Former Cavalier LeBron James and current Cavs superstar Kyrie Irving have a stranglehold on basketball in the state of Ohio. However, this year there will be a new name dominating the spotlight for Ohio hoops.
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Who is Semaj Christon?
Last year at this time, he was an unknown freshman heading to Xavier. This year, he’s the reigning 2012-13 Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year, one of the best rising sophomores in the nation, and the horse that will lead the Musketeers back into the national spotlight. Still, it’s likely you’re more familiar with Honey Boo Boo than the 6-3 point guard.
Xavier assistant coach Travis Steele describes Semaj as “a very driven kid, very focused and loves basketball.” For a kid as driven and determined as Christon, his motivation extends much further than himself. The Cincinnati native doesn’t look at personal achievements. He wants to get to the NCAA Tournament first.
Last season, Christon took the Atlantic 10 Conference by storm, putting a team with nine upperclassmen on his back. He swept the A-10 Rookie of the Week award for the entire season, even as Xavier head coach Chris Mack admits, “We threw a lot on his plate last year.”
After a shaky first game against Butler last November, Christon exploded for an average of 17.7 points and five assists per game over the next seven outings. From there, he went on to lead the Musketeers in minutes (34.3 per game), field goals made, field goals attempted, free throws made, free throws attempted, assists (4.6 per game), steals (1.5) and points (15.2).
“I knew his size, his length and his speed would be able to impact the game right away,” Steele says. “All those things are elite level at his position.
“I had a chance to coach Mike Conley, Eric Gordon and even Jordan Crawford when he transferred in. I would put Semaj up against any of them.”
Christon’s freshman numbers rival those of former No. 1 overall pick John Wall. It’s no coincidence either as Christon models his game after the former Kentucky point guard. He believes he’s similar to Wall when it comes to getting into the lane, beating people off the dribble and finishing around the basket.
One reason for Christon’s instant success in the NCAA was his time at Brewster Academy.
“That was a big thing, to be honest,” he says. “If [a recruit] can go to prep school it will help a lot for college.”
In 2011, Christon suited up for the Bobcats alongside more highly touted recruits like Mitch McGary (starting center for Michigan), T.J. Warren (starting forward for N.C. State) and Jakarr Sampson (starting forward for St. John’s), and then earned his reputation by dishing out assists and developing into a skilled floor leader.
“It was a good experience, coming in and getting to know them guys,” Christon says. “They weren’t cocky either, [playing with them] gave me confidence.”
As a freshman at Xavier, he was forced to focus more on scoring than being the dime-dropper he was at Brewster Academy. But the team finished with only 17 wins, marking the first time the team failed to win at least 20 with coach Chris Mack running the show. While he was a stud as an individual, Christon wasn’t quite ready to take the reins, a young guy surrounded by more experienced players. This year, everyone’s planning for something different.
“Last year I really wouldn’t say too much,” Christon says. “I was the young guy on the team and everybody else was older than me. So I lead by doing what I had to do. Now I have to teach the younger guys and show them the ropes.”
This year, the coaching staff hopes their instructions will be joined by Christon’s voice.
“Your best player is going to be a leader regardless of if he wants to be or not,” Steele says. “As he goes the team goes.”
During the past summer, Christon learned firsthand about leadership from the two kings of Ohio basketball: Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. He attended both players’ skill camps; Irving’s a more point guard-oriented setting while James’ was compiled of the best players in the nation regardless of position. Christon says they both were talking all the time on the court.
If he is able to incorporate that into his game, it will mean more success for the Musketeers. With the recent conference realignment, Xavier will debut in the Big East this season, playing against the likes of Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s. It’s a new challenge, but one that Christon is very excited for.
While his freshman season was one for the record books, Semaj is only going to get better. Xavier is known for developing talent. Despite only sporting one McDonald’s All American, the school has produced 17 NBA players over the last 20 years.
With a stronger supporting cast this year, Xavier is ready to make sure their one-year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament doesn’t extend any further. Christon hopes to make at least the Elite Eight. The team’s head coach is just as excited.
“Semaj had to do more than any freshmen I ever coached, including David West and Chris Paul,” Mack says. I’m anxious to see what he can do now with more pieces around him.”
By the time March rolls around, Christon might just replace that guy from Akron and the kid from New Jersey in the hearts of Ohio hoops fans.
How good will Xavier be this year?
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