A lot of moving pieces lately
A lot has happened since the last time Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley has sat down to speak with the media.
His last press conference, an emotional postgame discourse following the Sun Devils’ season-ending loss in the Pac-12 Tournament, came after a disappointing season when the team battled with injuries and COVID-19 stoppages as doggedly as they combatted with their conference opponents.
Since that early March afternoon press conference, Hurley’s team has been turned upside down. Unexpected transfers like Holland Woods and Jaelen House have departed. A grand total of 10 additions have been made to the roster, many of them found through the transfer portal. The 38th ranked player in the 247 composite recruiting rankings in Canadian center Enoch Boakye will also feature with the team this coming winter.
The changes have continued all the way through this morning, when it was reported Hurley will bring in former Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus as his new right-hand man on the bench. Two days ago it was announced Jermaine Kimbrough, formerly at Loyola-Chicago, will join the staff as well.
In order to keep track of the rapid amount of program turnover, Hurley has brought a whiteboard into his house. In this offseason, the eraser has nearly gotten as much work as the marker as roster changes have come on a nearly weekly average.
Hurley described last season as the most challenging of his coaching career. His tone of reflection is laced with a mixture of frustration, disappointment, and some relief. The 2020-21 Sun Devils were projected to finish second in the preseason PAC-12 standings, only to finish a forgettable eighth place with an 11-14 record.
But this season features a start so fresh, it might as well be USDA certified. Of all the wisdom Forrest Gump can offer us, perhaps this quote will ring the most true for this Sun Devil team.
A Season of Fresh Faces and an Opportunity For Renewal
After last season, Hurley declared he wanted players that he could “go to war with,” and he echoed those sentiments on Thursday.
“We want to have our guys who are here committed to Arizona State basketball,” said Hurley. “My goal is to never go through a season like this again. There’s no guarantees or promises about that. But our staff and myself have worked extremely hard to try to change some things, to evaluate not only the talent of the players we are getting involved but also finding out about them and what they value.”
Hurley nominated four incoming transfers that fit the values his staff is seeking. AJ Bramah from Robert Morris, Jay Heath from Boston College, DJ Horne from Illinois State and Marreon Jackson from Toledo are expected to significant playing time in the fall.
Who is Coming Back?
Kimani Lawrence recently announced his return for his final year of eligibility. Jalen Graham, who was a bright spot in last years campaign, will be a junior.
As he saw increased minutes and evolved from bench contributor to featured player, Graham’s confidence blossomed, and Hurley expects his game to expand, literally and figuratively.
“If you watched Jalen in the second half of the year I think he was able to step away from the basket and take those 15 to 17 foot jump shots,” Hurley said. “He’s already demonstrated that he’s comfortable doing those things. We will continue to encourage him to do them. I think that would be a great asset to add to his game.”
Hurley highlighted Graham’s improved free-throw percentage as one of the reasons why he was comfortable with his junior forward attempting shots behind the arc. It has been a while since the Sun Devils have had a true stretch big, this season, they might have two. Boakye has stretch abilities, and Hurley mentioned Graham is using this offseason to test the waters of his game.
A Portal to a New Era
For the first time in Sun Devil basketball history, the transfer portal will bring in more players than a recruiting class. This is a sign of the times, as relaxed NCAA transfer rules and rewarded player dissatisfaction have led to the the transfer portal resembling something like NBA free agency.
“I think it’s going to be what college basketball is like going forward, this is a new era,” Hurley said. “Student-athletes are going to have the same rights as everyone else to maneuver and have a chance to figure out what’s best for them. You got to be ready for the second season. I’m not sure it will be to the extent that it was this year in terms of the turnover and the transition. It will was a roller coaster ride this season, but it’s put me in a really good frame of mind.”
The transfer portal continues to grow. Three weeks ago, it was reported that over 1000 players had declared their intent to transfer.
A New Style and a New Philosophy
Arizona State struggled mightily with rebounds last season. The team ranked an abysmal 332nd in rebound margin in 2020-2021, giving up an average of seven rebounds to their opponents.
This year, with increased height and length, Hurley expects the team to at least crack the top half, but isn’t too sure how his different lineup will mesh together in terms of play style.
“It’s a little early to tell,” Hurley said. “Overall, you look at our team at the moment and the guys in the program, I think we’ll be geared a little more to rebound a little better. I think people looked at our team last year, and we had a lot of inexperience on the floor. Yeah, we were bring Remy (Martin) and (Alonzo) Verge back but we had a lot of inexperienced players in the program and I think this year we’ll have a number of guys who have played years in college basketball and it will be our job to bring it all together.”
A Changed Narrative
The Sun Devils struggled in the Pac-12 last season. Over recent years, the conference has been met with passive dismissal from a national perspective as the 12 members struggled in non-conference play.
That changed this season as conference rivals USC, Oregon State and UCLA all made deep March Madness runs. UCLA came a Jalen Suggs half-court buzzer beater away from a potential berth in the national title game.
Some might expect Hurley have steam coming out his ears as he watched teams he regularly competed with roll through the NCAA Tournament, but Hurley says that could not be further from the truth.
“Most people would think he’s probably slamming his head against the wall,” Hurley said. “I was extremely enthusiastic because the league has been beat for a number of years, nationally, that the Pac-12 is not the good of a league. It hurt us in years here. We shouldn’t have been in Dayton a couple years back after 12 wins in the conference. I think that was the byproduct of (the Pac-12) just not quite having the success in the tournament.
Hurley singled out the runs of Oregon State and UCLA as two that he saw were particularly encouraging. He is a coach driven by competition, and as a true competitor, there was a level of respect granted to Wayne Tinkle and the Beaver program for their must-win performance in the conference tournament.
“It stokes the fire to want to get this place into those types of moments,” Hurley said. “That’s the goal.”