Aaron Wheeler finding game for St. John’s


OMAHA, Neb. — The stat line — five points, three rebounds, one assist and one block — wasn’t overly impressive.

It didn’t scream breakout performance. Or even suggest bigger things to come.

But to Aaron Wheeler, that game could be the turning point of his season. He contributed in a positive way to a victory. He stopped looking over his shoulder to coach Mike Anderson after making a mistake.

“That gave me a little confidence, told Coach Anderson he can trust me,” the St. John’s forward told The Post in a phone interview on the eve of Wednesday’s visit to Creighton. “I really think that DePaul game was the turning point.”

Since that 31-minute effort in an 89-84 Jan. 5 win against DePaul, the 6-foot-9 Wheeler has been a different player. He’s posted three straight double-digit games — averaging 12.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. He’s made 7 of 14 3-point attempts. He’s defended well and provided significant contributions at both ends of the floor.

It all started against DePaul. With St. John’s (10-5, 2-2 Big East) shorthanded due to COVID-19, he logged a season high in minutes. Anderson was forced to use the Purdue transfer extensively. And he’s continued to play him since, as Wheeler has begun to provide the qualities St. John’s thought it was getting as a valuable 3-point threat, versatile defender and ball-moving forward.

St. John's Red Storm forward Aaron Wheeler (1) drives to up court
Aaron Wheeler
Corey Sipkin

“I haven’t even been thinking about his scoring. I’ve been thinking about his energy, his effort on defense, rebounding the basketball [and] being a hard matchup,” Anderson said. “I think his confidence is soaring right now.”

Wheeler admitted it was a major change for him coming from Purdue, which plays a slow style and runs a regimented offense. Anderson’s teams play fast — St. John’s is ranked sixth in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom.com — and he gives his players freedom to read and react offensively. In practice, Wheeler would be impressive. But it didn’t carry over to the games.

It came to a head in early December. Wheeler logged just one minute against Fordham and didn’t get off the bench in a win over Monmouth. That was a first.

“That was a shock,” he said. “I think coach Anderson plays a long game, tests where your [head] is at. He was trying to prove a point to me, that the team needs my contributions. Just go out there and play like it’s my last game.”

Finally, this season seems headed in the right direction for Wheeler — and by extension, St. John’s, which has picked up its play of late. This is what he imagined by transferring to the Queens school: a chance to showcase his game and have a big role on a quality team.

Growing up, in fact, Wheeler was a St. John’s fan despite living in Connecticut. His father, Bill Jr., was extremely close with former St. John’s coach Norm Roberts, and Aaron would attend camps at St. John’s. His favorite players were D.J. Kennedy and Dwight Hardy. The family never lost that attachment to the program, and Aaron kept tabs on them. He remembered watching the Johnnies’ upset of Villanova last year.

“Just seeing them cause havoc against Villanova was an eye-opener for me,” he said.

Lately, Wheeler’s play has been an eye-opener for Anderson and St. John’s. They hope this recent stretch is only a start for him.