Naji Marshall was supposed to be Xavier’s star this season. Last year he showed flashes as a rotation player in the best team the school has ever had. There was certainly enough to make a lot of people, including most of us here, think he would be the bell cow for the Musketeers this season. Right from the start, though, things didn’t go to plan. Naji started the season injured, then sick, then injured again. All of the sudden it was the end of January, and Naji was officially struggling.
On January 31st, something changed. For one, Naji looked free of the back injury that had slowed him for most of the year. Like a groin injury, a back problem is one of those that just impedes everything a person tries to do. Stretch that person into 6-7, 222 athlete and the problems compound. In that game against Georgetown, Naji went 6-13 from the floor and scored 16. It was a loss and the slide didn’t stop, but a seed had been planted.
Since that moment Naji is averaging 39 minutes per game, shooting 25-36 (!) inside the arc, and 37.2% behind the arc. He’s averaging 18.3/5.6/4.3 and has had four straight games with an offensive rating over 100. For those six games Naji has looked like, and actually probably exceeded, what fans expected this year.
For the season Naji is averaging 35.6 minutes per game. That’s up 14 minutes from where he was last year, and that’s even battling through both illness and injury. In the last span, he’s increased his minutes to the point where he is playing fully 18 more minutes per contest than he was last season. For comparison, there were 14 games last year where Naji didn’t play 18 minutes overall. Despite this, Naji is somehow getting stronger as the season wears on.
Credit to this has to go to Naji, obviously, but also to one of the more unsung members of Xavier’s returning staff, Matt Jennings. In addition to being a social media favorite and the ability to absolutely crush a softball, Jennings has worked with multiple of Xavier players carrying a heavier workload this year. Tyrique Jones is playing ten more contest than he did last year, Paul Scruggs is up a full 16, Q is getting four more minutes of run, and Elias Harden has seen a drastic spike as well. With the season wearing on, though, Xavier’s players are getting stronger.
The next three games are essentially bubble elimination tilts. Naji Marshall has developed into the player that we all had hoped he would be, but you can bet St. John’s and Butler have noticed that as well. Naji will have size advantages against the Red Storm and match up well at Hinkle, but only if his body can handle an incredible workload.