January 19, 2016

BY JOHN D. HOMAN
Logan Media Services

CARTERVILLE – When talking about his John A. Logan College basketball experience, Justin Lukens can’t suppress a grin. He’s enjoying life too much.

After redshirting his first year and subbing his second year behind starter Connor Wheeler, the Herrin native finally got his opportunity to start this season and has seized on that opportunity to help lead the Volunteers to a 17-1 record to date.

“I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help this team win,” Lukens said. “All that matters at the end of the day, to me, is how many wins we have. The individual stats don’t matter as much.”

The son of a former John A. Logan College player – Irv Lukens – who is in his 10th year as head coach of the Herrin High School boys’ team, Justin Lukens said he couldn’t have asked for a better college experience up to this point.

“I really appreciate the relationship I have with Coach (Kyle) Smithpeters and Coach (Zach) Carpenter. They have helped me in so many different ways. They took a chance on this scrawny kid from Herrin and let him play college basketball. I can’t thank them enough for that chance. And although I knew I was going to be part of a successful program here at Logan, I never thought we would win as many games as we have won in the three years I have been here (64-19 and counting), including a trip to Nationals last year. It’s definitely been a good start to my college career.”

There is no wow factor when reviewing Lukens’ individual numbers. He is only averaging a little over four points per game, converting 38 percent of his shots from the field (23-of-61); 30 percent of shots from beyond the arc (8-of-27); and 55 percent of his free throws (22-of-40). He is also averaging over four assists and three rebounds from his point guard position.

But statistics don’t tell the whole story.

Lukens is setting the offense the way it has been designed with few turnovers, averaging less than two turnovers per game. He is also a steadying influence with the younger players when adversity strikes. And there have been a few highlight-reel moments for the former Tiger.

Right out of the gate, Lukens dished out a season-high 10 assists in the win over Bethel University. He followed that effort up with seven more assists against Kentucky Wesleyan. He hit a big triple that gave Logan the lead back late in a road win at Southwestern Illinois. He hit the game-winning 3-pointer in double overtime at Wabash Valley. He led the team in rebounds with seven against Olney, no small accomplishment for a point guard. And he had seven more boards, second best on the team, at Lewis & Clark.

Lukens’ best scoring effort to date was 11 points to go along with four rebounds and two assists against Wabash. But his best all-around effort may have come in the team’s only loss of the season at Vincennes, Ind. (10 points, six assists and no turnovers).

“Experience has helped me out a bunch,” the 6-foot-2 sophomore said. “The game has slowed down for me mentally. I can process things much better now than I could a couple of years ago. I’d like to think that if something is going wrong out there on the floor, I can see what it is right away and can tell my teammates what we need to do to make it right.”

JALC fourth-year head coach Kyle Smithpeters said the Vols are fortunate to have Lukens a part of the program.

“It takes a good basketball mind to see all the small things that Justin does for this team on a daily basis,” Smithpeters said. “Justin has a high basketball IQ. He does a great job of getting the ball to his teammates in the right places and can also step up and hit a big shot if needed. He’s a good enough shooter that he could average double figures if he simply took more shots, but Justin is unselfish and has done a great job of creating a winning chemistry with this group.”

Smithpeters added that Lukens is a “natural winner” and that his positive contributions to the team far outweigh the negative.

“I wouldn’t rule out the idea of Justin playing Division I basketball as he is very good at determining when and where to do things on the floor. He just has to find the right fit.”

Much like he benefited from a veteran point guard in Wheeler, Lukens hopes he is helping to make the transition to college ball much easier for freshman point guard Armon Benford.

“It’s going to be Armon’s team next year,” Lukens said. “So I want to do what I can to make sure he is ready. Occasionally, I will give him some ideas on how I go about stuff.”

Unlike most other players, Lukens also benefited from growing up with a dad who played and coached the game.

“That definitely helped in my development as a player,” Lukens said. “Anytime I needed to ask a question, all I had to do was walk down the hall.”

With plans to major in physical therapy, Lukens said he would like to continue his basketball career at a four-year school next fall.
“Wherever the best opportunity for me lies is where I will probably go,” he said. “While I would love to play Division I ball, I would be OK with playing for a Division II school.”

As for this season, Lukens said he and his teammates are pursuing that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

“We want to win the conference and postseason tournament and go back to Nationals,” he said. “We sophomores who were there last year still feel like we have some unfinished business to tend to.”

Although coaching is not something he sees himself doing anytime soon, Lukens didn’t rule out the possibility.
“Maybe later on down the road. I don’t know. I have thought about it, but I might be a little too intense to coach. I’m not sure my style would go over very well.”

Perhaps not, but that intensity is working quite well for him on the hardwood.

“I just want to distribute the ball where it needs to go,” Lukens said. “And if it comes down to taking a shot in a big moment, I’m not afraid to take it. My teammates have confidence in me as I do in them and I have confidence in myself.”