Is This Hometown Hero the Next Kemba Walker? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Is This Hometown Hero the Next Kemba Walker?

Is This Hometown Hero the Next Kemba Walker?

By Matt Foley


Because he’s leading an NYC hoops revival.

By Matt Foley

With 10 seconds left and St. John’s trailing by one in a pivotal February Big East clash, there was zero debate over who would get the rock. Everyone inside Carnesecca Arena, the on-campus Queens, New York, home of the Red Storm, knew the ball was going to Shamorie Ponds. Sure, junior transfer Mustapha Heron was hot and Marvin Clark had nailed four 3-pointers, but now it was crunch time. It was time for the man recruited for exactly these moments to give the Johnnies a bucket with their season on the line. 

Seven seconds left.

After fighting through a mugging from two Butler defenders to collect the ball at the top of the key, Ponds pivoted and drove right, muscling his way to the goal for a foul and crashing to the floor. He rose holding his left shoulder — his shooting arm — but proceeded to tie the game at the free-throw line. He missed the second free throw, then added three more points and an assist to clinch the 76–71 St. John’s victory in overtime.

No one ever said St. John’s makes basketball easy. Not in the win over Butler, nor this season at large. After a 12–0 start, St. John’s has dropped to 20–11 and seventh place in the Big East. A team that once looked like a lock for March Madness now sits uneasily on the bubble.

But if the Red Storm squeaks in, they’re a real threat to bust your bracket thanks to one of the most compelling — yet uneven — players in the game. 

I watch a lot of NBA, and [Ponds] is better than plenty of the guys in the league right now.

St. John’s coach and former NBA All-Star Chris Mullin

As a program-changing leader with deep local ties, Ponds was recruited to revive a dormant college hoops power that hasn’t seen the second weekend of March Madness this century. He’s also here to get his family out of the Brooklyn projects. First, though, he wants to win in March


Ponds, 20, is arguably the best player in the Big East, certainly the best college player in New York City and a future NBA draft pick. He’s hit game winners (against Virginia Commonwealth University on November 20), set the Carnesecca Arena scoring record (44, against Marquette in 2018) and made St. John’s basketball relevant for the first time in a while. He is the school’s best player since another local product, Ron Artest, led the Red Storm to the Elite Eight in 1999. In his third and likely final college season, Ponds ranks third in the Big East in scoring (19.8), second in assists (5.2) and first in steals (2.6), while adding 4.3 rebounds and improving his 3-point shooting to a capable 35.4 percent.

But, in parallel with his team, Ponds was inconsistent in February. After scoring 20 or more points (a high of 37 against Georgetown) in all seven games he played in January, Ponds was held to 11 points and four assists in a 91-61 loss to Duke. Still, he was facing the best defensive point guard in the country in Tre Jones, and the best coach in Mike Krzyzewski — who was determined not to see a reprise of Ponds’ 33-point outburst and triumph against the Blue Devils last year. In the nine games since that blowout, Ponds is averaging 18.3 points per game. But his outputs are varied: He’s scored as many as 29 and as few as four in this stretch. St. John’s needs more consistency this month.

“[Ponds] is our motor,” says St. John’s head coach Chris Mullin. “He’s Brooklyn tough and loves representing New York City. That means a lot to him, and that’s something we have in common.”

A Queens native who starred at St. John’s from 1981 to 1985 before a 16-year NBA career, Mullin is no stranger to the pressures of representing New York City. When he accepted the Red Storm job in 2015, he looked for recruits who were up to the challenge. For most of the 2000s, St. John’s watched stars like Kemba Walker (UConn) and Lance Stephenson (Cincinnati) flee the state, and the Red Storm has only made the NCAA Tournament four times since 2000. Ponds, regarded locally as Walker’s heir apparent in a long line of great New York point guards, was brought in to change that. He loved the idea of playing under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, and Mullin hopes that Ponds’ success will help reverse the trend of top local talent shunning Queens. “Playing [in Madison Square Garden] was my dream since I picked up a basketball, since I started watching the Knicks,” he says. “That’s every New York kid’s dream.”

Growing up in the East New York neighborhood, Ponds has long viewed the bright lights of the Garden as a portal to another world. As a preteen boy, Ponds was afraid to leave the house for days after witnessing a murder. Years later, a good friend was shot in the back of the head. With the realization that danger was his neighbor, Ponds gave himself to basketball. For his family to rise, Ponds would need to shine at MSG and beyond. 


As a senior at Brooklyn’s Thomas Jefferson High School, he led the Orange Wave to its first PSAL city championship since 1954 on the Knicks’ home floor. St. John’s plays its weekend matinees in the Garden, including a February upset of Villanova in which Ponds scored just 11 points but controlled the game nonetheless. Ponds “is not just a scorer. He can hurt you in so many different ways,” Villanova Coach Jay Wright said after the game. “He’s really killed us in the past, and tonight their other guys picked up the slack.”

Ponds currently projects as a second-round NBA draft pick, but late-season heroics can cause a player’s stock to rise, as when Walker landed in the lottery after powering UConn’s stunning 2011 national championship run. At just 6-foot-1, Ponds is undersized like Walker but lacks the NBA all-star’s elite explosiveness. Ponds could rise into the late first round — which would secure a guaranteed multimillion-dollar contract — and it doesn’t hurt that countless NBA scouts have watched his heroics at MSG over the years.

“I watch a lot of NBA, and [Ponds] is better than plenty of the guys in the league right now,” Mullin says. “He’s got a feel for the game and makes everyone around him better.”

Words to consider when you’re looking for sleeper March Madness picks.

Read more: Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ tries to prove there’s still room for basketball big men who can’t shoot

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