(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Entering the season, it seemed like Arizona State and head coach Herb Sendek had more questions surrounding the team than they had returning players.
Who would replace Jahii Carson as the team’s starting point guard?
Who would step up as the leading scorer?
What identity would this team have with the departure of Carson, Jordan Bachynski and Jermaine Marshall?
What kind of learning curve would the four junior college transfers have, and how much could they actually produce?
Does this team have what it takes to return to the NCAA Tournament, let alone advance?
Only 13 games into the young season, many of those questions remain unanswered. With that in mind, here’s what we have learned about ASU men’s basketball:
The point guard spot remains a question
Sendek has experimented with a plethora of rotations throughout the season. At the point guard spot, freshmen Tra Holder and Kodi Justice each got their opportunities to run the team, getting five and six calls to the starting-five, respectively. However, they both have also tallied two DNP’s each, with junior guard Gerry Blakes stepping in at the 1 with varying success.
Holder, Justice and Blakes each have distinct styles when at the helm.
Holder has been touted as the only “true point guard” on the roster, according to Sendek, but his youth has been evident on numerous occasions. When he’s comfortable, his vision and driving ability led to a 14-point, five-assist performance against Texas A&M and a 15-point, three-assist showing versus Pepperdine. That being said, he has been prone to a high turnover rate, boasting only a 1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio this season.
Justice has been somewhat of a surprise considering the lack of preseason expectations around the local product. After a few quiet games to start the season, Justice broke out against UNLV, posting 13 points, six assists and five rebounds in his first career start. At the very least, Justice has provided Sendek with more point guard depth than originally thought, and a solid shooter from beyond the arc at 41.7 percent thus far.
Although Blakes is in no way a pure point guard, he allows Sendek to field a lineup featuring junior Roosevelt Scott at shooting guard that can create havoc on defense. Blakes, however, is a score-first player, and while he isn’t selfish, his ability to play off the ball is just as important as his scoring ability in one-on-one situations.
All things considered, the fact that Sendek has yet to find a steady point guard is troubling considering that the Pac-12 features the likes of Nigel Williams-Goss at Washington, T.J. McConnell for Arizona and a bevy of other talented point guards–all of which will create matchup problems against whomever ASU’s final floor general ends up being.
An offensive identity has yet to surface
ASU’s offense has yet to manifest into something that looks like a final form. To start the season, forwards Bo Barnes and Jonathan Gilling put on a shooting clinic, averaging a combined 21.4 points through the first five games while shooting an absurd 56.9 percent from three-point land. That has cooled off, and the duo is now averaging 14 points per contest.
The fact that ASU won’t be a team that lives and dies by the three is more or less a relief for Sendek, but that hasn’t translated to a clear identity. ASU knocked in the second-most three-point shots out of all Pac-12 teams and did so at the highest efficiency, shooting 39.1 percent from the distance. While the three-pointer remains a weapon for ASU, finding another form of offensive production is critical.
The development of junior center Eric Jacobsen is one of the most encouraging spots of the season. The 6-foot-10 product from Hamilton high school has improved leaps-and-bounds compared to his first two years behind Jordan Bachynski. He is averaging a team-high 31.7 minutes per game, providing stability in a frontcourt that lacks depth and is relatively undersized.
Jacobsen has also been efficient with his touches and leads the team with a 67.1 field-goal percentage. The stability he has brought from the post is a big focal point to watch as Pac-12 play begins.
Ultimately, as much as ASU has shown the ability to burst on offense, they have been equally plagued by stretches in which they look offensively-inept. With the proven scoring talents on the team, that in itself is a big concern.
A lack of a clear-cut leading scorer is another big problem heading into the conference season. The general consensus was that senior forward Shaquielle McKissic would fill that role, but he has been inconsistent at best.
His two 20-point outbursts have been dimmed down by several games where he has been relatively invisible on offense. In ASU’s five losses, McKissic averaged a lowly-7.2 points per game. In the Sun Devils’ wins, the 6-foot-5 forward has tallied just a shade under 13 points a contest, and the flow of the Sun Devil offense is undoubtedly smoother.
The addition of sophomore forward Savon Goodman was a highlight of the non-conference schedule, as the former UNLV Runnin’ Rebel is averaging 15.8 points and eight rebounds per game. His physicality down-low as well as his ability to finish through contact has been a welcome sight, but he isn’t a player that can create his own shot in a tight situation.
That role has seemingly been placed upon Blakes.
Sendek has experimented with a few sets running a 1-4 low, highlighting Blakes, but that has produced mixed results. At times, Blakes has shown his one-on-one prowess that had him averaging 23.7 points per game at San Bernardino Valley College the last season. But with any young scorer, Blakes has sometimes forced up shots, leading to ASU coming away with several empty possessions.
Regardless of who ASU’s lead-man ends up being on offense, that player has to step up here shortly. Winning in any conference without a go-to guy is difficult, and the Pac-12 has the potential to evolve into a troublesome monster for the Sun Devils if that role remains unfilled.
The defensive potential is clear
Despite all of the shaky feelings concerning ASU’s offense, the defensive versatility and range is something that seemed to finally reveal itself in the Sun Devils last two games.
Coming into conference play, the Sun Devils rank 8th in scoring defense, 9th in turnover margin, 11th field goal percentage defense and last in blocked shots out of all Pac-12 teams.
That being said, ASU’s defense improved dramatically over the last two games, holding Detroit and Harvard to 30 percent and 36 percent from the field, respectively.
A big reason for that is the change Sendek made in his starting lineup. By starting Blakes at the point guard, Roosevelt Scott’s length and quickness is able to shine, as he takes on the team’s best scorer. Scott was able to harass a talented scorer in Harvard’s Wesley Saunders, and he allowed just one bucket in the second half.
Sendek starting Goodman over struggling junior forward Willie Atwood has also made a big difference in the battle down low. No longer is Eric Jacobsen responsible for all of the low-post defense, as Goodman has proven that he is more than capable of holding his own despite being an undersized power forward. The duo allowed the Sun Devils to outrebound Detroit and Harvard by a combined 26 boards.
ASU has proven to be a team that lives on being scrappy and playing for each other. With the small adjustments made in the lineup, that attitude has developed into what could be a problematic defense for other teams to handle. Multiple Sun Devils can guard multiple positions, so switching on screens, zone presses and consistent on-ball pressure could allow ASU to make some noise in the Pac-12.
All things considered, this team has shown both the ability to rise above its predicted 9th place finish in the Pac-12 as much as it’s shown exactly why the media thought so lowly of it during the preseason. The talent and ability is all there for Sendek to orchestrate a strong showing during the next few months, but whether they will or not is something that won’t be answered deep into conference play. And given how up-and-down this team has already been, answering the lingering questions may not even be feasible by then.
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at email@example.com