Shortly after highly touted point guard Semaj Christon arrived at Xavier last fall, coach Chris Mack asked him to play a different role than what he envisioned when he committed the previous summer.
College Hoops Countdown, No. 7: Big East
High-scoring combo guard Mark Lyons had transferred to Arizona. Promising wing Dez Wells had been dismissed from school. Impact freshmen Myles Davis and Jalen Reynolds both had been declared academically ineligible. As a result, Xavier needed Christon to suppress his point guard instincts and hunt for his own shot more often to make up for the fact that the Musketeers returned nobody who averaged more than 4.4 points per game the previous season.
"The first couple practices, I was terrible," Christon said. "I didn't really get it. I just wasn't aggressive. I was looking to pass more than I was looking to score. When I was in prep school or in high school, I was strictly point guard, so I really wasn't used to having to take a lot of shots."
It took a few weeks of practice for Christon to embrace playing off ball more often and carrying the scoring load, but eventually he became more effective at it than even the most optimistic Xavier fans could have hoped. The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 15.2 points and 4.6 assists in a leg-deadening 34.3 minutes per game, emerging as a future NBA prospect and propelling a depleted, undermanned Musketeers team to a better-than-expected 17-win season.
Christon will still be Xavier's go-to scorer as a sophomore, but the Cincinnati native won't have shoulder such a heavy burden on his own because his supporting cast will be deeper and more talented. Point guard Dee Davis is fully healthy after wearing down late last season. Reynolds and Western Michigan transfer Matt Stainbrook are both now eligible and will anchor the frontcourt. And the addition of Davis and high-scoring true freshman Brandon Randolph will provide further perimeter scoring punch.
"Semaj's going to be able to show that he has the ability to score this year, but he's also going to be able to show that he has the ability to pass," Xavier assistant coach Travis Steele said. "We're going to put him in position to make plays whether it's isolation, pick and rolls or coming off screens, and he's going to either have to score the ball or, if he gets two guys on him, kick it. This year, he'll be able to do what the game tells him to do. He didn't always have that luxury last season."
Given Christon's explosive first step to the rim, ample size and length for his position and ability to finish at the rim, it's no surprise that Xavier would entrust him with a big role from the moment he arrived on campus. What's a bit more shocking, however, is that few schools viewed Christon as more than a marginal Division I prospect until the summer before his senior year at Cincinnati's Winton Woods High School.
Scrawny and well under six feet tall early in his high school career, Christon always had great speed but lacked the size or polish to become a full-time varsity player until his junior year at Winton Woods. Even then, he was purely a pass-first point guard, content to average 5.3 points per game in a complementary role to Auburn-bound senior Allen Payne, Louisville football signee Dominique Brown, and athletic wing forward Nate Mason.
"It takes a selfless kid to put the team first the way he did that season," Winton Woods coach Donnie Gillespie said. "We knew his junior year that he was special because we had three guys averaging 13 or more points, and it wasn't just because they were good, it was because he was making their life easy and spoon-feeding them. He probably could have done other things, but with that team he did his role and did it really well. He had no ego."
A late growth spurt and an excellent summer on the AAU circuit helped Christon capture the attention of a few small-conference programs, but most coaches were still wary of getting too invested because the point guard wasn't certain to qualify academically. Only after Christon emerged as the top scoring threat on a Winton Woods team that went 21-3 his senior year did the likes of Georgetown, Cincinnati, Providence and Xavier get involved.
The first time Steele watched Christon play during a practice early in his senior season, the Xavier assistant admits being stunned by the point guard's natural ability.
"I left saying, 'Man is this kid fast,'" Steele said. "I thought he had John Wall speed, Rajon Rondo speed and great size. I think Semaj just had to be harnessed a little bit and be molded."
What appealed to Christon about Xavier was the chance to go to school close to his five brothers and three sisters, to contribute right away and to play for a coaching staff that he trusted. Not only was Xavier's campus barely a 20-minute drive from Christon's family home, the Musketeers also had an opening at point guard with star Tu Holloway set to graduate in spring 2012.
"Family is a big thing for me," Christon said. "I wanted to watch my brothers and sisters grow up and have them come to games when they could. The other thing was, I felt like Xavier was home. The guys brought me in like I was already on the team. I was just more comfortable here than at other schools. At other schools, some guys wouldn't talk to you. Here it was just like a family."
It took Christon a year at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire to get his grades in order, but he proved to be worth the wait for Xavier. And Christon is confident his second year in Cincinnati can be better more successful than his first thanks to the Musketeers' deeper roster around him and some improvements he has made to his own game.
Observers at the LeBron James and Kyrie Irving Nike Skills Academies encouraged him to exploit his size and strength advantage against smaller guards more often, so he has taken that advice to heart. He also spent countless hours in the gym working on his free throws and his jump shot, often taking 500 shots in the morning and then returning again in the afternoon or evening to attempt 500 more.
Though Christon improve his footwork and balance and made his motion more efficient, the biggest difference in his jump shot from March to October is his confidence level. Whereas last year he would hesitate to shoot from behind the arc if a defender sagged off him to prevent him from driving, he's now more comfortable making opponents pay by burying a shot in their face.
It will probably take more than eight months for Christon to last year's 25 percent 3-point shooting into a strength, but he believes defenders will have to play him more honestly this season. That's a scary thought for opponents since few teams could keep him from getting to the rim even last year.
"In order for him to get to where he wants to go, he has to become a guy who makes shots consistently," Steele said. "He's so long, he's so physical, he has such good footwork when he drives the ball and he has great burst. Now if guys are going to have to close out a little closer to him, that's going to be trouble. He has an opportunity to be a phenomenal offensive player because of that."
Though Christon has a chance to increase his stats as a sophomore and solidify himself as a first-round pick next June, it's telling that his goals for the new season revolve around team success. He's most excited about setting up the players he now has around him for easy buckets, cutting down on his turnovers and leading Xavier back to the NCAA tournament after a rare one-year hiatus.
"I think a successful year for the team would be making it to the NCAA tournament and making a run once we get there," Christon said. "I don't really have individual goals. As long as we're winning, I'll be fine."
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