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From the classroom to the court

(Photo: ASU Athletics)

A student of the game as well as in the classroom, 6-foot-7 junior college transfer Sai Tummala looks to excel on and off the basketball court.

While simultaneously being a pre-med student enrolled in Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University and a Division I basketball player, Tummala looks to bring more depth to the Sun Devils.

“It’s just a lot of work,” Tummala said. “The biggest thing is just you’ve got to stay focused on what you want to do. I mean, it’s so easy being an athlete to go to all the distractions and everything, but I think at the end of the day what is important is focusing on what you want. That’s the goal I’ve had since I was a little kid, to play at high-level basketball and to do well in the classroom.”

Mind and Body

Tummala’s personal trainer, Tim Howard, trained pre-season All-American Jahii Carson in high school. He also tends to Tummala’s sister who plays basketball at Harvard. Howard sees the drive and standard Tummala holds himself to.

“On the court and off, he’s very strategic,” Howard said. “Everything he does, it has to have a good value, a good meaning to it for him. He’s very, very intelligent as far as academically. He’s taking some very hard classes and if I remember correctly he’s in the Barrett [Honors College] school right now. Plus him and his sister, you tell them to do something, you better be able to back it up with some facts. And then even if you give them some solid facts, they’re going to have their own opinion on it, so he’s a very smart kid. He’s very cautious about things, but once he puts his mind to it, it’s pretty much a wrap. “

Tummala cites his ability to truly focus on what he wants to do to achieve his goals as a tool to help him succeed.

“Off the court, I think that one thing that really defines me is my ability that I always keep working,” Tummala said. “That’s always been the case with me. I’ve never always been the top of the top; I’ve always made my way there because I worked there. In high school, I mean, nobody knew me coming up out of middle school and then I made it to the state championship as a senior and the same thing in college. I worked my way up to get a high-major Division 1 scholarship so that’s one thing. I’m always working: that’s what defines me.”

Coming from an Indian family, academics were pushed throughout Tummala’s life, but when he showed interest in basketball, his parents almost instantly jumped on board.

“Surprisingly, my parents really pushed me to pursue the athletic stuff,” Tummala said. “A lot of parents, I’m Indian, so a lot of parents that I knew weren’t really pushing it. My parents saw that I had potential and they really pushed me, especially my dad. From the time when I was a little kid he took me to all the practices, took me to all the training. He made it so I would get every opportunity to excel.”

Sibling rivalry

When Howard first started training Tummala after training his sister, Shilpa Tummala, he saw the potential both players had.

“Him and his sister are the first two Indians that I have ever met who play basketball,” Howard said. “Playing basketball when you’re not white, black or Mexican or Latin descent…it’s hard to come by. But to then actually excel at it? That’s totally different. A lot of people can attempt to play basketball, but not many excel and obviously Sai is on a different level.”

Between Tummala and his sister, the desire to be the best is an overwhelming factor for them both.

“That’s always been a rivalry,” Tummala said. “She’s always trying to one-up me at everything and that’s always how it’s been. She went to my rival high school, St. Mary’s, and I went to Brophy Prep. It was always a rivalry in the house. I remember when I was playing St. Mary’s they would chant stuff about my sister to me and all that kind of stuff, but it’s always been good. We always both push each other on the court, then in the classroom.”

Basketball-wise, the siblings never shy away from a competition.

“One thing that we’ve always competed on is three-point shooting,” Tummala said. “That’s a thing we always used to do because we never used to play 1-on-1 because I was so much bigger than her, so we would always play HORSE or something like that.”

A Wide Range

On the court, Tummala not only is a good three-point shooter, but he also has a great low post game as well.

“My biggest strength I would say is my versatility to shoot the ball and playing inside-outside,” Tummala said. “My biggest weakness I would say is to work a little more on my ball-handling. Ever since I’ve been here they [ASU coaches] have emphasized it with me, helped me in individual training and always helped me get what I need to get done.”

Howard points specifically to Tummala’s work ethic, IQ, and ability to create his own shot on the court as skills that will help him contribute to the team.

“He’ll eventually be an all-conference player,” Howard said. “If not this year, definitely next year. I know a lot of attention is on Jahii (Carson), but obviously you need a team to win. Individuals can have a great year, trust me, I’ve worked with All-American’s who’ve had 25-26 points per game seasons, but they didn’t have a team around them.”

“So now that this team looks a little bit stronger than I saw last year, having a person like Sai, I definitely think he will be able to contribute a lot because obviously if you’ve watched him play, he can shoot the three, he’s a lot more athletic than people realize and that’s from him playing volleyball and obviously being 6-foot-7.”

Tummala sees his position at ASU as more of a learning role, in addition to providing key minutes when needed.

“I’m going to contribute any way I can,” Tummala said. “We have a lot of veteran guys on this team so I’m just here to learn and get better and that’s really what it comes down to.”

Moving Around

Before coming to ASU, Tummala was a walk-on at University of Michigan for a year, but in his words, he just wasn’t getting the experience he wanted.

“It was a good experience for me. Like I said, I wanted to do it ever since I was a little kid,” Tummala said. “The only reason I went there was because I felt like I had an opportunity to earn a scholarship while I was there, but it just wasn’t working out the way I wanted it to. I think it really helped me a lot more than people think. It helped me transform my body; coaches there really helped me out a lot. I took what I learned there and expanded on it then earned my own way.”

From there, he went to Salt Lake City Community College for a year, and after a scholarship offer from ASU, he accepted and took his talents to Tempe, AZ.

“Going to Michigan was probably the best thing for him,” Howard said. “Being around that atmosphere for a whole year, playing that style of basketball, that’s something definitely that him as well as the Michigan State transfer and the Penn State transfer brings to this whole squad and that is a different mentality.”

The choice to come to ASU wasn’t an easy choice, but according to Tummala, though he had 20-30 offers (some from the likes of Nebraska, Pittsburgh and the University of Pennsylvania), one person stood out to him in the recruiting process.

“Honestly it came down to Coach Johnson,” Tummala said, referring to new ASU assistant coach Stan Johnson. “He was recruiting me initially to Drake (University), that was one of the schools that offered me early, and he recruited me the whole year. So, I really saw that continuation with him. A lot of coaches kind of came out at the end, a lot of bigger schools came out at the end, but I felt like Coach Johnson really cared and that’s a big reason why I came here.”

“Also, Coach Sendek. I felt like he is a really good coach with X’s and O’s and everything so that’s another thing I really liked about him. He really knew how to understand the game and how to teach it.”

Finally settling into the routine of ASU basketball, Tummala and his teammates see all the potential they have to go out and compete with the more established programs in the Pac-12.

“We’re really excited,” Tummala said. “I think everyone on our team believes in our ability to win games, and we’re all just really excited to get out onto the court and play finally. We’ve been competing against each other, giving each other all the bruises and everything, so we’re ready to go.”

 This writer can be reached via email or on twitter @sammyjade18

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