member of this club. The 5-star recruit looks to be in line to take over as the starting point guard with Jalen Brunson leaving early for the NBA Draft. Villanova will certainly have other ball handlers, but none of them are true point guards. Phil Booth, Collin Gillespie, and Joe Cremo are all combo guards that can certainly play the point but are better utilized when a facilitator can find them in space.
The good news for Quinerly is that Villanova doesn’t forget the players that have already passed through the program. The often mentioned team phrase “We play for those who came before us” is not only meant to show respect for former players, but encourages current players to learn from the challenges they overcame. Those experiences and lessons can be tools that Villanova’s latest big time recruit can apply to his first year on campus.
Attitude, Attitude, Attitude
Quinerly won’t have to go far to find the first freshman point guard during Villanova’s Jay Wright era. In fact, it’s one of the guys that will have him running laps and drilling him on his free throws. Mike Nardi, entering his fourth year on Jay Wright’s staff, was Wright’s first freshman floor general at Villanova. The funny thing was, he wasn’t supposed to be.
When Nardi was recruited by Wright, the initial plan was for him to redshirt a season while he bulked up and learned behind senior point guard Derrick Snowden. But at the end of the 2003 season, Villanova was hit with suspensions following a phone card scandal. While the team was able to space some of the suspensions out, Snowden would have to miss several games to start the 2003-04 season. Because of the short bench they were going to have, Wright had no choice but to play Nardi right away. And not just play him, the freshman from New Jersey was going to have to start.
That team was very young, starting the freshman at point and four sophomores around him. The good news was those four sophomores were future Villanova all-time greats Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Curtis Sumpter, and Jason Fraser. The team may have struggled as a whole due to their youth, but Nardi thrived by using the talent around him. He was the only player to start all 35 games that season, and he led the team in assists (130), free throw percentage (82.8%), and three-point percentage (41.1%). By facilitating the offense and finding opportunities for the weapons around him, he also created chances to score for himself. Nardi finished the season with the most points by a freshman under Wright since Speedy Claxton at Hofstra.
For Jahvon Quinerly, the lesson to be learned here is the corner stone of Jay Wright’s system: Attitude. You can’t control what happens to you, and even your best efforts can sometimes end in disappointment. But it’s how you approach the next challenge or the next obstacle that will define your success. Mike Nardi’s 2004 team barely reached .500, and there were a lot of missteps along the way. But he went on to be a leader on the team that brought Jay Wright to prominence and a coach on the Villanova teams that won it all. Attitude had everything to do with that.
Focus on your family, not the past
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you know that Villanova was not the first school Jahvon Quinerly committed to. Without getting too deep into the details, after initially choosing Arizona he became linked to the ongoing FBI investigation and decommitted. Now that he’s headed to Villanova, his situation is eerily familiar to the second true freshman point guard to start under Jay Wright.
Scottie Reynolds was committed to attend Oklahoma University in 2006-07. But due to a change in head coach amid a recruiting scandal (deja vu anyone?), Reynolds decommitted from Oklahoma and instead chose to stay closer to home and attend Villanova. Despite not being considered a 5-Star recruit, Reynolds’ talent was unquestionable. So much so that even with Mike Nardi in the starting lineup as a senior, it was Reynolds who was the ball-dominant guard and even led the team in assists.
In an interesting twist Reynolds and the Wildcats played at Oklahoma that season, and he had to quickly put the past behind him. In fact, he was far more interested with how his team performed than thinking about what could have been. “When you step on the floor, it’s basketball. Everything else goes out the window,” Reynolds said of his game against his would-be team. For Quinerly, the basketball court can be the same sanctuary that Reynolds found. Focus on the game, and nothing else matters.
But you can’t spend all your time playing basketball, and that’s when being on the east coast was helpful for Reynolds. “I found out how important my family and my friends are, so I kind of wanted to be a little closer to home.” Quinerly was facing a similar cross country relocation to Arizona, but now he’ll be closer to his New Jersey support system. He’s also now a part of the Villanova family, a culture that prides itself in supporting its players and helping them become the best version of themselves. When times get tough, the young point guard is going to have a lot of family standing in his corner.
5 stars doesn’t make you a starter
On paper, Jahvon Quinerly will be one of the most talented guards on Villanova’s roster next season. But ratings and rankings don’t mean a thing at Villanova if you don’t work hard on the court. The starting role won’t just be handed to the freshman, especially given the amount of talent this team will still have next season. While I fully expect Quinerly to earn the role from day one, it was just 10 years ago that another 5 Star recruit started the season on the bench.
Corey Fisher came to Villanova along with Corey Stokes as the first 5 Star guards for Jay Wright since Randy Foye and Allan Ray, according to 247sports.com. The Wildcats had just graduated a four year starter at point guard in Mike Nardi, and Fisher was a prime candidate to start in his place. But between the star power of Scottie Reynolds and an unfortunate flare up of tendinitis early in the season, Fisher found himself coming off the bench.
At Villanova minutes are earned, not given. It wasn’t that the young guard had done anything to lose minutes, but he had to earn his starting role over a number of other talented players. That list include Reggie Redding, Dwayne Anderson, and fellow freshmen Corey Stokes and Malcom Grant. Everyone had a shot, and all of those players started at least four games for the Wildcats in the 2007-08 season. But as we now know, it was Fisher that earned his spot in the starting roster over the others. After beginning the season on the bench, Fisher started 21 of 34 games his rookie season, finishing 3rd in points and 2nd in assists on the team.
While Quinerly is the projected starter, he’ll certainly have competition for the spot. Collin Gillespie showed an amazing work ethic and tenacity in his freshman season, and was a key contributor down the stretch in Villanova’s Championship run. Phil Booth, a returning captain in his final season, is more than capable of running the point if Wright goes with a bigger lineup. And incoming grad transfer Joe Cremo, while not a traditional point guard, will certainly have an experience advantage over the freshman. Again, I’m confident that Quinerly has the skills and talent to be a starter. But he needs to come in ready to earn it.
Set the tone, lead by example
Not every player gets the opportunity to walk into a program that’s just won multiple championships. Even fewer get the chance to run such a high powered offense, but that’s exactly the situation that Jhavon Quinerly will find himself in next season. Unfortunately, that hasn’t always been the case at Villanova. In fact, the player most associated with starting the run the Wildcats are on came to the program during what many view to be Jay Wright’s lowest point.
Villanova was coming off of the first losing season of the Jay Wright era. The coach seemed to have gotten away from the practices that had taken him to his first Final Four just three seasons earlier, and now he was placing the fate of the team in the hands of a true freshman coming off a major back injury. Many fans feared the worst, but we now know that season would be the start of the greatest run in Villanova Basketball’s history. And that run started with Ryan Arcidiacono.
Arcidiacono had a lot thrown at him his first year with the Wildcats. He started all 34 games as the leader on the court, and he was named a captain as a freshman. All of this while he was being asked to learn Jay Wright’s system, adjust to a faster and more physical game, and take on all the other challenges that come with being a college freshman. But none of that seemed to matter when he stepped on the court.
Jay Wright has often told the story of one of Arcidiacono’s first practices, specifically a moment that would give the coach confidence in naming the freshman a team captain. The short version is that just a few months after back surgery, the rookie jumped into the lane to take a charge from JayVaughn Pinkston. I might as well have just said he jumped in front of a freight train. But that willingness to do whatever it took to make the right play and find a way to win earned Arcidiacono the respect and trust of his coaches and teammates.
Quinerly and Arcidiacono are not the same players, and they have distinctly different styles and skill sets at the point guard position. But that doesn’t matter in the Villanova system. What matters is that you lead by example. You may not see Jahvon diving over announcer tables the way Arch did, but I have no doubt that you’ll see him make some amazing plays by displaying every ounce of effort he can muster. That’s how you earn the trust of your teammates, and it’s why they’ll follow a freshman floor general.
Put the team’s needs first, and you’ll come out ahead
In an age when college freshman have had twitter since they started elementary school, Quinerly has quite the social media presence. And it’s not just because of the cult-like following “Jelly Fam” has gotten or that he gets to hang with legends like Allen Iverson. The dude has a lot of talent and accolades to back up his popularity. But the McDonald’s All-American would be wise to take a page out of the last 5-Star guard to play for Jay Wright, and be ready to put all of that aside if asked.
Jalen Brunson showed up to Villanova as the MVP of a Gold Medal winning USA Basketball team, the USA Basketball player of the year, Gatorade player of the year, McDonald’s All-American, Illinois Mr. Basketball, State Champion, and was the preseason Big East rookie of the year. All of that was before he played a single game for the Wildcats. But instead of letting all he accomplished get to his head and think that he needed to be “the guy”, Brunson was happy to take a back seat in his first season.
He was still a starter. The freshman averaged almost 10 points per game and was second on the team in assists, but he was the #2 point guard behind senior Ryan Arcidiacono. It wasn’t the role he had played before, and it certainly didn’t highlight the skills that would later win him National player of the year. But it was exactly what the team needed from him in order to play at their best together, and the result was a National Championship.
Quinerly will probably be the team’s #1 option at point guard this upcoming season, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be “the guy” for Villanova. The Wildcats still have a lot of talent on the floor, and they need a play maker who can help create and distribute for the rest of the team. It doesn’t mean he can’t do both, Brunson showed that’s more than achievable in Jay Wright’s system. But it also took him three years to reach that point. Quinerly has all the potential in the world, but the best way to bring it to fruition may be to put the team first instead of seeking the spotlight.
Other Lessons from Freshman Starters
Randy Foye: Be decisive
In Foye’s first season with the Wildcats he led the team in personal fouls. But those weren’t mistakes, it was simply effort outweighing execution. I couldn’t find the exact quote, but Jay Wright has said that while some decisions are better than others, as long as you’re decisive you can’t be wrong. It’s when you freeze or don’t act that mistakes are made. Be decisive, and the rest will come.
Jason Fraser: Play for today
Fraser was a McDonald’s All-American and had the potential to be one of the best big men in Villanova history. But injuries in his junior and senior seasons severely limited the big man’s ability to contribute, and he went from starting to coming off the bench. There wasn’t anything he did wrong, sometimes an athletes body just gives out. We don’t know what the future holds, so enjoy your talents and abilities now.
JayVaughn Pinkston: Own your mistakes
Pinkston missed what should have been his first season at Villanova due to an off campus altercation with legal ramifications. Plenty of people would have given up, blamed others, or made excuses in order to just give up or move on. But Pinkston owned his mistake, worked through the consequences, and became a better player and man because of it.
Omari Spellman: Focus on what you can control
The NCAA tends to make decisions without precedent or context when ruling on player eligibility, and Spellman was an unfortunate casualty of their absurd practices. But instead of openly complaining about it, he kept a positive attitude and used it as an opportunity to work hard and improve. One year later, he’s a National Champion that’s headed to the NBA. Hey NCAA, how do you like them apples!