(Photo: Alexis Ramanjulu/WCSN)
Three seniors, three distinctly different stories.
When Arizona State seniors Bo Barnes, Shaquielle McKissic and Jonathan Gilling get honored before the Sun Devils’ game against California, it will be the recognition of the different paths that brought each person to the ceremony that will take place in Wells Fargo Arena.
For ASU head coach Herb Sendek, it is easy to recognize how special the already-important occasion will be.
“Everybody has a story,” Sendek said. “All of us have a story, and these three players not only have their own personal stories, but they have unique, wonderful stories.”
Those three stories boil down to the following:
The Redemption Story
The story of Shaquielle McKissic is no secret. His past struggles are so well-documented that there’s been a documentary about them. From sleeping in his car at a 24-Hour Fitness parking lot, to bringing crowds to his feet with his electrifying dunks, McKissic has made leaps and bounds since arriving in Tempe.
“(McKissic)’s like a different person,” Sendek said. “He just has blossomed as a young man.”
Expectations were relatively muted when McKissic first stepped onto campus despite him averaging 22.5 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 3.2 steals for Edmonds Community College in 2012-13 during an MVP campaign for the NWAACC’s North Region.
His 33-point outburst in the Maroon and Gold scrimmage was his grand announcement that he was a Sun Devil to look out for, but that didn’t necessarily materialize as one would have predicted.
“I came in expecting to average 20 points and this and that, but the experience was a little bit more rocky,” McKissic said. “It was different; it was learning everything. I had to learn a whole new blueprint at this level as far as leadership. At JUCO I just kind of just out-talenting everybody. Now, it’s just the IQ part.”
That IQ has most notably been imparted on ASU’s quartet of JUCO transfers this season (junior guards Gerry Blakes and Roosevelt Scott, junior forward Willie Atwood and sophomore forward Savon Goodman) as McKissic took more of a leadership role in the 2014-15 season. The advancements in those players’ games have been noted, but McKissic feels that there’s something left to be desired.
“I love these guys,” McKissic said. “I just really wish I could’ve that one year under them and then they were coming in next year, second year playing with me, and we knew each other, but I feel like we came lightyears from the first game of the season as far as camaraderie and wanting to win.”
More than the on-the-court performance and leadership McKissic has learned this season, it is the lessons Sendek has taught the Indiana-native that will stick with him most once his collegiate career comes to an end.
“I just feel like coach Herb has kind of mentored my life,” McKissic said. “I got here, barely, wheels were about to fall off the car, but I mean once I got here, kind of just tightened up the bolts, and everything that I’ve learned from him in these last two years, just off-the-court stuff, I can handle it the same way.
“I often hear myself quoting stuff that he has told the team, and it’s just kind of like, man, that just spit right out, now I see what he’s talking about now… The way he taught things on the court is the way I can apply it to things in my life, to just be very meticulous and be prepared for anything. The unknown is fearful, so the more you know, the more you can be prepared.”
A journey that takes an individual from a jail cell, to a Pac-12 basketball team is always one to remember, and McKissic has certainly left his mark in Tempe.
“He’s overcome so much adversity, taken such a circuitous path to this point,” Sendek said. “It’s just a great story.”
The Four-Year Journey
With nothing but the word of mouth about a Danish shooter with a basketball mind, Sendek and Jonathan Gilling took a leap of faith.
“Jon and his family had expressed some interest in coming to the States to go to college,” Sendek said. “He now has two sisters who have followed in his footsteps, so it was something, I think, the family really had set their eyes on. They actually made a few unofficial visits early.”
With the Horsholm 79’ers, Gilling averaged 15.2 points and 4.6 rebounds, and while he never reached that level of production as a Sun Devils, his impact as a shooter has been a consistent factor during that time.
Of players who have attempted at least 600 three pointers, Gilling’s 40-percent rate ranks third all-time.
“He has earned the nickname ‘The Danish Dagger.’ We can certainly say that,” Sendek said.
Gilling’s most statistically successful season came when he was a sophomore as he averaged 9.7 points and 6.1 rebounds while averaging 34.5 minutes per contest, but his 44.4 percent from beyond the arc this season is a career-high.
Despite the reputation of a shooter, Gilling has stepped up in varying roles for the Sun Devils and at times provided solid post-defense when Goodman or junior center Eric Jacobsen ran into foul trouble. In ASU’s victory over No. 5 Arizona, he and Barnes held their own against the lengthy, athletic Wildcat-frontcourt en route to a second-straight storm-the-court celebration against Arizona.
He has been a model of consistency in the last four years for the Sun Devils, producing both as a starter and off the bench, which Sendek says Gilling prefers.
Between all three seniors, Gilling is the only one to spend his entire career in Tempe. In that time, ASU has made bids into the NIT Tournament (2012-13) and the NCAA Tournament (2013-14), but despite all that, “The Danish Dagger” isn’t getting hung up on relishing those memories.
“All you think about is the next practice, the next thing you’re going to do with your team,” Gilling said. “It’s not like you’re going to be like, ‘Awe I had this and this memories.’ They’ll all come later, I think.”
A True Underdog
When thinking of an against-all-odds story on ASU’s roster, Bo Barnes has to be one of the first names that come to mind.
The Scottsdale-product has had as tough of a time making it to where he is now as any player on the roster, but that is exactly what makes Barnes so special.
From averaging 19 points per game at Scottsdale Christian and 17 points per game = at Westwind Prep International in Phoenix, to sinking the second-most threes as a freshman at Hawaii, Barnes has been productive in each spot he landed.
When Barnes transferred to Arizona State after one season in Hawaii, there was no promise of a scholarship, but his outstanding effort in that first season changed that quickly.
“His first year, he worked so hard and distinguished himself in so many wonderful ways that we gave him a scholarship, still not thinking this guy would be an intrical part of our team’s rotation,” Sendek said. “But he continued to impress every day in practice, and then last year, around December, he broke out. He made the move from the scout team to our rotation, and right now, he’s as good a leader as we have.”
In the middle of the 2013-14 season, Barnes averaged 19.6 minutes per game in the Sun Devils’ final 16 games tallying double-digit points in four of those games.
Barnes decided to be honored on Senior Night last season despite being a redshirt junior, but the status of his basketball career was in question.
“I didn’t know what my future held at ASU,” Barnes said. “So I just wanted to share that experience at the end of last year with the seniors because I had been playing with them for three years, so just in case I did not come back, because I didn’t know for sure, I just wanted to do that and be there.”
Obviously, Barnes returned for the 2014-15 season and has been productive as ever. Averaging 20 minutes a game, Barnes has provided solid perimeter defense while shooting 36.9 percent from beyond the arc, including sinking big-time threes to seal ASU’s wins over Arizona and UCLA in back-to-back home games this season.
“If you love underdogs, if you love stories of great perseverance, if that’s your thing, man you can’t help but want to cheer for Bo Barnes,” Sendek said.
Despite the markedly contrasting stories of the three seniors, they all provide a different element of leadership for Sendek’s team, but as the theme has been for much of the season, there isn’t a go-to leader as much as it is a collective effort.
“Shaq, he’s more the physical guy. He shows it more with running fast or getting a deflection,” Gilling said. “Then Bo and me, we just have to get guys ready, and just yell at them sometimes… They get on us too, sometimes. I feel like we have a group of guys that all mean really well when we go and take the court.”
After starting 0-4 in the Pac-12, ASU has a shot to finish in the top-half of the conference, much better than its predicted ninth place finish from the Pac-12 Media Preseason poll.
Dropping both games on its most recent road trip to No. 13 Utah and Colorado pretty much put to rest any at-large NCAA Tournament hopes ASU held, but the team is ready to battle in Las Vegas.
“The more and more you play for your life, the harder that you play,” McKissic said.
Without a doubt, Gilling, Barnes and McKissic make for a battle-tested bunch, and given the paths they’ve each embarked on, emotions will certainly be riding high preceeding the Sun Devils’ matchup with Cal. That moment will represent different things for each of them, but it will also be an apex to three improbable storylines.
“Senior night is going to be awesome,” McKissic said. “It’s kind of one of those things – everybody’s senior night, something unbelievable happens every senior night, so hopefully it’s one of those out-of-body experiences every single game from here on out.”
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at email@example.com