#9 - Arizona State Sun Devils

Arizona State is potentially going to be in the tough position this season of improving across the board, but ultimately having little to show for it; at least not in terms of the standings. Last season under new head coach Herb Sendek, the Sun Devils improved significantly on both sides of the ball.

They played better defensively, finishing third in scoring defense behind UCLA and WSU, and 5th in field goal percentage defense. They also improved offensively towards the latter half of the season when Sendek's highly structured Princeton style offense started to take hold. However, although the improvement was obvious to anyone who watched the team play, it didn't show up in the standings, as the Sun Devils won just two games in conference, finishing last.

That said, they were not nearly as bad as their results would otherwise indicate. They lost 11 games by five points or fewer overall and eight games by five or fewer in conference. They also took conference champ UCLA to the wire in their second meeting of the season, ultimately succumbing to the Bruins by six. The Sun Devils were tough and played good defense last season, but just didn't have enough athletes or scorers to stay with most of the teams in the conference, as evidenced by the fact that they were the lowest scoring team - a full five points per game worse than 9th-place Oregon State.

Fortunately for the Sun Devils, they are getting an infusion of scoring and athleticism as well as some sorely needed front court depth with the additions of freshmen James Harden, Jamelle McMillan, and Ty Abbott, as well as Duke transfer and former McDonald's All American Eric Boateng. Unfortunately, their freshmen are well…freshman, and Boateng - due to the bevy of front court talent at Duke in 2005-2006 - did not get off the bench, playing only 50 minutes total. After sitting out a year due to his transfer, Boateng has played only 50 total minutes of live NCAA action in two seasons so it remains to be seen what he will bring.

As mentioned, the Sun Devils had just one go-to player last year – Jeff Pendergraph. Pendergraph is a stud, and barring injury, he will be an NBA player, and though he was fairly raw when he arrived at ASU as a freshman, he possessed excellent athleticism for a player his size and played strong inside. Two years later, he has added consistency to his jumpshot, is accurate with his jump hook out to about 8-10 feet, and has great vertical lift and quickness off the floor. He also has the quickness to step out on occasion and guard players away from the hoop, and while he continues to developing his post moves, his best asset is his rebounding ability. Pendergraph is a rebounding machine, finishing 2nd in the conference last season at 9.1 boards per game. Despite being a quality defender, he needs to work on his shot blocking skills. Last season he blocked just 22 shots, less than one per game, which is unacceptable for a player with his combination of size, strength and leaping ability. Like Pac-10 foes Jon Brockman and Taj Gibson, he also needs to work on his passing out of the post and pick his spots better when he drives; he had just 25 assists as compared to 70 turnovers (2nd most on the team).

Transfer Boateng adds some depth to the Arizona State front court which is easily the thinnest in the conference. In fact, calling it thin is being kind. The ASU front court is so thin that adding Boateng merely allows the Sun Devils to play Pendergraph at the 4-spot and actually have a true power forward and center combo. Last season Pendergraph played center; Sylvester Seay, Serge Angounou and the undersized Allen Morril took turns at power forward. With the departure of all three, the Sun Devils have virtually no one they can depend on to come off the bench to spell either Pendergraph or Boateng. Their only option is 6-foot-9 reserve junior Chad Goldstein, who missed last season with health issues and averaged 2 RPG and 1.5 PPG as a freshman in 10 Minutes per contest. After Goldstein they have 6-foot-8, 190 pound freshman bean-pole Kraidon Woods. Woods is fairly athletic, can block a shot here and there and can shoot the ball a bit from the perimeter - but unless he puts on some serious weight, he is going to get hammered by the immensely talented front courts he will see in Pac-10 play.

Between Boateng and Pendergraph the Devils should have at least a league average starting front court, and possibly a bit better than that depending on how the two players develop respectively. However, any significant injuries to either player, particularly Pendergraph would be a disaster of monumental proportions to any hopes the Devils might have of climbing out of the Pac-10 cellar.

The Devils return a ton of depth in the backcourt, but minimal impact scoring ability or athleticism. Of the four returning players (Christian Polk, Derek Glasser, Antwi Atuahene, and Jerren Shipp) none of them shot over 34 percent from 3-point range and only one of them, Atuahene, shot over 40 percent from the field. Glasser and Polk were particularly poor from the field shooting .345 and .365 respectively. All of this combined to make Pendergraph, a good offensive player, but not great by any means, their leading scorer at a mere 12.1 PPG (the lowest scoring output for a team leader of any Pac-10 team). Their second leading scorer was guard Christian Polk at 12.0 PPG, but the scoring fell off rapidly from there with Shipp averaging 7.6 PPG, Atuahene at 6.9, and Glasser at 6.3.

Their top returning player in the back court - depending on how you want to measure it - is probably shooting guard Polk, due to his 12 PPG scoring average and the fact that he has by far the most upside of any of the returning players. Polk is rangy and flexible and is easily the best athlete among the returning guards, being both the quickest and having the best leaping ability. He is also the best defender among them, using his quickness and length to stay in front of his man. He is a decent passer, but mostly shoots and drives, as evidenced by his 56 assists as compared to 79 turnovers. Polk needs to shoot more consistently from outside - his shot has a strange sideways spin on it that makes it very difficult for him develop consistency. He struggled with his shot selection at times as well. He shoots too many pull up 3-pointers and often doesn't take shots in the flow of the offense. If Arizona State is going to contend for a tournament spot, they must get better efficiency from Polk.

Returning at point guard is Glasser. Glasser is a scrapper, plays smart and isn't afraid to mix it up while doing a good job managing the game, despite the fact that at times he is often physically overmatched. His ability to create off the dribble or get his own shot are mediocre, as are his shooting numbers - despite having a decent looking shot. The biggest concern on Glasser is the fact that he lacks the athleticism requisite to play point guard at the Pac-10 level with consistency. This problem was particularly glaring in games against teams with strong, athletic back courts. Shipp and Antwi Atuahene are the other two guards in what was at times a four guard offense for the Sun Devils. Shipp is the younger brother of UCLA shooting guard/small forward Josh Shipp, though he lacks the elder Shipp's athleticism and court savvy. Shipp does an acceptable job in most aspects of the game though he lacks any above-average traits. Atuahene is a combo guard that can handle the ball and shoot it fairly well from inside the 3-point line. He possesses good quickness and can drive to the hoop fairly effectively. Again though, Atuahene is probably better suited to being a role player than a primary option off the bench.

Fortunately for the Sun Devils, they have an excellent recruiting class, the crown jewel of which is Harden. The Artesia High product comes to the Sun Devils along with his former high school coach Scott Pera, which should ease his transition to college ball. Harden has all the tools to be an All-Conference player and a legitimate NBA prospect. Kevin Love (UCLA), O.J. Mayo (USC) and Jerryd Bayless (Arizona) get more hype, but Harden definitely deserves mention with that group. Not only is he superbly athletic, he shoots the ball well, can handle it like a point guard and is an outstanding decision maker. He drives well, finishes strong at the rim and doesn't mind contact and it wouldn't be at all surprising if he plays some point for Sendek, even though he is a natural wing. He has such outstanding out court savvy that ScoutHoops West Coast Scout Greg Hicks says that Harden already plays the game like a 10-year NBA vet. Another thing that sets him apart from most freshmen is that he is already very determined and skilled defender and has all the tools to be a lock down defender in the mold of Washington State's Kyle Weaver or UCLA's departed Arron Afflalo. Harden gives the Sun Devils a huge boost in scoring ability and athleticism and also gives them a likely lock-down perimeter defender. Whether it be at the 1, 2 or 3 he will start from Day One and probably play 30-32 minutes per game. His presence alone makes the Sun Devils a much more potent offensive team than they were a year ago.

Joining Harden in both ASU's 2007 recruiting haul and probably in their starting backcourt is point guard McMillan. McMillan is the son of former NBA player Nate McMillan. The younger McMillan is a good athlete and while not a burner, definitely has high major quickness and a solid muscular body. His best attributes are on court leadership, intelligence and his defensive ability. Like many freshmen, McMillan is an inconsistent scorer and must polish both his outside shooting and finish inside. With practice though, he should become a solid scoring threat, and may find his way into the starting lineup fairly early in his Arizona State career. McMillan plays very well in a structured environment and there is no offensive system with more structure than the Princeton offense, so he is a great fit. The Sun Devils badly need the upgrade in athleticism McMillan brings to the point guard slot and Glasser's skill set is much better suited to coming off the bench and managing the game.

Another quality player in the Devils' 2007 recruiting class is shooting guard Abbott. Abbott is a quality player with a good shooting skills. He is fairly tall at 6-foot-4 and should develop into a quality Pac-10 player. At one time he was being courted fairly strongly by UCONN, but never ultimately received an offer and picked the hometown Sun Devils over Washington State.

Overall, the Arizona State Sun Devils are an improving team and have gotten a much needed influx of talent this offseason, They are still young however, and outside of Pendergraph, their most talented players are very inexperienced. On the other hand expect to see an improved squad on both sides of the ball with the additions of Harden and McMillan in the backcourt and Boateng in the front court. If everything comes up roses for them this season, meaning no injuries, significant player improvement and Sendek's system further takes hold, Arizona State could finish as high as 5th or 6th. Sendek is a quality coach and with good coaching, teams typically do make significant progress between their first and second season, so it's not at all ridiculous to think that they could leapfrog a few teams, but given the overall talent in the conference this year, a big rise in the standings is unlikely.

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