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2020-21 Marquette Men’s Basketball Player Review: #4 Theo John

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We pay tribute to the final season of the most dominant MU shot blocker in two decades.

Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament - Marquette v Georgetown
Like there was another picture of Theo John that made sense to use here
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

With the 2020-21 season long since in the books, let’s take a few moments to look back at the performance of each member of YOUR Marquette Golden Eagles this year. While we’re at it, we’ll also take a look back at our player previews and see how our preseason prognostications stack up with how things actually played out. We’ll run through the roster in order of total minutes played going from lowest to highest, which means today we move on to the final player review for the second best shot blocker that Marquette basketball has ever seen...........

Theo John

Senior - #4 - Forward - 6’9” - 245 lbs. - Minneapolis, Minnesota

Theo John Traditional Stats

Games Min FGM FGA FG% 3PTM 3PA 3P% FTM FTA FT% OReb DReb Reb Ast Stl Blk Fouls Pts
Games Min FGM FGA FG% 3PTM 3PA 3P% FTM FTA FT% OReb DReb Reb Ast Stl Blk Fouls Pts
27 26.3 2.9 5.1 57.2% 0.1 0.1 75.0% 2.0 2.7 74.0% 1.6 3.5 5.0 1.2 0.6 1.5 2.8 8.0

Theo John Fancy Stats

ORtg %Poss %Shots eFG% TS% OR% DR% ARate TORate Blk% Stl% FC/40 FD/40 FTRate
ORtg %Poss %Shots eFG% TS% OR% DR% ARate TORate Blk% Stl% FC/40 FD/40 FTRate
106.7 16.8% 14.3% 58.3%*** 62.3%*** 7.3%*** 14.3% 9.4% 24.6% 6.1%*** 1.4% 4.3 3.6 52.9%***

*** — notes a top 500 national ranking per KenPom.com

WHAT WE SAID:

Reasonable Expectations

It’s a really simple expectation for John: More of the same. I don’t just mean that in terms of his 5.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks that he averaged the past two seasons. Yes, obviously, that’s great for his playing time. I literally mean more of it. The biggest knock on John is, of course, his personal fouls. The big man from Minnesota is averaging 3.0 fouls per game while only playing in 17.4 minutes per game for the Golden Eagles. If you narrow it down to when he was the starter for Steve Wojciechowski the past two years, then that’s 3.2 fouls per game in 20.2 minutes per game. If you want to think about it in a more analytical sense because the fouls are limiting his minutes and thus limiting the total number of fouls, John has been averaging 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes in his career. In the past two seasons, that’s 6.3 per 40.

Now, the good news is that he had a career low of fouls per 40 last season at just 5.1 per KenPom.com. The bad news is that if you’re averaging more than enough fouls to disqualify you from games in 40 minutes, that means you’re not actually playing enough minutes to get disqualified regularly. See how that works? By going from 7.4 fouls/40 to 5.1/40, John was able to squeeze out nearly an extra minute per game on average to his contributions to the team last year.

It’s that adding that little bit of extra time that’s the big deal for Marquette this year and why we need to see more from John this season. Here are the candidates to play minutes behind Theo John at the 5 position on the floor for Marquette this year, going in order of likelihood by my estimation: Dawson Garcia, Justin Lewis, Oso Ighodaro. All three are freshmen, of course, and none of them immediately jump out at you as 100% prepared to defend the paint. Garcia has the advantage by being the tallest guy on the team, but his agility may lend itself to being better deployed elsewhere. Lewis has the wingspan to potentially be able to pull it off, but he only stands 6’7”, two inches shorter than John. Ighodaro has the height, but at this point in his development, he has nowhere near the physical strength to be prepared to deal with heavy minutes in the middle.

So, that leaves John as the guy who needs to hold that spot down, and he needs to do it for long, long stretches this year. We have to file this under expectations, because it’s what the team actually needs from him this year. It doesn’t have to be 35 minutes a night, but he needs to not be in foul trouble constantly.

Why You Should Get Excited

We don’t talk about this enough, but Theo John is legitimately one of the best players that has put on a Marquette uniform in several decades. Part of the reason that we don’t talk about it enough is the fact that he’s only been playing half of the minutes over the past two seasons, of course. In 2018-19, John recorded 70 blocked shots, which is the seventh most in a season in program history and the most by any player since Faisal Abraham had 84 in 1997.

The best season in 22 years. Seniors at Marquette right now haven’t seen this kind of production before. He followed this up with 55 blocks with an injured hand, which tied for the 10th most blocks in a single season. That’s 125 blocks in two seasons. It’s the best two year run for a Marquette player since Abraham had 142 in 1996 and 1997, and that pairing came on the heels/at the same time as Amal McCaskill swatting 131 in 1995 and 1996.

Aside: Yes, Marquette had two guys recording 50+ blocks in 1995-96.

Now, this season is really up in the air as to how many games that Marquette will actually play thanks to the still somehow ongoing coronavirus pandemic. However, as we talked about in the refresh of the all-time blocks chart, Theo John is 25 blocks away from moving into second place on the MU chart and 49 blocks from becoming just the second Golden Eagle to ever generate 200 blocks in a career.

He doesn’t have a shot of coming anywhere close to Jim McIlvaine’s record of 399 blocked shots, so that’s a bit of a damper. Even if he was playing 30 minutes a night the past two years and thus had a commensurate 50% increase in blocks, he’d still be only barely over 200 right now and wouldn’t have a shot at Mac’s record anyway. So it is what is.

But we don’t think about Theo John in these terms, and we should. He’s going to become the best non-McIlvaine shot blocker in MU history this season as long as MU plays about 20 games one way or another. Heck, even if they don’t and he just goes wild with it, he still might get there. The only thing really stopping him is the number of games that actually get played, because he’s clearly capable of getting a ton of blocks in limited minutes. If John can start racking up the minutes played as discussed in the previous section, it’ll be no problem at all for him.

Even better, I think he’ll have an easier time of it this season. Let’s just be honest about it: Markus Howard is short. That makes him a limited defender because there’s only so much ground he can cover. We’re not talking about whether he was good or bad, we can all admit that his leg and arm length was a limitation. To that end, there was a certain amount of picking up the slack that Theo John had to do as the rim protector to cover for Howard’s shortcomings. This year, the shortest guard on the Marquette roster is 6’2”, and that includes walk-ons Brendan Carney and Luke Fizulich. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and think that having guys who are all at least three inches (maybe more, depending on how much you believe Howard is actually 5’11”, the fakest height in sports) taller than Howard on the floor is going to be a huge benefit to John’s ability to do what he does best: Scare the holy hell out of guys going to the rim. Less moving to adjust to guys getting past Howard = more staying at home = more time to prepare = more blocks. Math!

Best case scenario? Theo John runs away with Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East, and that would be really cool to see.

Potential Pitfalls

We have to at least acknowledge that part of the reason why Theo John only averaged 20.9 minutes per game this past season is because Steve Wojciechowski didn’t want to put him on the floor. I don’t mean couldn’t relative to foul accrual, I mean chose to keep John on the bench for tactical reasons. New Year’s Day at Creighton: Eight minutes played, no fouls. Regular season finale at St. John’s: Seven minutes played, one foul. I think we can toss the Disney World game against Maryland in this pile, too: 10 minutes played, all in the first half, two fouls.

Look, I’m not saying that Theo John not playing because it’s not the best tactical option for Marquette is bad. If it’s a winning formula — this is where we point out that Marquette lost all three of the above listed games, all in kind of awful fashion — then Steve Wojciechowski and his staff should take advantage of it. Maybe the options of more mobile bigs like Garcia, Lewis, and Ighodaro will be of more benefit to Marquette than the options last year, and thus it turns into a winning play for Marquette. If it does, then it does, and we know that Wojciechowski isn’t shy about benching his best rim protector if he thinks it’s best.

The other obvious problem is the flipside of everything we already talked about in terms of John’s playing time. If he can’t figure out a way to stay on the floor, that’s a problem. It’s been two straight seasons of John getting the whistle against him that he gets. At some point, it stops being the referees are totally confused as to how to call a mass of humanity that moves like John does and starts being John’s fault for not figuring out how to play cleaner basketball. If he can’t unlock the puzzle, then he’s going to be spending half of Marquette’s minutes on the bench again, and that’s to the detriment of the team as a whole.

I am unfortunately left with the feeling that we didn’t get nearly the kind of senior season that anybody wanted to see from Theo John.

I’d like to point you to this tweet from Ben Steele of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from back in December.

Because of the shortened up schedule for this past season due to the pandemic, this update on John’s health came after Marquette’s sixth game of the season. That was MU’s 69-60 loss to UCLA out in California. The knee issue would never get right for John for the rest of the season and he would continue to mostly not practice with the team in order to make sure he was able to play in every single game.

And play in every game he did, although we can make an argument that he shouldn’t have played for the couple of minutes against DePaul when he was sick. I still don’t get that decision by the adults in the room. He’s too sick to start but not too sick to play at all, but then too sick to play any more. Very weird.

Anyway.

The point is that John pushed through his knee issue which was then compounded by an ankle turn in early February to have his best statistical season as a Golden Eagle. He averaged career bests in minutes, points, assists, and steals per game, while just barely missing his high water mark in rebounds per game. He had his worst season out of the last three in terms of blocks per game, but still averaged 1.5 per contest while ending up as one of the 100 best shot blockers in the country in terms of rate per KenPom.com. If you wipe out his illness two minutes against DePaul as an appearance this season, John matched his career high for rebounds at 5.2 per game. Somehow, I suspect dealing with a nagging knee injury that prevented him from practicing all that much may have put an artificial ceiling on both John’s rebounding and shot blocking this past year, especially the shot blocking. Only so much rapid reflex response you can do when half of your primary jumping mechanisms aren’t running at 100% capacity, y’know?

I want to make sure we devote some digital ink to Theo John’s development as a player, too. Yes, you guessed it, I want to make sure that we talk about John taking the first four three-point field goal attempts of his collegiate career this season AND the fact that he made the first three of them. He splashed his first ever in game #2 of the season against Eastern Illinois, followed that up just days later against Oklahoma State, took three weeks off, and then cashed in from long range at home against Seton Hall for three in a row. This was, to be honest, amazing. A guy who made his bones as a Marquette basketball player attempting to dunk as hard as possible every single time he touched the ball was suddenly raining in absolute fire from deep. I’m not going to say that no one thought that John even had it in him to do this — I think we all believe that anyone who can get a D1 scholarship can develop into any kind of player if they work hard enough — but I think we can easily say that no one was expecting Theo John to be able to do this.

John would miss his fourth three-point attempt of the season in Marquette’s ninth game of the season..... and then would not attempt another one the rest of the year, finishing his time as a Golden Eagle with a 75% shooting percentage. I have many, many questions about this. Why did John never attempt another three? At 75%, I’d say he was entitled to at least two more straight misses before anyone even thought about saying “okay, it was fun while it lasted.” Is it because he didn’t feel right shooting on his knee? Is it because he didn’t feel comfortable with the movement necessary to get open because of his knee? Is it because former head coach Steve Wojciechowski told him “sure, fine, whatever, you can shoot threes..... AS LONG AS YOU DON’T MISS. MISS ONE, AND YOU CAN’T SHOOT ANY MORE EVER”? Boy, I hope that’s not the case, because intentionally limiting your offensive possibilities is a very silly way to operate a basketball team.

He wasn’t just raining fire from long range this season. John was his usual great shooting self when Marquette sent the ball inside to him, connecting at a 57% pace on two-pointers. Can’t ask for more than that. He also posted a career best free throw shooting percentage, connecting on 74% of his attempts. John was an honestly atrocious free throw shooter for his first three seasons at Marquette, hitting just 53% of his shots. Teams were aware that he couldn’t shoot freebies over the past two seasons, sending him to the line repeatedly (he had a free throw rate north of 73% each of the past two seasons) and taking their chances that he wouldn’t get both shots to fall because the math said that he wouldn’t. Defenders had to change that up this season, especially in league play as John shot 77% from the stripe against Big East foes. He still ended up ranking #80 in the country in free throw rate at “only” 52.9% on the year.

Speaking of free throws and fouls, we have to acknowledge that Theo John did his damn part to keep himself on the floor this season. He averaged just 4.3 fouls per 40 minutes, which is a career low and also notably under the number of fouls that disqualify you from playing in the rest of a game. It’s possible that John’s limited mobility due to his knee issue may have assisted this as he was less able to move and thus get himself into situations where opposing players could draw fouls from him. Still, no matter how John got there, he got there, and thus was able to play in a career best 26.3 minutes per game this year. We’ll have to wonder if it could have been higher because of the knee injury, but MU needed big minutes from their experienced big man and they got it.

BEST GAME

FUN FACT: Theo John started off the year with back-to-back KenPom game MVP honors. He went for 13/12/1, five blocks, and a steal against Arkansas Pine Bluff and then 9/9/1, two blocks, and a steal against Eastern Illinois just two days later. That’s pretty good stuff, but it was against MU’s two worst opponents of the season. I think I’m going to go with January 31st at home against St. John’s. Marquette lost by two at the end, but I don’t think we can pin that on Theo John at all. 16 points, eight rebounds, two assists, two blocks, a steal, zero fouls, just one turnover, played 37 minutes. MU’s season was spiraling wildly out of control at that point, as that was immediately after the loss at home against DePaul and then the lifeless overtime loss to Providence, but John came up big for the Golden Eagles.

SEASON GRADE

We needed more of Theo John this season, and we got it. Literally more, as in he played more minutes on average than he has the past two seasons. Statistically more, as in he racked up career bests in multiple categories. Physically more, as in he gutted out whatever was going on with his knee to do all of that all year long. He ultimately didn’t rack up blocks like we’ve seen him do in the past but that’s presumably because of the injury and he still ended up as #2 on the MU blocks chart by a not insignificant amount, so I don’t think we can hold that against him.

The hell with it. I’m giving him credit for being damned impressive while fighting through his injury issues for a second straight season. Theo John gets a 10 for his senior season. He was as great as he possibly could be, and it’s a disappointment that the team’s success didn’t match his personal success.