Bo and Shaq Are Back
One of the pleasant developments this past month has been the return of Bo Barnes (pictured) and Shaquielle McKissic to the ASU program. The two standout players are set to graduate in May and were not expected back next season for different reasons.
Barnes, a victim of the numbers game, was not scheduled to receive a scholarship next year because the Devils were already at their NCAA-maximum of 13 rides. However the unexpected transfer of Egor Koulechov (who joined transfers Caelan Robinson and Brandan Kearney) opened up a roster spot, which allowed the coaching staff to retain Barnes and keep him on scholarship. Known for his hustle play, pesky defense, and three-point shooting, the 2-guard was a spark plug off the bench this past season.
McKissic, who played three seasons in a five-year span (two of them at Edmonds (Wash.) College), had exhausted his eligibility under NCAA guidelines and had to file a petition for a sixth year of eligibility. A masterful job by ASU's compliance department resulted in McKissic being awarded an additional season. His return is significant, considering the Devils lost their top three scorers from last season. McKissic, who averaged 9.0 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, will return as the team's leading scorer and rebounder.
Barnes and McKissic were widely regarded as the hardest working players on last year's team, and head coach Herb Sendek publicly praised the duo's energy and hustle on several occasions. On a team that was prone to mental lapses and subpar effort, they never waned in this category. Sendek will call upon these two to set the tone for next year's squad, which includes seven newcomers.
Junior College Signees Provide Athleticism and Toughness
The 2014 class marks a seismic shift in Coach Sendek's recruiting philosophy. With the landscape of college basketball constantly evolving, it has become increasingly difficult to acquire (and retain) talent on a consistent basis. This likely contributed to Sendek's willingness to delve deep into the JUCO ranks for this recruiting cycle.
With the expertise of recruiting coordinator Stan Johnson, and new assistant coach Barrett Peery, Sendek was able to corral some of the best JUCO prospects in the country in forwards Willie Atwood (pictured) and Savon Goodman, as well as guards Gerry Blakes and Roosevelt Scott. (Note: Goodman was enrolled at Indian Hills Community College last season but did not play, and is not eligible to play at ASU until late December).
The quartet instantly changes the identity of the Sun Devils. All four players possess elite athleticism and thrive in an up-tempo style of play. The newcomers also have a reputation of being tough players who are committed to playing defense. This type of edge and grittiness is typically not associated with ASU basketball, especially during the Sendek era.
The foursome is expected to make an immediate impact next season. It would not be surprising to see as many as three of them in the starting lineup.
The most highly touted of the group is the 6-8 Atwood, who committed to ASU this past week. The four-star recruit from Connors State College (Okla.) is rated as the No. 7 JUCO prospect in the nation by 247Sports, after averaging 20.8 points and 9.0 rebounds per game.
The 6-3 Blakes (pictured) earned Player of the Year Honors in the California Community College Athletic Association, while starring at San Bernardino Valley College.
The 6-4 Scott (pictured) was a key player for Indian Hills Community College (Iowa), one of the best junior college programs in the nation. His team advanced to the finals, before falling in the NJCAA national title game.
Solid Freshmen Class Provides Solid Foundation and Depth
In addition to the JUCO signees, Arizona State signed three high school players last November. Tra Holder and Connor MacDougall arrive as four-star recruits, who are capable of making an immediate impact. Local standout Kodi Justice, a three-star prospect, rounds out the 2014 recruiting class.
Of the three players, Holder (pictured) is most likely to have a prominent role as a freshman. The 6-1 point guard from Los Angeles' Brentwood High School is a deft scorer with a high basketball IQ. He does not overwhelm opponents with athleticism or speed, but is a shifty ball handler, which enables him to get into the lane frequently to create for himself and teammates. With the departure of Jahii Carson, the starting point guard position is up for grabs. Holder will compete with Blakes for that starting spot.
MacDougall (pictured), an energetic post player from Tempe's Corona del Sol, is projected to be the backup to starting center Eric Jacobsen. He is still raw offensively, but has the physical frame and work ethic to rebound and defend at a high level. He is likely to see more action at the beginning of the season while Goodman is will be sidelined.
Justice (pictured), a combo guard from Mesa (Dobson), might be among the best pure shooters on next year's squad. However, with ASU's glut of guards, he is unlikely to see much action next season. It would not be surprising to see the Sun Devils redshirt him. However, with his potential, he could factor into the Sun Devils' long-term plans. .
Defense and Rebounding Should Be Improved
For the last several seasons, the Sun Devils have had the same Achilles' heel: poor rebounding. However, with the incoming personnel, Sendek will finally have the right blend of athleticism and physicality to consistently compete on the glass. Arizona State will not have exceptional length, but they have a capable group of frontcourt players who can rebound with Jacobsen, MacDougall, Atwood and Goodman. Additionally, the team has big guards and wing players who are more than capable of helping out on the boards.
On the defensive side of the ball, ASU will continue to play man-to-man defense. However, don't be surprised to see the Sun Devils sprinkle in alternate defense schemes to disrupt opponents. It won't be Louisville 2.0, but ASU will likely extend the defense and employ more pressing and trapping next season. They have a nice collection of perimeter defenders (McKissic, Barnes, Blakes, Scott and Holder), which should enable them to carry out this game plan.
With Jordan Bachynski gone, the Sun Devils will not have a skilled rim protector patrolling the paint next season. However, their upgraded cast of perimeter defenders may offset this lack of shot blocking. Don't be surprised to see ASU's defense apply consistent ball pressure and create more turnovers. Unlike the guards last season, most of the newcomers take pride in defense, which bodes well for ASU.
Offense by Committee
As mentioned earlier, the Sun Devils lose their top three scorers from last season. On paper, it appears that ASU might struggle to score next year. And while that is a valid concern, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Two of the incoming JUCO recruits, Blakes and Atwood, averaged more than 20 points per game last season, while shooting 50 percent or better from the field. Scott, a versatile 2-guard, posted an impressive 17.5 points per game on a loaded Indian Hills team, shooting nearly 40 percent from three-point range.
Returning seniors Shaq McKissic and Jonathan Gilling (pictured) are also proven scorers that could average double figures. McKissic, in particular, appears ready to play a more prominent role in the ASU offense. Look for him to have a breakout year next season and shoulder more of the scoring load, as well as being the team's leader. Unlike this past season, ASU will probably not have any single player who averages over 15 points per game. Nevertheless, you may see as many as five players average anywhere from 8 to 13 points per contest.
In terms of style, ASU will likely continue with a motion offense in the half court set, utilizing a lot of ball screens to facilitate the offense. However, the high pick-and-roll will probably be featured less frequently, since that was primarily executed to showcase Jahii Carson and his abilities.
Conversely, look for ASU's perimeter players to attack off the bounce. Collectively, next year's team will have more ball handlers who are capable of creating their own offense. This also means that the Devils will look to run when they have an opportunity to do so, and should have decent success with their transition offense.
The Devils can also look to Atwood to facilitate offense in the low post. He has a reputation of being a menace on the low block, but is versatile enough to step out and hit the mid-range jumper. With a post presence like Atwood, ASU may be less reliant on the 3-point shot as they have been in previous seasons.
Early Roster Projections
Last preseason, many pundits stated that ASU would have a deeper bench and Sendek will spread the minutes more generously among his players. However, as the season unfolded, the rotation dwindled down to as little as seven players.
Next season should be different. With more talent and athleticism on the roster, Sendek will be forced to utilize his bench more frequently. If the Sun Devils play a more frenetic style as suggested, he will be forced substitute regularly to keep fresh bodies on the floor. As a result, he will likely go with a 9 to 10 man rotation, with no player earning more than 30 minutes per game (with McKissic being the possible exception).
The most difficult position to predict is the starting point guard. Holder was selected because he is a more traditional point guard who can run the half-court set. However, Blakes has the size, defense, and scoring ability to be a difference maker. So, it would not be surprising to see him beat out Holder for the starting spot. Regardless of who starts, both players will be in the regular rotation and play their fair share of minutes..
This is how we see the rotation shaping up for next season:
Projected Starting Five:
C – Eric Jacobsen*, 6-10, Junior
F – Willie Atwood, 6-8, Junior
F – Shaquielle McKissic*, 6-4, Senior
G – Roosevelt Scott, 6-4, Junior
G – Tra Holder, 6-1, Freshman
Projected Reserves: (listed in order of projected minutes played)
F – Jonathan Gilling*, 6-7, Senior
G – Gerry Blakes, 6-4, Junior
F – Savon Goodman#, 6-6, Sophomore
G – Bo Barnes*, 6-4, Senior
F/C – Connor MacDougall, 6-8, Freshman
G – Chance Murray*, 6-3, Sophomore
F- Sai Tummala*, 6-7, Junior
G – Kodi Justice, 6-4, Freshman
# Not eligible to play until mid December
(Way Too Early) Season Prediction
After losing so much talent, most experts will not expect much from ASU next season. This will allow the Sun Devils to sneak up on unsuspecting opponents and steal a few games. [See: 2013-14 Utah Utes]
In terms of roster composition, this team is well balanced with post players, wing players and ball handlers. With increased athleticism and defensive potential, it is perfectly plausible to say this team can finish between 5th and 8th place in the Pac-12 next season. Making the NIT Tournament is a safe bet. However, if everything goes right, and that's a big if, this team could squeak into the Big Dance.
Whether this projection comes to fruition is a different story. It will likely boil down to three key variables including: how well the newcomers assimilate, the play of the point guards, and the team's commitment to defense and rebounding.