Green Bay head coach Will Ryan and his staff have made a few tweaks to their rotation over the past few weeks including moving PJ Pipes off the ball to more of a shooting guard role, inserting freshman walk-on Ryan Claflin into the starting line-up, and keeping Lucas Stieber as the team’s starting point guard.
The biggest ripple effect of those moves meant senior guard Josh Jefferson would be coming off the bench for the first time this season as he had started the team’s first six games before missing the Christmas weekend series at Wright State due to injury. He briefly returned to action on New Year’s Day at Youngstown State but did not start the game due to disciplinary reasons while playing through a nagging injury. He was ineffective in that game scoring 5 points in 12 minutes and sat out the next day due to the same upper body injury suffered prior to the series at Wright State.
Fast forward to this past weekend and the Phoenix stuck with the same starting lineup despite Jefferson being healthy and ready to play and the results could not have been better for Green Bay. The 6’2” guard scored a career high 25 points on 8-10 shooting and chipped in 5 assists on Friday night and followed it up with a 19 point performance on Saturday night to help the Phoenix secure the sweep and improve to 3-5 in conference play, 3-9 overall.
It was a bit of a change for Jefferson who is one of the most talented guards in the Horizon League and has started the majority of the games he’s played during his college career.
“It’s different but I want to win,” Jefferson said of coming off the bench following the 84-81 overtime victory on Friday. “We’re 1-9 starting out and it just got to a point where whatever I have to do is what I have to do. Lucas has stepped in great for this team and if he keeps doing his thing it is what it is, as long as we keep winning.”
Jefferson has come off the bench before – he only started 4 of the 21 games he played as a junior at Illinois State – but started 47 of his 56 games at the junior college level along with the first six games of this season.
In three games against mid-major opponents as a starter this season, Jefferson scored 16.3 points and added 3.0 assists per game on 44.2% shooting – including just 30.4% from behind the arc. But in the two game sweep over Oakland, Jefferson averaged 22.0 points and took less shots to get there. He shot a blistering 72.7% from the floor and 66.7% (6 for 9) from behind the arc.
“Extremely proud of how he handled things,” Ryan said after the game Friday. “It’s tough coming off the bench when you’re used to starting. I told him that I’ve kind of been thinking about it the last week or two before he got injured to possibly bring him off the bench to give us a spark.”
“Him being dinged up and missing some practice time and then with disciplinary stuff, I told him ‘hey, this is how we’re going to roll. It doesn’t matter if you start…if you’re on the floor at the end of the game and you’re playing well, great. Give me what you can’ and wow.”
“That’s a pretty good stat line off the bench,” Ryan said of Jefferson’s 25 points and 5 assists on Friday.
With a three game winning streak to their name the Phoenix head to Michigan this weekend for a two game series with Detroit Mercy on Friday and Saturday and will try to get back to .500 in Horizon League play.
Ryan has previously mentioned wanting to establish some “continuity” with his rotations so it’s a good bet that we will see the same starting five on Friday night with Jefferson continuing his new role as a 6th man providing some firepower off the bench.
It’s seemingly been a smooth transition so far and the early results show that the changes are working.
“We’ve never lost confidence, even through all the adversity we were going through,” Jefferson said Friday. “We knew if we keep fighting and keep trusting the coaches plan we’ll be just fine.”
“Things are starting to come along and I think it’s just the beginning.”
Photo via Green Bay Phoenix Athletics