Arizona State freshman forward Sam Cunliffe ready to shine for the Sun Devils

Sam Cunliffe is Arizona State's highest-rated recruit since James Harden, and he is prepared to own that label.

True freshmen have a lot of obstacles to overcome when making the transition to the college game. Fortunately for Arizona State freshman Sam Cunliffe, he may not have to deal with one of those issues. 

"I thought I was in shape before I got here, but getting in college shape, and getting with the size and the speed of the game was the hardest thing," Cunliffe said. "But as practices started, it's been a lot easier for me just from being here in the summer."

Now, the summer is over, and Cunliffe's "freshman" title will likely be nothing more than that. The 6-foot-7 wing, aiming to be the sixth true freshman starter for the Sun Devils in the last decade, was a Scout top-50 player in the 2016 recruiting class from Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, a factory for Division I players.

The most recent Rainier Beach alum to go from the Pac-12 to NBA was Washington's Dejounte Murray, selected in the first round of last year's NBA draft. Cunliffe says he and Murray maintain a strong relationship.

"I talk to him every day," Cunliffe said. "The Spurs played the Suns, I think last week, I went to the game, hung out with him, I'm close with him. Really, really close with him."

ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said more than once last season that Murray was the best freshman ASU played against all season, so it might be wise for Cunliffe to keep receiving advice from Murray to impress his new coach. 

"He's (Cunliffe) ready," Hurley said. "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."

The desire for Cunliffe to be great is mutual between the player and coach, but perhaps more important than that, Cunliffe and Hurley have already built a bond in Cunliffe's short time in Tempe.

"He's like my friend, kind of," Cunliffe said. "I feel like it's a genuine care, especially towards me. I feel it a lot when I'm around him, after practice, during practice, you can just tell he wants me to be great. That's what he told me I was going to get by coming here and that's what I have gotten so far."

If playing time is any sign of greatness, then Cunliffe is correct. All signs point to Cunliffe being in the starting lineup from the outset of the season, and for a variety of reasons. 

Multiple teammates have already vouched for Cunliffe to win the Mill Madness dunk contest coming up on Oct. 14. Additionally, Shannon Evans said that Cunliffe would beat him in a three-point shootout. The talent is obviously there, but Cunliffe is also a great fit for the current state of the Sun Devil roster. 

Freshmen bigs Vitaliy Shibel and Romello White will be unavailable this season, and Andre Adams is coming off of his second career ACL tear. The only scholarship players ready to join Obinna Oleka in the frontcourt this season are freshmen Jethro Tshisumpa and Ramon Vila, giving Cunliffe a unique opportunity.

Cunliffe was one of the tallest players on his high school team last season, spending more time on the interior, making use of his athleticism and height. While the centers and power forwards of the Metro 3A league in Washington can't compare to the Pac-12, Cunliffe still views the experience as valuable.

"It did (prepare me)," Cunliffe said. "It was kind of a blessing, because I did have to guard bigger dudes. High school still they weren't what I'm going to see at this level, but it was bigger. If I were on a bigger team in high school I would be playing against the guards, so it was kind of a blessing getting ready to come here."

Although it may not be his primary position, the idea of Cunliffe playing a stretch-interior role for this thin frontcourt makes a lot of sense. He is already one of the tallest available players on the roster, can jump out of the gym, and his X-factor is his mid-range jumpshot, which Hurley called one of "the best you'll see."

"I work on that (mid-range shooting), I've always been good at that," Cunliffe said. "Getting to my spot, being able to pull up over people. That's one of my go-to's, just getting where I want to go and raising up. He (Hurley) is putting me in positions in practice, he's got plays for me to be in that spot, so I think the mid-range is something I'll live off of this year."

While his position is still up in the air, it's safe to say Cunliffe will be a vital piece to the Sun Devil rotation, and he knows it. 

"I want to be Pac-12 Freshman of the Year," Cunliffe said. "I think it's doable. I don't care what anybody says, I put the time in, I'm always here in the gym, I'm always working on my game even off the court, so that's my main goal for the year."

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