Sometimes, all it takes for a young player to get comfortable is some playing time.
Through Seton Hall’s first 25 games, the freshmen trio of Myles Cale, Sandro Mamukelashvili and Jordan Walker were an afterthought for the most part, relegated to small roles in which all three players saw sporadic playing time. When it came time to call upon them in conference play, not a single member of Kevin Willard’s 2017 recruiting class looked comfortable on the court.
Aside from the highlight-reel dunks that landed him on ESPN’s Top 10 highlights, Cale spent most of his time on offense forcing the issue, taking ill-advised shots and driving into traffic in an effort to make the most of his limited minutes. Mamukelashvili, a talented shooter, lost his touch from the outside and with his minutes coming in short spurts, there was no chance for the Montverde Academy product to find his three-point stroke.
From an on-the-court standpoint, Walker’s freshman year has been a rollercoaster, as he found himself behind the eight ball early in the season after tearing a ligament in his thumb in a November game against Monmouth. The injury cost Walker a month’s worth of games, opportunities Walker could have used to improve heading into Big East play.
It had reached the point where it seemed like Seton Hall fans were going to have to wait until next year to see what Cale, Mamukelashvili, and Walker truly have to offer. However, much to the benefit of Willard and a veteran Seton Hall team, the group found a way to flip the script at an opportune time.
Down by as many as 27 points on the road in the second half against No. 4 Xavier on Feb. 14, Willard inserted his second unit into the game. At the time, the move looked to be nothing more than Willard getting his starters some rest and the younger guys some valuable minutes. Neither Willard or his coaching staff could have expected what was about to take place at the Cintas Center next.
Out of nowhere, Mamukelashvili broke out of his seemingly season-long slump with 15 second-half points to lead a furious comeback. Meanwhile, Cale played mistake-free on the offensive end and was diligent in guarding Xavier star Trevon Bluiett at the other. Even Walker found a way to contribute, giving a team that sleep-walked through the first half a spark that ignited an unlikely second-half comeback.
Though the comeback ultimately fell short, the impact of the freshmen was not lost on Willard and the rest of the team following the game.
“Sandro’s practiced great and he’s getting used to what’s going on; the speed and just getting more comfortable,” Willard told Gary Cohen and Dave Popkin in his regular post-game interview. “Jordan is the one guy that can actually change the pace of the game. We definitely needed a change of pace.”
The emergence of the three freshmen against Xavier left Willard with a big question heading into a Feb. 18 showdown with DePaul: Should he give the freshmen increased minutes, or relegate them back to the roles they had been playing for most of the Big East season?
While Cale, Mamukelashvili, and Walker did not see the number of minutes they did against Xavier, all of their minutes were impactful ones. Cale checked in early and scored five quick points, sparking a Seton Hall squad that was off to another sluggish start. Mamukelashvili only played four minutes, but they came at a key time with Angel Delgado staring foul trouble in the face. Walker wound up being thrown into the fire down the stretch, as he was called upon to run the show for the final 68 seconds after Khadeen Carrington fouled out.
“Myles Cale played really well in the first half,” Willard said. “Again, I think the freshmen have been really progressing great.”
“When you see those guys, the guys who come off the bench coming in and playing hard, you get motivated,” Angel Delgado said of the trio. “These guys want it.”
There are still concerns surrounding Seton Hall down the stretch and the freshmen are by no means over the hump yet. Still, the past two games have shown potential and the experience gained could serve as stepping-stones to increased success.
The Big East is not a neophyte-friendly league and Seton Hall’s freshmen have found that out the hard way. With the conference tournament just around the corner, each of the three will have to view the minutes they get as chances to not only prove to Willard they can contribute in the postseason, but also as opportunities to grow.
The minutes may be scarce, but time on the court is better than time spent on the bench.
“We’ve got to get them on the floor,” Willard said. “And we have to get them on the floor at the right time.”
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.