St. Joe's-'Nova: Hawks' Demery finds his role

Yes, it's early, but since the Holy War is upon us, eighth-ranked Villanova visiting St. Joseph's Tuesday at Hagan Arena, it's not too early to note tonight's home team is a different team this season, so far a better team.

Maybe the easiest way to see it is look at one Hawks player and his changing role.

Last season, needing to replace a group of stars that took them to an Atlantic 10 title, the Hawks placed some big expectations on freshman James Demery. Too high, said Hawks coach Phil Martelli, speaking for himself. They needed another consistent scorer and hoped the 6-foot-6 wing player was ready. Demery thought he was ready. He soon found out he had some things to learn.

"I had to learn how to play in a system," Demery said last week. "You come from high school, if you're the best player, you get the ball, you pretty much do what you want to do."

"I think it's harder for a lot of freshman than they think," Martelli said, noting the mindset of a typical freshman: "It's basketball as it's been, whether high school or summer, and I'm pretty good at it."

A starter last season, Demery is pretty much the sixth man this time. The fact Demery is so far playing better than last season in this new role tells you this is a different team, going beyond the Hawks' 4-1 record, after 13-18 in 2014-15.

Last season, Demery averaged 6.7 points a game in 24.3 minutes. His minutes are down slightly, to 20.8, but his scoring average is up to 9.8. His shooting percentage has skied, up to 52.5 percent from 36.6.

Again, it's early. But this new role really seems to fit. If you're going to bring an energy guy off your bench, he needs to have energy. That's Demery. He wants the toughest defensive assignment. A summer in the weight room also made Demery believe the drives he finished in high school are more available again.

"I'm able to take contact and actually finish with someone hitting me and not falling off balance like I did last year," Demery said.

He also points out all the shots he took last summer with Hawks assistant Dave Duda - "thousands of shots, every day. My form was a little off."

Has he ever come off the bench before?

"No, first time," Demery said.

So what's it like?

"Oooh, in the beginning, when I talked to Coach Martelli and he told me I was coming off the bench, it was a shocker to me," Demery said. "It was the first time. I looked at it in a positive manner. 'I guess this is my role now.' I'm able to adjust to that and continue to get better and grow.''

If he sees himself as a kind of sixth starter, does that make it easier?

"Yes, sir," Demery said.

Demery knew all the hard work he put in over the summer was likely to pay off, but Martelli explained that he held a competition, with putting the best offensive lineup on the floor being "a premium." Anybody who paid attention to the Hawks last season saw a team that just couldn't shoot.

"The formation of this team - we can't repeat and get better," Martelli said. "We won 13 times. What is going to make us better? Competition would make us better."

When Martelli decided to start senior Aaron Brown over Demery - sort of exchanging their roles - and told Demery, the coach said, "I guess the greatest compliment I can pay him is, he was James. He's an easy kid to root for because he has such a good character. He hadn't pouted. The day after they were given their roles . . . he went out and had his two best practices."

Demery said he got down on himself last season, remembering the low point being an 0-for-8 shooting night at La Salle. But his confidence is at the opposite end right now. Even in the Hawks' sole loss to Florida, Demery had 17 points on 7 for 13 shooting. He's only made 1 of 8 three-point tries, but he's finding his way to better shooting spots or right to the rim. He's a tough matchup again. He's made 20 out of 32 two-pointers.

"You can't play the game of basketball without confidence," Demery said. "You can't."

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus