During what is shaping up to be another bleak winter for New York's pro basketball teams, Shamorie Ponds and St. John's could be the bright light for Big Apple basketball.
While the Knicks and Nets are a combined 15-30 entering Friday, Ponds and the Red Storm are off to the program's first 6-0 start since 2009-10. The Red Storm will look to secure their first 7-0 start since 1994-95 when they take on ACC foe Georgia Tech in the Hoophall Miami Invitational on Saturday afternoon at AmericanAirlines Arena (ESPNU, noon). Georgia Tech features former Christ the King star Jose Alvarado, who is coming off a 24-point outing in a loss to Northwestern in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Wednesday.
"Winning is the main key," the 6-foot-1 Ponds said earlier this week. "I feel like with this team we can go pretty far. The farther you get, the better you play, the better places you can go."
And while the Knicks and Nets figure to be playing out the string come March -- dreaming of landing Duke sensations Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett in the NBA Draft lottery -- St. John's hopes to stir up the city during March Madness. St. John's hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2015, Steve Lavin's last year as coach.
"Coming into this year we felt like the NCAA Tournament was one of our goals," Ponds said. "But we just can't want to make it there. We want to win it all."
So far, so good.
Ponds led St. John's to the Legends Classic title last week at Barclays Center with back-to-back wins over Cal and VCU. It was St. John's first victory at a November tournament since the 2010 Great Alaska Shootout. His 67 points shattered the previous two-game Legends Classic record of 52 set by Texas' AJ Abrams during the inaugural event in 2007. And his performance came in front of dozens of NBA scouts.
On Tuesday, Ponds poured in 35 points with 7 assists, and scored the game-winner on a coast-to-coast driving layup as the Red Storm fended off a tough VCU team, 87-86, in overtime to win the title.
Ponds appeared to foul VCU's Marcus Evans on the final play of the game as Evans pulled up for a jumper, but no foul was called and St. John's celebrated the victory.
"He's put on a show," St. John's coach Chris Mullin said of Ponds, who on Monday was named Big East Player of the Week. "He played at one of the highest levels I've seen for two games straight in 48 hours. He basically hit two game-winners, and I haven't seen a guard play like that in 48 hours that I can recall."
ESPN's Fran Fraschilla compared the left-handed Ponds to Houston Rockets star James Harden. Ponds is working on become more of a facilitator, but on these two nights he was also unstoppable as a scorer.
"Shamorie has a gift," Mullin said. "He has an incredible touch, feel and instinct for the game. He made a few tough shots, shots only he can make."
According to the latest ESPN.com mock draft, Ponds is now projected as the No. 32 pick in 2019. He tested the NBA Draft waters last spring but opted to return for his junior season.
"He can really score from all three levels and is comfortable using both hands to handle and finish [which] helps with the diversity in his game," one NBA scout in attendance said after Monday's win over Cal. "He's really fun to watch when he's cooking like that."
Still, Ponds isn't satisfied with his level of play. He's averaging 20.0 points, 5.2 assists and 3.3 rebounds but is only shooting 31 percent from beyond the arc.
"I feel like I haven't shot it well from three yet," he said. "I still have a low-three point percentage but it's going to change."
Beyond his individual play, Ponds is surrounded by the most talented and deepest team he's had in his three years in Queens. Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron is averaging 18.2 points and 6.2 rebounds. Junior college transfer L.J. Figueroa has been a pleasant addition, averaging 15.8 points and 8.0 rebounds. And Marvin Clark (10.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Justin Simon (8.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.2 apg) -- two of the eight transfers on the roster -- are also contributing.
"[Heron] can do it all," Ponds said of the Auburn transfer who got a hardship waiver to play this season. "He's a great piece we needed. As soon as he got here, he didn't know if he was going to play right away and he came in with the intent he was playing, so I appreciate him for that."
Looking ahead, St. John's will play several local opponents, including Princeton, Wagner and St. Francis-Brooklyn in December, before opening Big East play at Seton Hall on Dec. 29.
A date at defending NCAA champion Villanova looms on Jan. 8, and Ponds and company travel to No. 3 Duke on Feb. 2 for a showdown with Barrett, Williamson and the Blue Devils.
By then, maybe New York basketball fans will have more reason to cheer as March Madness approaches.