Bobby Hurley doesn't have as much size as he'd like on his roster. Fortunately for the Sun Devils, the second-year coach is very bullish on the rest of his talent.
“I think that we’re going to be led by our perimeter," Hurley told reporters on Wednesday, four days after the start of official practices. "I wouldn’t trade our perimeter, really, with anyone in the country. I think it's experienced, it's productive in the past, it's produced, it's proven and then we've added some high level freshmen to that mix like Sam Cunliffe so I feel great about it."
Last season, Holder led the 15-17 Sun Devils with averages of 14.2 points and 3.7 assists as the point guard starter. He flourished on the offensive end of the floor, particularly earlier in the season. As the year wore on, Holder seemed to wear out a bit, according to Hurley.
Evans should help with that. He was forced to sit out last season post-transfer from Buffalo where he played two seasons for Hurley and averaged 15.4 points and 4.6 assists for an NCAA Tournament team in 2014-15.
"Shannon is as gifted as any player in our conference coming into this year on the perimeter," Hurley said. "When you see that guy work every day and you see him make plays, whether it's hitting the deep [three-pointers], getting in the lane, finding teammates, playing the defensive end at a high level, guarding the ball. The guy doesn't get tired. He can run all day. We did our team mile, he was 4:59 in the mile which is the top time that I've ever been around in my coaching. And then just the intangibles, the electricity you'll see him play with. I think his teammates will feed off his positive energy and our fans will enjoy that too.
"I just feel like it's a volcano that's building up for him. That guy's got so much passion and energy and it was all bottled up last year."
Holder and Evans are both capable of handling the ball and initiating ASU's offense. They can also both shoot it and play off the ball. How those rolls are eventually divided is probably less important than the value of having two players who can each handle the responsibility as well as play together on the floor at the same time.
Defensively, the Sun Devils should be aided by Evans' addition. His quickness and energy should allow him to guard the ball at a high level, something ASU didn't always do well a year ago.
"He's got a lot of pride at that end and he's an elite athlete and he can definitely guard the ball," Hurley said of Evans. "That's going to free Tra up to not have to be that guy. I felt Tra got a little worn down late in the year. He had great production early in the Pac-12 and just had maybe too much responsibility and he's not going to have to carry that kind of load this year which will help him."
What's excited Hurley most about Holder's evolution going into this season is how his disposition and overall leadership qualities have progressed.
"I just see the fire in Tra, which is great," Hurley said. "When I first got here, you see all his skills and his ability to get to the rim and play in pick and roll offense. I just think his competitive drive has improved. His leadership has improved. When his team doesn't win a segment, you see the frustration. He was very quiet at times when I coached him. He's starting to be more vocal and lead our team every day. He and Shannon go head to head and I think once we turn those two guys lose together that they've got a chance to do something special."
With help from 6-foot-5 junior wing Kodi Justice, 6-foot-5 senior guard Torian Graham -- a player Hurley said has had a great off-season -- and Cunliffe, a 6-foot-6 freshman and former Scout100 recruit from Washington, Hurley said the Sun Devils could be a great perimeter shooting team. Cunliffe's length and athleticism could provide some additional scoring in form of mid-range game.
"I think the main way we get to the rim with this group is going to be attacking off the dribble with our guards," Hurley said. "I think they're going to prose some problems for defenses with their ability, their quickness, their creativity off the bounce to get to the rim. I think we have a chance to be an outstanding 3-point shooting team as well."
With highly regarded freshman 6-foot-8 post player Romello White ineligible to play this year due to academics, 6-foot-9 freshman forward Vilaliy Shibel out for the season with an ACL injury, and 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman Andre Adams limited to start practices as he recovers from his second ACL surgery, the Sun Devils are an undersized team. They'll have to beat teams by getting to the basket off the bounce and creating catch-and-shoot opportunities behind the three-point line.
Hurley said he feels comfortable with ASU throwing the ball into the post for 6-foot-8 senior forward Obinna Oleka, and some other minutes will be split by 6-foot-8 freshman Ramon Villa from Spain, and 6-foot-9 Congolese center Jethro Tshisumpa.
The biggest challenge due to ASU's size limitations may be on defense. It's already the area that disappointed Hurley most from last year in Pac-12 play.
"We have to embrace doing some things to compensate for not having an ideal number of big players and size," Hurley said. "We're going to have to rebound collectively and focus more on the defensive end to be gritty and scrappy. I think we can be an elite offensive team if we can get some things done at the other end of the floor. We didn't do that this past year and it was frustrating. I have a very strong defensive background in my life and basketball life. Our team didn't live up to that.
"With Romello White being an academic redshirt it does change some of the direction of how we'll play this year. We're not as deep as what I anticipated on the front line. We're doing some things that I might not have done in the past defensively to compensate for that, to prepare us for that."
They better get ready in a hurry, because the Sun Devils have their toughest schedule in years. They'll start the schedule with a couple must-win games at home starting Nov. 11, but then ramp up quickly, and face a gauntlet that includes Kentucky, UNLV, Purdue, San Diego State over a two week period starting Nov. 28.
"We know a lot depends on what we do in that non-conference," Hurley said. "It impacts what position you're in in terms of post-season. We're giving ourselves target games that if we can be very competitive and win, it'll put us in good position for the post-season. The NCAA Tournament committee wants to see teams willing to push themselves with the non-conference. We want to recruit guys who want to play in those games. We're going to keep playing our non-conference the way we did it. Last year I couldn't have asked for a better position going into league play. If we had an even average league play last year we would have been an NCAA team based on how we did in the non-conference."
- The first few days of practice were a grind for ASU's players, with Hurley approaching the start of camp like NBA teams do. "We got a lot done the first weekend," Hurley said. "Physically it was pretty taxing on the guys. They're crying a little bit. Their bodies are hurting. But nothing in terms of injury. That's the first thing I always hope to avoid with the shock to the bodies that's going on in terms of the length of our practices initially. It's like an NBA training camp mentality and the guys have survived that."
- Cunliffe could be a starter from his first game as a freshman at one forward spot. ASU's had just five freshmen starters in the last decade: James Harden, Ty Abbott and Jamelle McMillan in 2007-08, Jahii Carson in 2012-13 (after sitting out his first year due to academics) and Holder in 2014-15."He's ready," Hurley said of Cunliffe. "College ready body, athleticism, the work ethic is there. He wants to be great. It's going to take some time. It's always a learning curve with freshmen adjusting to this level. He's out there with other guys who are really good players so it's going to make him better."
- Tshisumpa is extremely raw but a rare type of player to mold and develop. "I haven't coached someone with his raw athletic tools," Hurley said. "6-foot-9, 260 pounds, powerful, athletic, four percent body fat. The guy is a physical specimen who has a lot to learn and pick up along the way. We'll see how he develops over time."
- Adams has recently been cleared for full court live work but Hurley said they're taking it very slow with the 6-foot-9 post player as he's missed the last two years of basketball due to a knee he's suffered an ACL tear on twice.