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Led by a star backcourt, Bobby Hurley’s ASU has sky-high potential for the future

Point guard Shannon Evans embraces coach Bobby Hurley during a game at the Univeristy at Buffalo. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Hurley)

It’s hard to believe Arizona State’s men’s basketball team went just 15-17 last year because with a severe lack of talent, first-year head coach Bobby Hurley somehow made it work.

With only eight scholarship players at the start of last season and having only those eight players in the rotation, Hurley had his team playing a tough, physical, no-quit brand of basketball immediately, giving his program an identity right out of the gate. The excitement that came along with the style makes one wonder what Hurley can do with more talent at his disposal.

We could find out this year. Hurley’s squad is built around a core group that could potentially be around for the next two seasons.

The Sun Devils lost five of those eight players from last year’s rotation. Seniors Gerry Blakes, Willie Atwood and Eric Jacobsen graduated, junior forward Savon Goodman transferred, and junior guard Andre Spight left the program. Even though he lost 59 percent of his scoring from last season, Hurley arguably has a better basketball team this year than last.

ASU gets a big boost from junior guard Shannon Evans, who followed Hurley from Buffalo to the desert. Evans will quickly go from an unknown to one of the most talked about players on the west coast.

The buzz was undeniable when Evans was practicing with the team last season, widely regarded as the best player on the team despite sitting out. He already has NCAA Tournament experience after he led Buffalo to the dance in his sophomore season in 2014-15, averaging 15.4 points and a team-high 4.6 assists per game.

Evans is, as Hurley calls him, electric. He flies around the court on both ends with terrific combo guard abilities and plays with a rare balance found in young guards. He recorded the first triple-double in Buffalo history and scored at least 20 points in eight different games during his sophomore season.

Evans will bounce between guard positions and so will his running mate, junior guard Tra Holder.

Holder exceeded all expectations last season as a starting point guard, leading the team in minutes, points and assists. He never showed any ounce of fear, playing arguably his best games of the season on the biggest stages such as at the Barclays Center in a 22-point effort for an upset win over North Carolina State and scoring 24 points in Tempe against the program’s biggest rival, Arizona.

Holder is a scoring guard who struggled to shoot or distribute coming into last season, but still managed to get his teammates involved enough and shoot a solid 37 percent from three-point range on four attempts per game. The growth he showed will leave Evans in a comfortable spot going back and forth between point guard responsibilities while Holder runs the team that is rightfully his.

The piece that seamlessly fits with the rest of the team and its potential offensively is four-star freshman and top-50 recruit Sam Cunliffe, the best recruit the program has landed since James Harden. Cunliffe, a 6-foot-6, 200-pound wing from Seattle, is a rare combination of athleticism, scoring prowess and shooting.

Cunliffe is streaky, however, and when combined with players like Holder and Evans, it’s truly a boom-or-bust group on the perimeter.

The Sun Devils will be without four-star power forward Romello White, who will miss the year due to an academic redshirt. The 6-foot-8, 220-pound interior-oriented forward is the prototypical big who plays with relentless energy and athleticism that would have been perfect for ASU. The Sun Devils had five players average at least four rebounds a game last season and only one, senior forward Obinna Oleka, is returning.

Without White, the team will rely on the physical specimen and four-star freshman center Jethro Tshisumpa as the interior presence, an incredibly raw, but tantalizing prospect. The juggling act for Hurley with the 6-foot-10, 260-pound big man will be how much they need him on the floor while also maximizing his efficiency.

He has a ways to go in terms of learning the game, but can also be a game-changer defensively when everything is clicking. The leaders in blocks per game for the Sun Devils last year were Jacobsen with 1.0, Oleka at 0.6 and Goodman averaging 0.5, so a consistent shot-blocking presence would be a welcome change.

The lack of flexibility on the interior puts the pressure on the Sun Devils’ supporting cast around their three perimeter players, and that group will sink or swim with Oleka. The 6-foot-8 senior is arguably undersized as a stretch-four, and by all indications he will spend some time playing center this season.

Along with the likes of Goodman and Jacobsen, Oleka was one of the hardest workers on the team last year, averaging 6.1 rebounds per game and providing the energy off the bench.

His battle with consistency was the story last season, as he shot only 40 percent from the field and made 3-of-17 (18 percent) from three-point range over the first 13 games before shooting 21-for-56 (38 percent) from deep in his last 13 games. For ASU’s up-tempo offense to really thrive, Oleka needs to have a big senior year.

The added bonuses for Arizona State will be junior guard Kodi Justice and senior guard Torian Graham.

Justice proved he was a knockdown shooter last season, tying for a team-high 150 three-point attempts and making 40 percent of them. Nearly doubling his playing time from 12.7 minutes a game in his freshman season to 24.8 last season was a tremendous benefit that will have his defense and comfort level in a far better spot than it would have been had he played spotty minutes for the second straight season.

Graham, another transfer who followed Hurley to Tempe from Buffalo, is a 23-year-old former top-100 recruit who, after a bizarre journey, has yet to play Division I college basketball. Now in his final year of eligibility after stops at Buffalo and Chipola (FL) Junior College, the extremely talented scorer appears to finally be in the right place to succeed  — he scored 23 points in the team’s lone exhibition game — and could prove to be the piece that puts ASU over the top as a legitimate threat on a nightly basis.

If Hurley proved anything last season, it’s that his team will never stop working for him and he can adjust to whatever he’s provided with on the roster. While his team will struggle with size, the offensive firepower of his small-ball lineup could catch plenty of teams off guard this season. There’s too much roster turnover and a large hole down low to have a major turnaround this season, but a strong freshman class and a star backcourt duo that should be back in 2017 has the program’s potential higher than ever.

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