ASU hoops preview: Is Sun Devils’ wealth of scoring potential enough?
It’s game week for Arizona State basketball.
The offseason lasts just a couple of more days before the Sun Devils take on Colorado in Shanghai on Friday.
This is a retooling season for head coach Bobby Hurley.
On one hand, last year’s leading scorer Luguentz Dort and top rebounder Zylan Cheatham are now playing professionally.
But the Sun Devils have All-Pac-12 Second Team guard Remy Martin back alongside several returning impact players and a solid combination of junior college transfers and promising recruits.
The Pac-12 around ASU has mostly improved, so contending for the top spot will be challenging.
But ASU’s offense should put on a show if the pieces fall into place, a solid reason to be intrigued by the Sun Devils this year.
The Sun Devil roster may be missing two of its best playmakers from a year ago, but there is a lot of depth here, especially at guard.
The backcourt could be as deep, if not deeper, as two years ago when Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice led “Guard U” to the NCAA Tournament.
Martin and shooting guard Rob Edwards make a formidable duo.
The junior Martin improved as a playmaker and an aggressive scorer last season, and there are high expectations for this year.
He was one of 20 players placed on the Bob Cousy Award preseason watchlist, an honor that celebrates the best point guard in the country each year.
Alongside Martin, Edwards will be counted on to connect from deep often.
He shot 37.5% from three last year and he has never shot under 35% in three NCAA seasons.
Alonzo Verge Jr. appears to be ASU’s marquee newcomer after he scored 30.9 points per game in JUCO last season.
Whether he starts in a three-guard lineup or comes off the bench, he will spark a lot of energy on offense.
On 98.7 Arizona’s Sports Station’s Doug & Wolf, Hurley said that Verge is “arguably the best offensive guard I’ve ever coached.”
In 33 games last year, Verge scored 40 or more points six times. One game, he dropped 55 points on 17-of-24 shooting. He was ranked the fifth-best JUCO recruit in 2019 by 247Sports.
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) August 16, 2019
ASU also added a four-star recruit in point guard Jaelen House, son of former Sun Devil standout and NBA champion Eddie House.
House dominated the high school level with 21.6 points per game and 38% shooting from deep and Hurley has complimented his defense this preseason.
It seems that no matter how Hurley designs his rotations, there will always be multiple guards who could put up points on the floor.
Wings Taeshon Cherry and Kimani Lawrence are back and have major roles with Cheatham’s departure.
With the spacing created by an influx of guards, the two wings will have opportunities to drive to the basket. This could spark defenses collapsing and create open opportunities for the guards from deep.
But they will need to make strides from last year in order to round out the ASU offense.
Lawrence struggled to score last season once Pac-12 play began.
However, he showed great promise early in the season, averaging 15.4 points per game through his first seven outings.
ASU needs him to shoot much better than last year as well. He connected on just 31% of his threes.
Cherry was better from deep last year at 34.5%, which still is not ideal.
His bigger issue though was that he did not rebound.
Without Cheatham or Dort (a very good rebounding guard), the Devils will need all hands on deck on the glass. The 6-foot-8 Cherry cannot have another 2.6 boards per game season.
Mickey Mitchell is working his way back from an injury-riddled season. He is not a deep threat, but he is a capable ball-handler who could help run a shooter-heavy offense.
If Hurley wants to add another sharpshooter to the game though, he now has Khalid Thomas for that.
The 6-foot-9 stretch four was ranked the second-best JUCO transfer of 2019 by 247Sports.
— ASU Hoops Central (@ASU_Hoops) October 12, 2019
He shot 39% from three over two years at Southern Idaho. Interior defense was not his strong suit, but it seems unlikely that he plays center without another rim protector in the game.
Romello White is back after a productive 2019-19.
Last year, he looked more comfortable in his role than in 2017-18, especially on defense with his positioning.
White will be the primary defender in the paint, but newcomer Jalen Graham will also be of service.
Graham, a four-star prospect by ESPN, is listed as a power forward but looks like the ideal backup center for ASU.
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) December 27, 2018
He is 6-foot-9 (taller than White) and was a ferocious shot-blocker in high school. He swatted 4.6 balls per game as a senior.
Hurley told Doug & Wolf that he believes his team is heading back into the direction of two years ago, a “Guard U” style.
Given the talent and potential shooting ability of this year’s backcourt, that makes sense, and Hurley could have three guards on the floor at any time.
Offensively, the trio of Martin, Edwards and Verge could be really dynamic to close out games and get the Devils off to a quick start.
But, having three guards all the time is a defensive nightmare and would require a lot of shuffling at the four spot.
These are why three-guard sets could be seen to start and potentially finish games, but ASU could have a lot of different lineup looks in between.
Biggest strengths: guard depth and scoring
ASU had the second-best scoring offense in the conference last year despite subpar shooting percentages from deep. Now, the Sun Devils have more shooters which in turn could allow more spacing for drives.
It could also make the pick-and-roll more deadly with White, especially if defenders have to help and leave a Lawrence or Cherry or Thomas open in the corner.
With all the space, Cherry and Lawrence could become big scorers if they drive more aggressively this season.
Cherry is the better shooter, so look for his to take advantage and drive when defenders over commit to the closeout.
Biggest question mark: interior defense and rebounding
If Lawrence and Cherry don’t improve their rebounding, then White could get overwhelmed on the glass.
This could force Hurley to play Graham alongside White more, which hurts the spacing on offense.
ASU’s wings are pivotal to the team’s success this year in many ways, but rebounding help could be one of the biggest.
ASU was very good at rebounding last year and even led the Pac-12 in offensive boards. But Cheatham was the star in that regard and former backup center De’Quon Lake was a major help as well.
If the guards are aggressive in chasing boards and the forwards help White inside, the rebounding could be fine, but that is an area where the team struggled in 2017-18 and could again.
Cheatham and Lake also led the team in blocked shots last year. White is not much of a blocker, but his positioning and shot pressure were solid last year.
Graham is the X-factor here as he could potentially be a more dynamic version of Lake off of the bench.
With a lot of smaller lineups that Hurley will have to work with, the defensive awareness and rotations will have to be really crisp in order to avoid mismatches and opponents driving to the rim constantly.
Schedule and strength of Pac-12
On Nov. 23, the Devils take on St. John’s, the team it beat in the NCAA Tournament last year. If ASU wins, it plays the winner of Massachusetts and No.11 Virginia, the defending NCAA champions, a day later.
ASU has done well against highly ranked teams in Hurley’s tenure, so if it faces Virginia then it could be an interesting measuring stick early on.
The rest of the nonconference slate is uneventful, with games against No. 20 Saint Mary’s and Creighton (received four votes) being the highlights.
Pac-12 play starts with a bang on Jan. 4, though, as ASU takes on Arizona in Tucson. The Wildcats have the potential to be great this year, so that will be the Sun Devils’ biggest test of the season since Virginia (if that game is played).
It does not get much easier with a tough road trip to Oregon right after. Oregon State is an improved team with a lot of returners and the Ducks are the highest-ranked Pac-12 squad on the AP Top 25.
The top of the Pac-12 looks strong this year with Oregon and Arizona bringing in top 10 recruiting classes, according to 247Sports.
Washington and Colorado could also be scary.
UW brought in the 11th-best recruiting class and CU is returning most of a team that was stellar down the stretch of last season.
NCAA.com’s Andy Katz predicted that the Pac-12 would get six NCAA Tournament teams, which include ASU, USC and the four listed above.
This ASU team has a very high ceiling if the offense clicks and the threes fall. Given the personnel, there will be a lot of shots taken from deep, so the passing and ability to create shots for each other will be a huge emphasis.
There are not a lot of conference games that are easy, so ASU will need to keep that ball movement going and not turn the ball over.
This is a Pac-12 with a lot of good but flawed teams. ASU could get buried if it plays sloppy and does not defend, but it has the talent t0 climb the rankings and finish near the top of the conference if the roster fits together.