The last time a 6-foot-7-inch, 215-pound first generation Indian-American basketball player with a 4.0 GPA had a significant impact on an NCAA Division I basketball program was — never.
Junior recruit Sai Tummala wants to alter history, and, if he succeeds, the ASU men’s basketball program could finally find itself dancing.
“We have plenty of talent as a team, and we should definitely have a goal of not just making the tournament, but making a run,” Tummala said. “I just want to get in there and contribute however I can.”
Tummala, who led Brophy College Preparatory to a runner-up finish in the state 5A championship in 2011, began his college career as a redshirt at the University of Michigan. After one year, he transferred to Salt Lake City College, where he averaged 14.5 ppg, shot 41 percent from the three-point line and helped his team reach fifth in the nationwide rankings.
Tummala said the University of Pittsburgh, UA, the University of Texas, BYU and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, among others, recruited him but in the end, he transferred to ASU because he wanted a better opportunity to play and wanted to be able to have an impact on a program.
“It’s kind of a turning point for ASU, and I really think there is a lot of potential here,” he said. “Plus, I have a great relationship with coach Johnson and I really thought this would be the right place for me.”
ASU assistant coach Stan Johnson played a large role in recruiting Tummala and said his progress since he graduated from high school has been immense.
Johnson said Tummala brings great value to the team, both on and off the court, and with three years of eligibility left, has an extremely “high ceiling.”
“The thing I like about Sai is that he has the highest character, and he seems to always want to get better,” Johnson said. “A lot of guys talk about getting better, but Sai actually works hard at it, and when you have that attitude, great things will happen for you.”
Johnson said he hopes that over time, Tummala will develop into a player that is similar to Carrick Felix, both in his play and his leadership.
“But that will definitely take some time, because Carrick put a lot of hard work and sweat into it,” he said. “The next guy, if that is Sai, will have to do the same thing.”
SLCC head coach Todd Phillips said Tummala was “raw” when he arrived at SLCC because he redshirted for a year at Michigan.
“It took him a little while to get going, but he had tremendous confidence in his abilities and his shot,” he said. “He worked incredibly hard to develop his skill and his game, and he ended up being rock solid for us all year long.”
Phillips said Tummala’s intelligence helps him learn and pick up schemes quickly while his strengths are his jump shot and his ability to spread the floor.
“He’s a tremendous student and athlete, and he is going to fit a need there at ASU. I think he will be able to step in and contribute right away,” he said.
Trainer Tim Howard has been working with Tummala for the past two years and said his game has evolved immensely in that time.
Howard has also worked with Jahii Carson and said that Tummala is the “perfect fit” for ASU and could be the piece needed for the team to make it to the tournament.
“Sai has that ability to play off of Jahii, and he is very efficient. He doesn’t need 20 shots to score 18 points,” he said.
Howard said Tummala’s work ethic is unprecedented, and he can’t think of anyone who works harder than Sai, other than maybe his sister Shilpa, who plays basketball at Harvard.
“Their father and mother taught them perfection, and sometimes we will be in the gym for three hours before Sai is happy,” Howard said. “I think he will help bring ASU to a new level.”
Tummala said he learned a great deal about work ethic, not only from his parents who are doctors, but also from his time at Michigan with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Both are in Tummala’s class, and both are projected as first round draft picks in the 2013 NBA draft.
“Tim and Trey really have a different mental approach to the game than everybody else, and I learned a lot about what it takes to compete at the next level,” he said. “I learned a lot about winning basketball culture and how everyone is willing to sacrifice their ego for the team, for the program and ultimately, to win.”
Tummala said he and his younger sister Shilpa have always had a competitive relationship, and the two have inspired each other to become better.
“We compete at everything, who can run faster, who can hit more shots, who spends more time at the gym,” he said. “As a result, it really benefitted both of us.”
With three years of eligibility, Tummala said that his goal is to graduate ASU with a masters degree and eventually follow in his parents’ footsteps to become a doctor.
“I want to play basketball as long as I can, and basketball is a top priority right now, but at the same time I know I want to get the job done in the classroom as well,” he said. “Academics are really big in my family and really important to me.”
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