Calaen Robinson starred at Tempe's Corona Del Sol High School, where as a senior he helped guide the Aztecs to a state championship during his senior year. As a consensus three- star combo guard, the 6-2, 170-pound lefty earned scholarship offers from a number of schools, including St. Mary's, BYU, and Weber State. Yet, he always knew he wanted to stay close to home. So when Arizona State Head Coach Herb Sendek presented him with that opportunity, Robinson quickly jumped on board.
His pledge helped round out a class that already included a pair of Phoenix players in Eric Jacobsen and Kenny Martin, and added to a Sun Devil roster that also featured Valley natives Jahii Carson and Carrick Felix. The speedy Robinson figured to be a complimentary backcourt running-mate for Carson, but had his season cut short before it could even begin when the suspension was announced.
"It was really frustrating, knowing that I could have had a role to play my freshman year; to come in and help out a little bit with the team," he said during the team's media day. "But sitting out, I just kind of got my head together and it made everything a lot better for me so that hopefully I can provide something to the team to help them get better this year."
Robinson was forced to work out off-campus in order to remain in shape and prepare for the upcoming season.
"I trained at a lot of local gyms around here and with a couple of trainers that I always used to hang out with, like my old high school basketball coach and some other coaches of mine," Robinson noted. "I just trained and worked on some of the things I needed to work on. I just pretty much hung out with my parents and trained. That's really all I did."
Fortunately for Robinson and the Sun Devils, he was able to re-join the team at the end of the spring semester in May, and figures once again to be a key piece of ASU's plans for success, both this season and in the years to come.
Because Robinson was able to fulfill the terms of his suspension and was officially re-instated before the start of summer, he was able to join his Sun Devil teammates on their three-game excursion to giving Robinson a unique return to competitive basketball after a year away.
"The level of competition was pretty good. It was actually pretty decent over there," he remarked. "We played against their professional team two times and we played really well together and got those W's. We also played against one of their college teams and they were pretty good too. They were really athletic and knew how to play, but our system was just really good compared to theirs."
Robinson estimated that the crowds were approximately the same size as those that fill Wells Fargo Arena to cheer on the Sun Devils back home but also embraced the visiting ASU team with cheers at each site and adoring ooh's and aah's with each exciting play.
"It was crazy," Robinson recalled. "We'd be in warm-ups doing dunks and stuff and the crowds would go wild just seeing some of the stuff that we were doing. When we would score, they'd cheer for us. But when the other teams would score, they'd cheer for them, so we didn't know who they were going for.
"It was nice to have people like that, just looking at us in that type of way, especially looking up to us like role models. We got to give out autographs before and after the games. We got to do a lot of stuff that was pretty cool."
Of course, one of the biggest benefits to any trip abroad is the opportunity to observe and take part in different cultures and customs, a huge highlight for Robinson.
"I've never traveled like that," Robinson admitted. "It was a great experience. Being around a lot of different people, it's crazy how they take pictures of you. I felt like I was one of the tallest people out there. It was crazy. And the food was something else. It was a lot different than (the Chinese food) we eat down here. It was very humid over there; nothing like Arizona but you sweat just as much."
Like true travelers, Robinson said the team tried to indulge in as much of the Chinese culture as they could while on the trip, whether it was visiting some of the more popular tourist destinations, interacting with the natives, or eating as much of the local food as possible while refraining from visiting American establishments.
In fact, as tempting as it sounded, the team only had one American meal before returning home - McDonald's on the final bus ride to the airport.
"To be honest, we had it once and it's because they brought it on the bus," Robinson commented. "They brought us some McDonald's but other than that, we had a lot of take-out dinners, hotel dinners, just a lot of, like, five-star dinners. It was pretty lovely. We got some love out there which was a great opportunity."
For Robinson, who missed out on a number of opportunities to better get to know and bond with his teammates last year while serving his suspension, the trip served as a way to speed up that process and help him feel at home again with his Sun Devil family.
"Probably Jahii (Carson) and Richie (Edwards)," said Robinson on who he connected with this most on the trip. "Those were the two I probably hung out with the most, but also the whole team. We all kind of had hang-out time with each other, so everyone as a team pretty much just all came together.
"I'm a very out-going person, so I love to have fun and laugh; joke around and mess around with my teammates, so everybody came together. I feel like everyone came together a lot closer after this trip too, so that was a good experience for everyone."
Back in Tempe, the Sun Devils began the schedule of preseason practices this past Monday leading up to their season opener on November 8th, when they host the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Robinson will be a part of a talented ASU backcourt that also includes Jahii Carson, last season's Pac-12 Co-Freshman of the Year.
"On the court, we got real good chemistry," said Robinson about the relationship he has with Carson on the floor. "He knows where I'm going to be at and I know where he's going to be at. And with us being so quick, we can just get each other going up and down the court, so everything kind of pans out for the both us. It's exciting to play with him as well. He knows how to get his and also knows how to get it to the other players."
"I can already tell he's going to be a big part of our team just by how he plays in practice," added Robinson. "He's smart, he knows the game. Even though he's not as quick as some of the other players, he knows how to get around and the moves he can use to go left or right to shoot the ball, so he's going to be a big part of our team."
With just five weeks remaining until the Sun Devils tip-off the new season, Robinson can hardly wait to get back on the court and put his struggles from last year behind him for good. With a chance at a fresh start and a key role on what figures to be a very promising Arizona State squad, things are looking up for the freshman.
"I just want to help get the team better and limit myself on turnovers," said Robinson. "All I want to do is help us win the Pac-12 and beat U of A. That's the first priority."