The commitment of Sam Cunliffe, once the number one high school prospect in the state of Washington, was supposed to signal the emergence of the ASU basketball program under then second year head coach Bobby Hurley. Instead, the situation devolved into a strange and convoluted mystery that remains unsolved to this day, as Cunliffe’s departure of ASU after just 10 games has become one of the pivotal moments of Hurley’s tenure in Tempe.
Cunliffe came to ASU as the highest ESPN.com ranked recruit ever secured by Hurley, and the second highest in school history behind just James Harden in 2007. Cunliffe immediately slotted into a starting role, averaging almost 10 points and 5 rebounds in just over 25 minutes of action across his first 10 games. Yet just two days removed from a December 10 win over San Diego State, the Seattle native withdrew from the team after requesting a release from his scholarship. A little over a month later, Cunliffe announced his intentions to transfer to the University of Kansas.
Cunliffe’s tenure as a Jayhawk was short-lived, as he failed to secure meaningful minutes in his one season at Kansas before ultimately transferring to the University of Evansville for his junior year. There, he averaged a little over 11 points and four rebounds in almost 27 minutes per game. He was a key figure in Evansville’s November 12th win over the then number one ranked Kentucky, a high point on the season for an Ace’s team that finished the year on an 19 game losing streak.
Cunliffe’s decision to leave Tempe spiraled his basketball career to previously inconceivable depths, as the prospect once ranked above reigning PAC-12 Player of the Year Payton Pritchard or current NBA players Ty Jerome, Robert Williams and Kevin Huerter is now resigned to posting mediocre stats for the Missouri Valley Conference’s worst team. This past November, Cunliffe divulged the regrets he possesses over his time as a Sun Devil, as he revealed to Jeff Goodman of Stadium that in retrospect, leaving ASU was “nuts” and that he was “really immature and got some bad advice.” Cunliffe’s admissions beg the question; how would the former top prospect have fit in on an ascending ASU team?
The reality is likely not very well. While the pain of ASU’s 15-18 record in the 2016-17 season was only intensified by the loss of Cunliffe, the lessons learned played a crucial role in the Sun Devils five win improvement the following year. Much of the strength of the 2017-18 team that peaked at number three in the AP poll after going undefeated in a nonconference schedule that included number fifteen Xavier and number three Kansas lay in their guard play, as the trio of Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice started every game for ASU that season. That group of senior guards were ASU’s three highest scorers, and combined for an average of 47 points per game. The cohesion that trio developed began the previous season, when the departure of Cunliffe opened the door for Justice to enter the starting lineup. In the ten games before Cunliffe’s withdrawal, Justice only started three games. In the 23 games after, Justice didn’t miss a start.
While the assumption that Cunliffe would detract for this high-powered trio and not improve it is pessimistic, it is based on what little evidence we have of Cunliffe in Maroon and Gold. While Hurley often tried to shoehorn the 6’6 Cunliffe into lineups as a power forward, he was in reality much better suited as a shooting guard or small forward. Some even go as far as believing his resistance to the physical toll of the power forward position played a role in his sudden departure. Nevertheless, the reality was Cunliffe was not an ideal fit for ASU at the time, and in many ways could’ve hurt the ascending Sun Devils more than he might’ve helped them.
While the unexpected withdrawal of Cunliffe only added to a disappointing 2016-17 season for ASU, the heights reached in 17-18 and beyond would not have been possible without the suffering of the previous season. Although Cunliffe has expressed his regret over his decision to leave, Sun Devil fans shouldn’t, as Hurley and co. have propelled ASU to much higher heights without him than they could’ve with him.