In a year where the Arizona State Sun Devils lose reliable bigs like Savon Goodman, Willie Atwood, and Eric Jacobsen, a heavy reliance on the team’s backcourt will define Bobby Hurley’s team in the 2016-17 season.
Thankfully for Hurley and company, there is a lot of potential there.
Point guard Tra Holder is now an upperclassmen after leading last year’s team with 14.2 points per game as a sophomore. He is joined in the backcourt by a pair of Buffalo transfers - Shannon Evans II and Torian Graham - that will help ease the load on the junior, as well as a couple of younger guards who have the ability to shock opposing defenses.
What are the expectations? How will all of the newcomers slide into their current roles? We break it all down below.
The Returners (2015-16 stats represented below)
Tra Holder - 14.2 PPG, 3.7 APG, 3.5 RPG
Holder is the definite leader of this group. The junior out of Los Angeles is the top scoring threat on the roster and will have more freedom and less pressure with the addition of Evans.
The point guard’s transformation into one of the most improved players in the conference caught many by surprise last season, but Holder won’t have that luxury this time around.
Kodi Justice - 7.9 PPG, 2.4 APG, 2.2 RPG
While Holder provides the night in and night out scoring ability this team needs, Justice’s production will be a bit more sporadic. That isn’t to say, however, that he can’t fill it up from the perimeter when called upon. The junior-to-be had 10 games last season where he scored in double digits, highlighted by a 20-point outburst in a win against Houston Baptist in which he buried six three-pointers.
How he’s used by Hurley this season remains to be seen. Liking the spark and energy that the shooting guard can provide off the bench, Justice was used as the team’s sixth man for much of last year. He might be forced into the starting lineup this season, however, which is where he was inserted for Arizona State’s scrimmage against Weber State and the exhibition contest against UC Santa Cruz.
Austin Witherill - 0.5 PPG
Witherill earned a scholarship last season in his second year in the program. Like Justice, the former walk-on’s top attribute is his ability to hit three-pointers in high volume. Unfortunately for Witherill, that ability is typically only seen in practice.
The shooting guard averaged just 1.6 minutes per game on the floor last season, and that stat figures to be similar this season with five guards ahead of him on the depth chart. He did play six minutes in last week’s exhibition against the Banana Slugs, scoring two points and pulling down one rebound in the team’s blowout victory.
Sam Cunliffe - Freshman
There’s no question that Cunliffe, a four-star shooting guard out of Seattle, is the Sun Devils top newcomer this season. Cunliffe can play both the two and the three and is the program’s highest-ranked recruit since James Harden came to the Valley in 2007.
His ability to score from anywhere on the floor, whether it be behind the arc, through mid-range jumpers, or at the rim makes him a matchup nightmare for opponents. He was a part of Hurley’s starting five for the exhibition game and could very well be in that spot throughout the rest of the season.
Shannon Evans II - 15.4 PPG, 4.6 APG, 3.2 RPG (2014-15 for Buffalo)
Hurley’s right-hand man at Buffalo is now eligible to play after sitting out last year due to the NCAA’s transfer rules. Evans will get a chance to contribute immediately, starting alongside Holder in a high-octane backcourt.
The combo guard challenged his counterparts every day in practice last season, and it will be interesting to see what he can do against defenders wearing a different color jersey. Evans routinely led his Bulls team in scoring two years ago, a campaign that was highlighted by eight games in which he scored 20-plus points.
Torian Graham - 12.4 PPG (2013-14 for Chipola JC)
If all goes right, Graham will play in his first-ever Division I regular season game on Friday against Portland State. The road has been a long one for the shooting guard.
After being ranked 67th in the country by Rivals for the Class of 2012, Graham went the junior college route and shined in two season for Chipola in Florida. He then signed with Houston, but chose to transfer in mid-November of his first season there. That decision led to a switch to Buffalo, but before playing a game there he decided to follow Hurley to Arizona State.
All told, Graham has played two exhibition games while wearing a D-I uniform - first for Houston two years ago (two points against North Alabama) and again on Thursday with the Sun Devils (23 points against UC Santa Cruz). Time will only tell what he can do under the bright lights in meaningful contests.
Chemistry is key for this group. The talent is certainly there, but how quickly guys like Cunliffe can gel with the holdovers in the backcourt will be integral for their success.
Truth be told, the Maroon and Gold’s success as a whole will hinge on the play of this backcourt. This isn’t the most talented team in the Pac-12, but their style could cause fits and make up for a lack of experience down low.
With a non-conference slate that features opponents like Northern Iowa and Kentucky before the calendar evens turns to December, we will find out soon enough just how big of a difference they will make.