ASU basketball fresh faces bring effort, communication alongside returning vets
New faces, extra effort and teamwide communication has the Arizona State men’s basketball team looking for a fresh start after disappointing last season.
Despite an immense amount of talent on last year’s team, the Sun Devils finished 11-14 with a 7-10 Pac-12 record, good for only ninth in the conference standings.
On July 7, the final day players could withdraw from the NBA Draft, ASU received a boost to this season’s roster with sophomore Marcus Bagley electing to return to the Sun Devils. Bagley only played 12 games for ASU in his freshman season as he dealt with a lower calf strain and a lower ankle injury.
Junior forward Jalen Graham and graduate senior forward Kimani Lawrence are the other two major returning players on this year’s team.
Bagley called head coach Bobby Hurley on decision day to inform him that he was returning. He said it was his comfort at ASU that made his choice easier to make, especially when mulling over other options in the transfer portal.
“This was home,” Bagley said. “I just couldn’t see myself playing for any other school.”
He showed versatility last year by stepping into a frontcourt role and leading the team with 6.2 rebounds per game. However, Hurley thinks that will not be as necessary this season.
“I could probably steal a couple of minutes with him at the four spot, but a majority of his minutes are going to be playing on the perimeter,” Hurley said.
That’s because ASU’s frontcourt is upgraded with a lot more size, something that was needed after ASU finished with a -7.7 rebounding margin last season. Center Enoch Boakye is ASU’s highest-touted recruit in this year’s freshman class. Former Ohio State forward Alonzo Gaffney joins the Sun Devils from the junior college ranks.
Graham said having more options in the frontcourt will benefit everyone, including himself.
“I feel like it’s going to let me stretch my game out,” Graham said. “Having two bigs will help us rebound and expand everybody’s game.”
The frontcourt is not the only area that is undergoing change. Transfers were brought in to try and replace outgoing star guard Remy Martin and first-round NBA draft pick Josh Christopher.
ASU’s star backcourt transfer is former Toledo guard Marreon Jackson. Jackson won the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year award last season after averaging 18.1 points per game with 6.1 rebounds and 5.9 assists. Those numbers together had not been put up in Division I basketball since Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine in the 2015-16 season.
Ohio State transfer guard Luther Muhammad will also get a chance to play after sitting out last season with a shoulder injury.
The Sun Devils are loving what both Jackson’s and Muhammad’s effort brings to the team in practice.
“Marreon and Luther bring a type of toughness that we don’t really see coming from the Pac-12,” Graham said. “They always want to win every single drill and that pushes me.”
The desire to win, even in drills, is something that Hurley is very impressed with.
“I haven’t had to coach effort, which is really refreshing,” Hurley said. “Numerous guys are just diving on the floor for loose balls and we’ve taken charges. We’re not having to constantly remind guys that these things are important, they’re doing it instinctively.”
Communication is also evident alongside the extra effort. Some of the veterans have challenged themselves to become leaders. Bagley said that he was working on his vocal leadership, in particular. He, alongside fellow returnees, mentioned Muhammad as someone who is already filling a leadership role.
Graham thinks the entire team is taking on leadership roles in some capacity.
“As a whole group, we all lead each other,” Graham said. “Coaches can only do so much. Players have to step up and when you hear from a player, they’re playing right now. You’re going to want to listen to them more, I feel like. When we have that, it just benefits the whole team.”
Hurley believes the players communicating amongst themselves is already a step up from last season.
“It’s not only the coaches that are communicating, so that’s a real plus,” Hurley said. “I’m not sure we had anything like that last year.”
Hurley said Boakye will be cleared this week after he has dealt with some minor lower leg injuries.
Another one of ASU’s guard transfers, Boston College transfer Jay Heath, is also dealing with some lower leg issues. Hurley said that Heath is about a week behind Boakye in terms of being ready to go again.