(Photo: Zac Pacleb/WCSN)
When the dust of transfers and recruits settled and Bobby Hurley had a basic idea of the roster he would have during his first season at Arizona State, it wasn’t hard to note the players who would be critical in making his transition from Buffalo as smooth as possible.
Many expect sophomore point guard Tra Holder to continue his rapid incline of play during the tail-end of the 2014 season that earned him Pac-12 All-Freshman honors. Hurley has also been quick to mention how pleased he is with senior guard Gerry Blakes, who looks to take on a bigger leadership role as well as settle in as the team’s go-to perimeter scoring option. His progress would open things up for junior forward Savon Goodman to go to work on the inside and build on his impressive debut season in Tempe.
Lost in the fray of last season, and looking to make a surge in his senior season, is forward Willie Atwood.
Hurley has liked what he has seen thus far.
“Willie has picked up things very, very well,” Hurley said. “He’s adapted to our offense great. I think he’s starting to realize where his opportunities are.”
Atwood came to ASU along with Goodman, Blakes and Roosevelt Scott (who has since transferred) to make up a quartet of junior college transfers with hopes of making a splash in the Pac-12. Whereas Goodman and Blakes were deemed critical players in the rotation by season’s end, Atwood found himself on Herb Sendek’s bench more often than not, and ended the 2014-15 season averaging 11.6 minutes and three points per game.
The season was especially disappointing considering the accolades Atwood carried with him to Tempe. At Connors State (Oklahoma), Atwood earned third-team All-America honors while averaging 20.8 points and nine rebounds per game.
Atwood admits that he lost confidence last season, and his play reflected that. But his 2015 offseason work has turned heads in the preseason. He says he lost around 20 pounds over the summer and is now around 215 pounds.
“I think he’s (Atwood) improved tremendously throughout the summer,” senior center Eric Jacobsen said. He’s also taken a leadership role as well and becoming a lot more vocal during practices.”
While players can feel on ice when a new coaching staff is brought in, Atwood was able to start fresh, and that renewed start seems to be a positive one for all sides involved.
“Coach really likes me. He’s putting a lot in me,” Atwood said. “He’s big on skill development. I just feel better.”
Visibly leaner and quicker, Atwood has prepared himself for Hurley’s up-tempo style of play that tends to favor versatile forwards. He mentioned that he spent much of last season gaining weight in hopes of handling the physicality of post players in the Pac-12, but it ended up slowing him down and hindering his play more than helping.
“I can run all day right now without getting tired,” Atwood said. “I lost a good amount of pounds, so I feel good.”
While the sample size is small, Atwood shot 11-for-31 (35.5 percent) from three last season and snagged the fourth-most rebounds per 100 possessions among the returning players.
“He (Hurley) wants me to shoot shots and get defensive rebounds,” Atwood said. “If I know a coach wants me to do that, it makes everything easier for me.”
At 6-foot-7, Atwood says he has spent time at both forward positions, and his play in practice is especially encouraging when considering ASU will only have nine eligible scholarship players this season.
“He plays with tremendous energy and he’s shooting it well,” Hurley said. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence. Defensively, he’s a tough guy. He’s been tough guarding in ball-screen defense and things we need him to do. He’s doing a great job right now.”
On and off the court, Atwood is easily one of ASU’s more energetic players, and his teammates have mentioned his positive demeanor since the day he arrived in Tempe. His Twitter handle, @thelastchill, embodies the Memphis-native’s personality.
However, that isn’t to say Atwood is naive of this being his final collegiate season. Rather, he intends to not only make up for the underwhelming nature of last season, but also start Hurley’s tenure in Tempe off in the best way possible.
Atwood and the Sun Devils will play an exhibition game against Western New Mexico on Nov. 7 and then officially begin their season on Nov. 13 against Sacramento State. Whether Atwood does in fact break out will only be answered once the season is underway, but all signs point toward a solid season from the senior.
“There’s no more ‘I got one more year left,’” Atwood said. “That’s why I’ve been going really hard every day and trying to be consistent because I really got a role this year and people are looking towards me to do what I do, what they recruited me for last year to come and do. Just got to do it now.”
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org