By Joseph Staszewski
Being tapped as a program’s missing piece is much different than being labeled its messiah. Just ask Felipe Lopez.
The former Rice High School basketball guard, who spent four seasons in the NBA, rode into St. John’s University fresh off appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was billed as not only the new face of St. John’s, but the Big East as well and never lived up to the unfair expectations.
Nothing close to that follows current Red Storm freshman guard Rysheed Jordan, the Big East’s top recruit. Lopez, who was in Queens for the program’s tip-off event last Friday, believes it not how Jordan is arriving, but what he is walking into that will set him up for success.
“You don’t have one single individual being pulled out to be the savior of this basketball team,” he said.
Lopez, now an ambassador for NBA Cares, noted the presence of star returning guard D’Angelo Harrison and hungry newcomers like senior transfer Orlando Sanchez. He thinks head Coach Steve Lavin and his staff know how to handle star players. They have already prohibited Jordan, the No. 17-ranked recruit by ESPN, from speaking to the media before the Big East schedule starts in December.
“The way they are handling him is the proper way to allow him to be himself in the beginning and make those freshmen mistakes, to learn from them,” Lopez said.
He watched Jordan play at a recent practice and liked what he saw. Lopez called him poised and matured. The Philadelphia native gave St. John’s fans a small preview of what is to come at the tip-off event. He had numerous assists in the scrimmage and threw down a one-handed slam over 6-foot-8 God’sgift Achiuwa during the dunk contest. St. John’s is at a point to best accommodate a player like Jordan.
“I think it was really good timing,” Lavin said.
Lopez, who averaged 16.8 points and 5.8 rebounds over four years at SJU, didn’t enjoy that same luxury. He is to St. John’s what Don Mattingly was to the New York Yankees. He came in-between great teams, arriving during lean years after the retirement of Lou Carnesecca and graduated the year prior to the Johnnies’ run to the Elite Eight.
The struggles allowed him to enjoy late success. Lopez made the NCAA tournament his senior year. This season’s group is looking to do that same thing with a core that never did so.
“We had some tough years when I was here,” Lopez said. “It definitely makes me appreciate it once you make it.”
If they do, Jordan will be a major factor in getting them there.
“They are going to give him the time to grow within his role,” he said. “He doesn’t have to take hold right away and turn the program around.”