Ahead of a season filled with uncertainty, one thing is clear for ASU men's basketball: With returning stars and a highly touted recruiting class, head coach Bobby Hurley has assembled a roster that embodies his vision of an up tempo, athletic, elite outside shooting machine.
Following a year in which its pursuit of a third straight NCAA tournament appearance was cut short, ASU begins the 2020-21 season ranked in the top 25 for the first time in over a decade at No. 18.
The Sun Devils’ most established player is senior guard Remy Martin, a preseason first team All-American selection who, after initially declaring for the NBA draft, decided to return to ASU in what he described as “one of the toughest decisions (he’s) ever made.”
Since beginning his collegiate career three seasons ago, Martin has risen from a Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year as a freshman to a 19 point per game scorer and First Team All-Pac-12 honoree as a junior.
His speed enables ASU’s fast paced style, while his shiftiness, pull up game and playmaking also make him a half court weapon.
Despite his dynamism, Martin said he still hopes to progress on the defensive end, as he cited winning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year as a goal of his, and as a decision maker, having averaged over three turnovers per game last year.
“I make some tough shots, but I want to make smart decisions,” Martin said. “Make the easy play, lessen the turnovers. Be a better, more complete basketball player.”
ASU also returns its second-leading scorer from last season in senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr., the reigning Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year. Verge possesses the ability to change speeds and finish around the rim at a high level, and after a poor start from deep, he shot over 41.7% from three and averaged 16.7 points per game in the second half of last season.
Adding to its established backcourt, ASU brings in the self-proclaimed “best freshman duo in the country” with Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley, both of whom complement ASU’s up tempo, perimeter-centric play style.
Self-assured and oozing with energy, Christopher, a top ten recruit in the nation according to 247Sports, became a national spectacle in high school. Although he dazzled audiences with his dunks and creative handle, Christopher said he prides himself on his defense and ability to affect the game without scoring, a mentality he believes all of ASU’s gifted scorers have adopted.
Bagley, who was also a top 30 247Sports recruit, brings a blend of fluid athleticism, natural ball handling and pure shooting at 6-foot-8, and accordingly sees himself in the mold of a “big guard” a la Kawhi Leonard or Paul George.
“(Bagley's) been killing it in practice,” Martin said. “Stretching the floor, making open shots, making plays, dunking the ball, making weak side blocks.”
Despite his athletic tools and improved rebounding, which Hurley praised, Bagley’s greatest strength will likely be his shooting, as he estimated his range extends to about 30 feet.
“When I was little, coming up in Arizona playing AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball, that's literally all I was known for,” Bagley said. “I couldn't do anything else.”
The additions of both freshmen should help ASU improve upon its 32.3% shooting from deep last season, the lowest mark of the Bobby Hurley era.
Senior guard Holland Woods, a transfer from Portland State, will add even more potency to the ASU perimeter attack, having averaged 17.7 points and 5.2 assists per game last season en route to First Team All-Big-Sky honors.
Despite his sub 30% career three-point shooting, Hurley said Woods can knock down triples both off the dribble and in catch and shoot situations and distribute at a high level as an unselfish passer.
“When you have a number of guys who can put the ball in the basket, I think your players enjoy playing with a player who’s really looking to make his teammates better,” Hurley said.
The dirty work
Despite ASU's perimeter offensive talent, Hurley said defense remains a focal point and an area in which they have to improve.
“The same speed and athleticism and quickness that we could exhibit offensively, we have to commit to doing defensively,” Hurley said. “They have to strive to be one of the best defensive perimeters in the country.”
That high level perimeter defense is essential to ASU’s offensive success in transition, as they forced an impressive 16.4 turnovers per game last season and posted a 10-3 record when they topped that average.
Along with a returning defensive hound in sophomore guard Jaelen House, Woods, who Bagley described as “one of the best defenders (he’s) seen on-ball,” is expected to bolster that unit.
Despite the strength of the defense on paper, Hurley said that “alarms are going off a little bit” as far as the team’s maturity level, and they need to commit to doing “the little things” to truly contend.
“Who's going to do what Mickey Mitchell did for us last year?” Hurley said, referring to the senior who averaged less than two points per game. “Who's diving out of bounds to keep the ball in play? Who's getting on the floor for a loose ball?”
Players like House and junior forward Taeshon Cherry thrived in that role last season, frequently changing the momentum of the game with huge defensive plays. With more consistent outside shooting, either player would unlock a new ceiling this season.
But the Sun Devils did lose their interior defensive stalwart in Romello White, who nearly averaged a double-double last season, via transfer to Mississippi.
Sophomore Jalen Graham is currently expected to fill that role, having demonstrated shot-blocking instincts as a freshman while playing less than 11 minutes per game.
Hurley said he believes Graham will anchor ASU’s defense in the paint and be able to guard all five positions as needed. Offensively, Christopher also highlighted Graham’s jump shooting and capability out of the pick and roll, tools that he was not often able to display as a freshman.
Graham and Cherry are the veterans in the room as far as ASU’s bigs, as they bring in new faces in junior transfer Chris Osten, who Hurley praised for his "grit" and "motor," and Ukranian freshman Pavlo Dziuba, who, at just 17 years old, has a distinctive combination of size, skill and fluidity.
With ASU's incoming and returning talent, Hurley has a roster that aligns with his ideal scheme: athleticism on the wings, multiple ball handlers and shooting galore.
The tools are all there for a historic season — but perhaps the Sun Devils’ success will hinge on who decides to play the part of Mickey Mitchell.