After a four-year NCAA Tournament hiatus, Mike Brey and the Notre Dame men’s basketball team are looking to maintain the positive momentum from breaking that streak and coming one defensive rebound away from a Sweet Sixteen berth. Their pursuit of another Big Dance appearance in 2023 will be aided by (at least) four new Irish faces: J.J. Starling, Ven-Allen Lubin, Dom Campbell, and Marcus Hammond.
Of those names, the headliner is Starling. Per 247Sports Composite, five 5-star recruits are joining the ACC out of high school next season. Four are going to Duke; Starling is the fifth. What’s more, the 6-foot-4 Baldwinsville, NY native is a unanimous five-star among the major recruiting services.
To get to know this incoming crop of Irish hoopers, we’re kicking off a series of film breakdowns beginning with Starling. Let’s get it started.
Starling blossomed against upgraded competition after transferring to La Lumiere School in La Porte, IN to finish his high school career. La Lumiere is a member of the National Interscholastic Basketball Conference (NIBC). In its inaugural season, the NIBC featured a series of games between its eight prestigious members, among them La Lu, Montverde Academy, Oak Hill Academy, Sunrise Christian Academy and IMG Academy.
As a senior at La Lu, Starling averaged 17.8 points on 49% shooting from the field and 35% from three as the Lakers went 6-4 in the NIBC. Starling’s production was good enough to earn him a spot in this year’s McDonald’s All-American Game.
If I had to describe Starling’s game in one word, it would probably be “polished.” It’s not as if he’s as good as he’ll ever be, but his mechanics are sharp and he has versatility as both a primary ball-handler and an off-ball player.
But above all else, Starling’s greatest offensive facet is attacking off the bounce. He is elite at beating opponents with his dribble and has an array of finishing moves once he gets to the interior.
Starling has also shown promise as a distributor once the defense collapses on him, although his first inclination is usually to find a way to get his shot off around the defense. That’s understandable considering he’s very good at finishing. Like, very good.
Offensive prowess is what made Starling a McDonald’s All-American and five-star recruit. My humble advice? Space the floor with shooters, get him in isolation or pick-and-roll situations and let him do the rest. Good things will probably happen.
Unlike his offensive contributions, Starling probably won’t move the needle significantly in either direction on the defensive side of the ball. He’s not necessarily a liability defensively, but he’s not a difference maker.
He doesn’t harass ball-handlers or jump passing lanes particularly well. He also doesn’t usually slide over and take charges or attempt to block shots when playing help defense. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if he’s trying to avoid silly fouls. But, more than anything, Starling is just sort of there defensively.
He’s athletic enough to stay with his assignment though not so athletic that he can recover if he loses focus. That’s a problem given that he sometimes focuses too much on either the ball or his assignment at the expense of the other and gets undisciplined when scrambling defensively.
Nate Laszewski was a charge-taking machine the last couple of years and that helped alleviate some of his shortcomings as a post defender. Likewise, Starling will probably need to pick up a defensive trick or two if he’s ever going to be a bona fide asset on that end of the court.
There isn’t much to say here. Starling doesn’t put much concerted effort into his rebounding, and he will sometimes leak out rather than crash the defensive glass. As frustrating as that may be at times, it’s the tradeoff you take with an athletic guard who thrives on the fast break.
At the same time, Starling has some decent offensive rebounding instincts, at least when his teammates shoot airballs, so maybe that’s a wrinkle Brey could put in the playbook.
Player Comp: Blake Wesley
It may be an unoriginal comparison, but why make this more complicated than it needs to be? The distinctions between Starling and Wesley are granular: Starling is just one inch shorter and as a combo guard he has more ball-handling capability than Wesley. Their athletic capabilities are comparable and they both have high motors. Essentially, Starling is a more refined version of Wesley at the same point in their respective careers.
Coming out of high school — and even throughout his freshman season at Notre Dame — Wesley’s offensive approach was to pretty much out-athlete the man in front of him. He was fearless attacking the basket, sometimes to a fault.
Generously listed at 6-foot-5, Wesley can’t jump out of a gym like Ja Morant or Anthony Edwards. Coming from a background where he was always the most athletic player on his high school court and during every Notre Dame practice, he was probably unaccustomed to scoring around trees down low. That surely contributed to his end-of-year struggles finishing at the rim.
Starling may likewise force the issue at times, but in addition to having a similar physical skillset to that of Wesley, he’s developed a reliable floater in the mid range. That’s probably an adaptation to the competition he faced at La Lumiere. Additionally, Starling has shown the presence of mind to adjust strategy mid-game, like he did against IMG Academy this past February. After getting layups blocked by a couple of 6-foot-8 guys in the first half...
... Starling adjusted and, with his team holding on to a lead in crunch time, turned to his floater...
... and again in double-overtime of the same game with his team down two points.
(Side note: La Lumiere point guard Aden Holloway, a four-star 2023 recruit, hit a game-winning three-pointer in this game. Combing through these game clips to find highlights of Starling, I couldn’t help but notice just how much of a floor-general Holloway is. He also has a Notre Dame offer and is a name to keep in mind because reuniting this La Lu backcourt in 2023 could be the second coming of Demetrius Jackson and Jerian Grant at Notre Dame.)
This isn’t to say that Starling will necessarily be better than Wesley was last season. Wesley was ultra aggressive because Notre Dame needed him to be and his play-style lent itself to that. Starling is a bit more in control because his game is more refined, which will probably lead to greater offensive efficiency in exchange for fewer high-risk, high-reward plays (especially defensively).
Regardless of whether Wesley stays in the NBA Draft or returns to Notre Dame, Starling should be starting next season.
If Wesley is gone, Starling is the ideal replacement who can do most of the same things as Wesley with more ball-handling responsibilities and a better shooting stroke. Niagara transfer Marcus Hammond would then slide into the role left by Prentiss Hubb and Dane Goodwin and/or Cormac Ryan round out the starting backcourt.
If Wesley returns, things get freaky. With Nate Laszewski apparently leaning toward pursuing a professional career, expect even more small-ball which would mean a lot of lineups featuring Hammond, Wesley, Starling and any two of Goodwin, Ryan and a big man. Don’t expect great post defense from that lineup, but it would give opposing defenses plenty of headaches.
As for accolades, the betting odds for ACC Rookie of the Year are on any of Duke’s incoming freshmen. However, since the Blue Devils loaded up on frontcourt players, Starling has a legitimate chance to show out as a guard and possibly snag the award next season. He could even be a first-team all-conference selection and is a legitimate one-and-done caliber player.