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Former ASU hoops F Zylan Cheatham impressing at NBA Summer League

Former teammates of Zylan Cheatham believe he has the skills to succeed in the NBA. (Photo by Sebastian Emanuel/Cronkite News)

LAS VEGAS – It is not hard to find someone around the NBA Summer League who has crossed paths with Zylan Cheatham and been impressed.

The former Arizona State standout is showcasing his skills for the New Orleans Pelicans, who signed him after the NBA Draft. He is averaging 24 minutes, six points and nine rebounds through three games, and in his second against the Washington Wizards, he posted a double-double.

“He just plays with a high motor and he’s not going to stop,” said the Charlotte Hornets’ Jalen McDaniels. “He’s very athletic, he’s at you every play, full 40 minutes. Ever since I’ve known him, he’s played with a high motor and that’s what separates him from most guys on the floor.”

McDaniels was a teammate of Cheatham’s at San Diego State, where Cheatham played before coming back to his home state for his senior season to play for the Sun Devils. 

He left an impression on some of his former Aztecs.

“From day one, he came in and brought his own kind of energy and just worked hard,” said Denver Nuggets forward Skylar Spencer, who was a senior when Cheatham was a redshirt freshman. “It’s no surprise that he is where he is right now.”

The NBA Summer League – which got off to a bumpy start when an aftershock from Friday night’s earthquake in California left the fans in sold out Thomas and Mack Center looking for safety and answers – serves a variety of purposes. It can showcase stars, as it did Friday when No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson and the Pelicans squared off against former Duke teammate and the No. 3 overall pick R.J. Barrett and the New York Knicks. And it can provide a forum for those with something to prove, like Cheatham.

Cheatham averaged a double-double (12.1 points and 10.3 rebounds a game) in his lone year at ASU. He left the program with the reputation of a leader and helped the team finish with a winning Pac-12 record and an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Then, his eligibility was up and his chance to pursue the NBA near.

When he attended the 2019 NBA Draft with ASU teammate Luguentz Dort and coach Bobby Hurley, most experts anticipated Dort to have his named called but not Cheatham. Neither did.

Both players quickly signed as undrafted rookies and went to the Summer League to compete for training camp spots — Dort with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Cheatham with the Pelicans. Both signed two-way contracts, allowing them to be with their respective NBA teams for a maximum 45 days and still play for the G League affiliate.

In his first Summer League game, Cheatham played 25 minutes and finished with six points, eight rebounds and three blocks. His role was increased throughout the night as Williamson suffered a knee injury and was held out for precautionary reasons.

“I spoke to Z last night after his game and he told me he likes the game that he had and the team he has,” Dort said Saturday after the Thunder’s loss to the Utah Jazz.

For the team’s second game against the Wizards, Cheatham was in the starting lineup. He showed off his skills that ASU fans know very well, posting a double-double.

Cheatham finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds in the team’s 84-79 loss.

Pelicans Summer League coach Fred Vinson took note of Cheatham’s contributions.

“I love his energy,” Vinson said. “Zylan has brought such an energy to our team, not just on the floor but off the court as well. He’s really hyper and really gets the guys going.”

Cheatham didn’t have his best shooting performance, hitting 20 percent, but his coach believes the more he plays, the more shots will fall.

“On the floor, he does a great job of setting screens, rolling,” Vinson said. “(He) didn’t finish as well tonight as I’m sure he would like to finish.”

He continued to struggle with his shot Monday against the Chicago Bulls, going 0 for 5, but grabbed eight rebounds and demonstrated a strong presence on the floor.

“Zylan, he’s a great leader,” McDaniels said. “He leads by example. He’s very vocal. He will let you know what you are doing wrong and what you need to do right. He’s a great leader and I think guys can look at him.”

McDaniels said when Zylan was in early at the gym while at SDSU, it inspired him.

“If Zylan’s here then I should be doing the same,” McDaniels said.

In their brief year together, McDaniels took notes from Cheatham to help his overall game.

“That was my guy,” McDaniels said. “We would go to the gym and shoot together, work out, play one-on-one. He’s a very competitive dude. He just makes everybody better that he plays with.”

Spencer knew that Cheatham had a chance in the league to showcase his talent with the athleticism that he has.

“He’s always been explosive since high school and everyone’s seen that,” Spencer said. “He never let anybody outwork him and getting things like double-doubles come natural to him, when you work hard and you are blessed with that athletic ability that he has.”

Cheatham will look to continue his presence as an energy guy and earn his spot on the New Orleans Pelicans come October when the 2019-20 season begins.

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