No one predicted Jonathan Stark’s breakout season when he signed with Tulane as Ricky Tarrrant’s last-minute replacement in the spring. Given coach Ed Conroy’s history, though, maybe everyone should have seen it coming.
Stark, a 6-foot, 160-pound jitterbug averaging 16.6 points and a team-best 4.1 assists, is a freshman point guard. That description alone almost guarantees good production under Conroy, although Stark (14 points on 4-of-11 shooting, one assist) could not help Tulane (8-8) hang with Tulsa in a 97-71 Conference USA-opening loss on Thursday.
He’ll need a bigger game for the struggling Green Wave to bounce back at North Texas (9-6, 0-1) on Saturday at 1 p.m.
“I like guys that have a variety of skills, and I like to let them use those,” Conroy said. “That sounds very simple, but there are a lot of programs that prefer a set-up point guard, one who just tries to get you in the offense. I like guys to be always on the attack.”
History makes his case.
Yaron Lahat, his first point guard in his first job as a head coach at Francis Marion, earned a spot on the school’s all-decade team for the 1990s.
His next point guard, Charles Sullivan, was named Peach Belt Conference Rookie of the Year in 1999-2000.
When Conroy coached The Citadel from 2006-2010, his initial point guard Kevin Hammack, led the team in scoring (13.0) and assists (3.3). The following season, point guard Cameron Wells was named Southern Conference Freshman of the Year after leading The Citadel in points (14.4), rebounds (5.1), assists (3.8) and steals (1.6).
At Tulane, Conroy signed Ricky Tarrant before his second season. Tarrant was Conference USA Freshman of the Year and a first-team All-Conference selection, averaging a team-best 14.9 points and 3.3 assists.
When Tarrant transferred to Alabama last spring, Conroy had to look for a new point guard on short notice.
Enter Stark, a product of Mumford, Tenn who had committed to home-state Chattanooga but changed his mind after a coaching change.
At Tulane, he already has been named C-USA Freshman of the Week twice. He even earned Player of the Week honors after combining for 46 points against Washington and Alabama State in late December, outplaying the Huskies’ McDonald’s All-America freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss along the way.
He has given a young team flattened by transfers a chance to be competitive, logging more time on court (average: 37.4 minutes) than all but four other players nationally entering the Tulsa game.
“I didn’t envision this success, but I’m a hard worker,” Stark said. “I kept working, trying to get better every day, and it paid off. This is a perfect fit for me. I never thought I would be playing this many minutes, but I just thank God and coach Conroy for the opportunity.”
Conroy says Stark is the quickest point guard he has coached, but the key to his success has been his ability to harness that speed. He possesses a nice mid-range game of pull-ups and floaters rather than relying solely on 3s or driving all the way to the basket, where his diminutive size can get him in trouble. He can hit pull-ups and floaters.
“I work on that every day,” he said. “That’s one of the best attributes I bring to the team.”
Conroy has added more pick-and-roll plays to take advantage of Stark’s shooting ability off the dribble.
“Really what makes him special is that mid-range game,” Conroy said.
Long-range shooting was supposed to be Stark’s weakness, but he has connected on 23 of 53 3-pointers (43.4 percent). Defense has been his biggest issue, with opponents taking advantage of his inexperience on ball screens.
Still, it is hard to imagine what Tulane’s record would be without him.
“They’ve put the ball in my hands and have a lot of confidence in me,” he said. “I’m trying to do what’s best for the team.”