Patience paying off for St. John’s as Mustapha Heron finds game

MILWAUKEE — On paper, they were one of the nation’s premier duos. Two southpaw guards familiar with each other and capable of taking over a game.

Paper, however, doesn’t always translate into reality. Mustapha Heron and Shamorie Ponds of St. John’s didn’t jell right away. It took time for Heron, the Auburn transfer from Waterbury, Conn., to get comfortable. It took time for the 6-foot-5 wing to find his niche in coach Chris Mullin’s offense and not force his opportunities.

When others were hyping the pair’s potential, Mullin stressed patience. There would be an adjustment period.

“Most important is how they play together,” Mullin said prior to the season.

As February has arrived — the make-or-break month for the up-and-down, on-the-bubble Johnnies, who visited No. 10 Marquette on Tuesday night — so has Heron’s game. The junior has become the player most envisioned when he opted to leave Auburn to be closer to his ill mother Thalia.

Heron entered Tuesday having scored in double figures in six straight games and 10-of-11, becoming the consistent weapon on the wing St. John’s expected. He’d hit at least one 3-pointer in five games in a row, and was a more active rebounder and defender as well.

His scoring average was slightly down from a year ago, from 16.4 points per game to 15.3, but he was shooting a career-best 45.7 percent from the field and was the team’s best 3-point shooter, making 41.8 percent of his attempts. Heron was also third on the team in rebounds, at five a contest, and notching 1.5 assists.

In some of St. John’s biggest wins — at Rutgers and at Creighton, home against Marquette — Heron has played his best.

It’s no coincidence that, in the Red Storm’s worst losses — at Villanova and at home against DePaul and Georgetown — he struggled. When he’s on, St. John’s usually is, too.

“Mustapha has a lot of skills. He has a lot of gifts,” Mullin said recently. “The biggest thing is that in the game of basketball, you just can’t do stuff, you have to let the flow of the game happen. So it takes a little maturity and a little experience.”

Heron possesses both of those qualities. Lately, it’s paying off for both him and St. John’s.

A day after being passed over as one of the Bob Cousy Award’s 10 finalists — the honor goes to the nation’s top point guard — Ponds was named to the final 25 of the John R. Wooden Award watch list.

The award, presented by the Los Angeles Athletic Club and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, honors the top player in college basketball. Seton Hall’s Myles Powell also made the list.

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