The waiting is over. The hype can now begin in earnest.
Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron was granted a legislative relief waiver by the NCAA on Saturday morning, making him immediately eligible, and as a result, St. John’s now has its most talented team in years.
The 6-foot-5 Heron, from Waterbury, Conn., came back to the area to be closer to his ill mother Thalia, which was the basis of the waiver. St. John’s was involved with the former five-star, top-20 recruit coming out of high school, before he settled on Auburn.
“Obviously, his scoring, his strength, his versatility, that’s all stuff people see on the court,” St. John’s coach Chris Mullin told The Post. “I just think the experience — you add a fourth guy with legitimate big-time college basketball experience — is a big thing for us.”
“I’m incredibly thankful that the NCAA has decided to allow me to play right away closer to home,” Heron said in a statement. “I would like to thank all the staff at St Johns that fought to make this a possibly for me and my family.”
Heron and Brooklyn guard Shamorie Ponds, the Big East’s returning leading scorer at 21.6 points per game and its likely Preseason Player of the Year, could form one of the premier one-two punches in the country. They are familiar with each other from their AAU days and even were in three of the same NBA draft workouts last spring when they were both considering going pro. In terms of ability, the juniors compare favorably with any duo in the Big East.
“Most important is how they play together,” Mullin said.
Heron led co-SEC champion Auburn in scoring a year ago at 16.4 points per game and also tallied 5.3 rebounds, keying the program’s best season in 19 years. A college coach familiar with Heron described him as a physical and efficient scorer, not necessarily a playmaker, but someone who will move the ball and take quality shots.
“He plays the right way,” the coach said. “Good rebounder. Scores inside and out.”
“He’s very, very fundamentally sound. The thing that impresses me the most is his maturity, the way he practices, the way he approaches his daily routines,” Mullin said. “He’s got a professional attitude.”
When asked about the talent he now sees on the practice court, Mullin smiled. In addition to Ponds and Heron, he has returning starters Marvin Clark II and Justin Simon, along with talented sit-out transfers Sedee Keita (South Carolina) and Mikey Dixon (Quinnipiac) and impressive junior college All-American L.J. Figueroa. The Johnnies remain undersized — the 6-foot-9 Keita and raw freshman Josh Roberts are their lone true big men — but Heron, the 6-6 Figueroa, 6-5 Simon and 6-7 Clark give them versatility that was lacking last year.
“We got a lineup we can put out there [where] we can play small and be a good rebounding team,” Mullin said.
It would seem to be the perfect storm for Mullin and St. John’s. It has its best team — on paper at least — in his tenure and the league is going through a transition, with so many teams losing so many quality players. After three seasons of losing, a cumulative 38-60 record, St. John’s seems poised to win.
“My excitement is, yeah, we got much better talent. That usually, and should, translate,” Mullin said. “But, also, I’m kind of excited we took this journey to get here, and took a bunch of hits, endured them, took whatever came with it, and now we’re here to throw some blows.”