TEMPE – As temperatures continue to rise, so does the intensity within ASU basketball.
The Sun Devils face a number of unanswered questions as they begin summer workouts and look to build off the program’s most successful season in recent memory. Despite the departures of key contributors Luguentz Dort and Zylan Cheatham, ASU appears well prepared to replace the lost production and fortify itself among the Pac-12 elite.
“There’s some talented guys for sure,” coach Bobby Hurley said. “Guys are working hard, have good attitudes, and are really enthusiastic about being here. We’ve kicked summer off to a pretty good start.”
Summer workouts are fraught with complications, between NCAA compliance complications and conflicting schedules, but at their core they present a unique opportunity for players to make a crucial first impression. Whether it be transfers looking for their shot at Division I relevancy, or incoming freshmen simply searching for an opportunity, summer workouts are an easy way to make a strong early impact.
“Alonzo Verge has already stood out for me with just his creativity and making guys better on the floor,” Hurley said. “Our guards are going to be very vocal this year, between Remy, who’s a natural communicator on the court, and Alonzo who’s the same way. He talks constantly in a positive way.”
As the newcomers look to establish roles within Hurley’s rotation, a few returning Sun Devils appear to have their positions carved out. One of those is junior point guard Remy Martin, who is expected to shoulder a significantly larger load with the losses of both Dort and Cheatham to the NBA. Although replacing the more than 28 combined points averaged by Dort and Cheatham last season would be a daunting task for any player, the ever-effervescent Martin appears poised to do his part to keep ASU afloat.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Martin said. “I’ve been here all summer, I’ve been working out all summer, so I just feel confident, I feel ready, and I’m ready to go out there and play.”
Junior forward Kimani Lawrence finds himself in a similar situation as he assumes big expectations following a sophomore campaign where he averaged 8.6 points and 3.5 rebounds on 42% shooting.
After falling out of the starting lineup toward the middle of last season, coaches report Lawrence has used the summer to add more diversity to his game and transform himself into an even more indispensable member of the ASU rotation.
“Kimani is another guy who put some weight on. He physically looks really good,” Hurley said. “He got stronger, he probably put on 10 pounds since the season ended. He’s getting to the point where he’s completely comfortable in our workouts, he’s making plays out there and he looks like he’s ready to make a move and take a step this year. He looked like he grew an inch again. He’s legit 6-8 and about 220 now, so I think I’ll have some more versatility with him.”
The continued progression of redshirt junior forward Romello White was one of the more encouraging storylines of last season, and his emergence as a true low-post threat adds yet another intriguing option for the Sun Devil offense. White’s improvement, coupled with the thinning of ASU’s frontcourt, presents a tantalizing opportunity for the 21-year-old Atlantanative to embrace a larger role this upcoming season.
“Romello is a guy that is not talked about a ton and kind of got lost in the shuffle some last year,” Hurley said. “I think he can make some improvements in his game over the next several months. He’s in far better shape than he was last year at this time, he’s done a better job with his training and I think he can take another step and kind of cushion the blow of losing Zylan in the frontcourt.”
The stability of established veterans is especially important this upcoming season as the team prepares for a uniquely challenging non-conference schedule. Although the quality of opponent is nothing new, highlighted by a potential matchup with the defending national champion Virginia Cavaliers, the travel the Sun Devils must endure is extreme. Before a trip to Uncasville, Connecticut for the Tip-Off Tournament, where a rematch with last year’s First Four opponent St. John’s Red Storm looms, ASU must first travel all the way to Shanghai for a contest against the Colorado Buffaloes. The fifth iteration of the annual Pac-12 China game, ASU will look to nab an early season victory a mere 7,000 miles from home.
“It’s a good opportunity for our players to see a place they may never see again,” Hurley said. “I have never been there, and I don’t think anyone in our program has so it’ll be worth it from that standpoint to learn about a different culture and see some different things. It’s tough because you’re in season mode, you’re not in sight-seeing mode, but we’ll be able to get out and see some things and then get prepared to play.”
For Hurley, the importance of demanding non-conference games goes beyond their outcomes on the court. For an ASU team with more questions than answers, early season games go a long way in revealing to Hurley what players he can count on when the going gets tough.
“It’s great to be in that spot, being in big games and to have to stand up to that,” Hurley said. “Last year whether it was Kansas, or Nevada on the road, Georgia on the road, Vanderbilt, there are lessons that you learn through those games. Sometimes, you get exposed. You see who’s ready to play in those big games, who wants that moment. You learn a lot about your team.”
For now, Hurley must rely on summer workouts to learn all he can about his team. For a team facing uncertainty at a number of key positions, the quest to find reliable options begins now.
“The way I believe it should be is to challenge your guys,” Hurley said. “We try and challenge our players in workouts and practices and get them prepared. We want them playing in games that they can get excited about playing in, and our fans are excited to see.”
With the season quickly approaching, the pressure is on coach Hurley and his staff to identify and cultivate useful contributors. For a program that appears on the precipitous of consistent success, fostering a competitive and intense environment is crucial in establishing legitimacy for a team still searching for an identity.