Wednesday, October 4, 2017

SDSU Hoops Preview: This Team Is Devin Watson's If He Wants It

Brian Dutcher has some big shoes to fill. The new San Diego State University basketball coach replaces Steve Fisher, the legendary and beloved coach and mentor who retired in April after a Hall-of-Fame-caliber career at SDSU and Michigan.

After serving for decades under his longtime boss and friend, Dutcher finally gets the keys to the car. And he’s got some horsepower to help him get San Diego State back where it belongs: the NCAA Tournament.

The Aztecs have been disappointing, to say the least, these last three years. Last year they didn't make it to the postseason at all for the first time since 2005. The year before last, SDSU made it to the semi-finals of the NIT. The year before that, the third round of the NCAA Tournament. And the year before that, the Sweet Sixteen.

You see a pattern here?

Dutcher, however, should have the engine this year to motor this team back to March Madness, with the three top scorers returning and an impressive stable of talented and hungry transfers and freshmen recruits.

This is a far more talented team than last year’s squad, which finished 19-14 and just 9-9 in the Mountain West Conference. Granted, some of the talent is young, and others are transfers, but this 2017-18 model has fewer missing parts.

The Aztecs now have two much-needed bigs, including a legit seven-footer with Pac 12 experience and a 6”10’ power forward, as well as a natural point guard, and more and better shooters.

Devon Watson (right)
Devin Watson Primed to Lead

Can Dutcher really put all these pieces together and return this team to glory? Yes, very possibly. The key will be leadership. And not just that of Dutcher. 

What this team needs is new energy and urgency on the court, especially on offense. There has not been any strong, vocal, in-your-teammate's-face leadership from the players to speak of in several years. 

Senior guard Trey Kell? Too ethereal, too cerebral. He's by all accounts a good, conscientious, hard-working kid. And at times he's a very good player. But if you stick with him as the leader, things won't likely change much. 

He managed to get a third team all-Mountain West selection by coaches and the media last season. That isn't good enough for the guy who is allegedly leading this squad.

The Aztecs need new blood on offense. The last few seasons, when they had the ball, they scared no one. They impressed no one. They intimidated no one. The shooting has been at times pathetic.

SDSU was still tops in defense in the conference last year, but was dead last in the MWC in scoring and 3-point shooting and second-to-last in field goal percentage. What more do you need to hear? Someone needs to step up, speak up, take the ball and run with it. Literally.  

To break this team out of its offensive (pun intended) funk, new leaders must emerge, and USF junior transfer Devin Watson and/or freshman recruit Matt Mitchell appear primed to fill that bill.

Jeremy Hemsley and Kell, the two talented but at times underachieving guards, are both back. But they both need to improve. They can both be terrific one night and weak the next. They need to be more consistent.  

Hemsley, especially, has undeniable hoops prowess but lost confidence last year.

Having more size in the middle should help Trey and Jeremy immensely. But arguably the most important edition to this team is Watson. He’s a legit point guard who was first team all-WCC.
He can light it up. As a sophomore at USF he averaged 20.3 per game, which was was third in the WCC and 27th nationally. With Watson, SDSU now has a legitimate scoring threat to complement Pope and the other guards. Dutcher needs to use Watson wisely, and often.

I expect Devin will have an immediate and significant impact on this team’s attitude, performance and win-loss record. He should establish himself as A if not THE new leader. That may be met with some resistance by Kell, Hemsley and Pope. But it needs to happen. 

Watson's walked the walk, the others really have not. But will he have good chemistry with the existing guards? We shall see. That chemistry will tell the tale of the SDSU season.

Matt Mitchell Could Also Be A Factor

The other player who could have the biggest and quickest impact is freshman forward Matt Mitchell, who was courted by such other A-list programs as Oregon and Gonzaga. Although he apparently showed up on campus a bit overweight, Matt could eventually become the best player on this basketball team. It could happen sooner than later. 

Clayton Williams, the vaunted coach of the AAU Dream Vision squad, told the Union-Tribune that Mitchell, who some schools shied away from because of academic issues that he has since addressed, could be an "immediate impact player" in college. 

"I would go as far to say that I would not be surprised if he’s freshman of the year in whatever conference he plays in,” Williams said.

 Others Who'll Contribute

Kameron Rooks is also a key add. The senior transfer from Cal gives the Aztecs the size and experience in the paint to enable this offense to do much more than it could the last few seasons. Rooks is not a superstar, and not a natural shot blocker like Skylar Spencer, but he is solid. 

His biggest problem has been staying healthy. I’d he happily surprised if he stays on the court all season.

Redshirt freshman Jalen McDaniels could also be an instant factor, a big one. The frenetic 6’10” power forward apparently has a high basketball IQ, but needs to improve his strength. But he has limitless potential.

Jordan Schakel is another freshman who can bust three-pointers and was a straight A student who was also recruited by Cal, Stanford and USC. He could become very valuable on a team that has lacked pure shooters.

We’ll see if Dutcher can find a spot for him and the other frosh on the floor. 

Adam Seiko is yet another freshman guard who apparently is deadly from three-point range, and that is something this team also needs. Josh Gershon, the recruiting ace, calls Adam "one of So-Cal's top shooters" in the 2017 class.

 Malik Pope - Talented But Enigmatic

And last but not least, Malik Pope, the sometimes brilliant but mercurial anomaly, is back for his senior year. No one thought he'd still be around, since the NBA hype surrounding this kid has been gong on seemingly forever.

I’m hopeful Pope will finally fulfill his promise this year. He seems like a very nice kid, and he obviously has a boatload of athletic talent. But he’s not really a basketball player yet. Not my kind of player, anyway. 

No gym rat, he’s sometimes woefully dispassionate. I've seen that lackadaisical approach rub off negatively on his fellow players. Yes, even during games.

Because he's been so heavily hyped as a guy with NBA talent since the day he arrived on Montezuma Mesa, Pope has been able to influence his fellow players, who look up to him. 

He’s a star. And he is personable. But his easygoing nature and lack of competitive urgency have at times had a demonstrably negative effect on this team.

This played out miserably during the home loss against Fresno State last year. The Bulldogs just outworked SDSU. They simply wanted it more than the Aztecs did.  

Pope went 4 for 13 from the floor that night, and he looked for much of the game as if he were already mulling NBA contracts, or thinking about anything but the game at hand. Pope was inexcusably casual during that game, and his teammates followed suit. It made me sick to my stomach.

Again, Malik is a nice kid, but he's too content to rely on his natural gifts. When he’s good, he’s great, on offense and defense, but he checks out mentally. 

There are reports that he has worked hard this off-season than ever before. That's encouraging. I want to see him dig deeper and leave it all on the floor in this his final year. 

If he chooses to keep coasting on talent, he will not make it to the next level, and he will forever remain just a very gifted novelty and distraction.

Again, I don't dislike Malik at all. Please don't get the wrong idea. This column is about basketball, what goes on between the nets. I just don't think he’s yet been a plus for this team overall. He has one more season to change all that.

Whatever happens, I do not see him or Kell ever morphing into a truly effective floor leader. 

Good leaders get the most from their teammates and have a compelling and overriding need to win. 

Good leaders sacrifice. They speak up. They don't care if they tick off a teammate. They grind. 

Good leaders take it to the wall and then go through that wall. 

None of these things describe Malik, or Trey, or anyone else on last year’s roster. Someone else needs to take the reigns of this Aztecs team and escort it back to the promised land. 

Watson is that most likely savior. Yes, Devin, this team is yours if you want it.

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