Can SDSU build a super team?

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Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Toni Kukoc’s enshrinement in the Naismith Hall of Fame this past September provided an opportunity for detractors of Michael Jordan’s elevated status. For decades, one of the chief arguments in favor of Jordan’s ranking as the greatest of all time was that he never played on a super team. With Kukoc joining Jordan and their former teammates Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman in the HOF, a few revisionist historians crafted a different story. 

Throughout its history, title teams in the NBA have typically had multiple game-changing athletes with high-level role players around them. The Lakers dynasty of the 1980s had Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish led the Celtics of the same era. In the present era, superstars band together every offseason to make title runs. Championships won by the Heat, Spurs, Warriors, and Cavaliers all were super teams. One of the few examples over the years of a team winning a championship without having multiple superstars was the 2019 Toronto Raptors.  That team only had one superstar, Aztec for Life Kawhi Leonard.

As the NBA’s best has increasingly taken it upon themselves to ban together, the college game has followed suit. Top freshmen recruits annually flock to the same elite programs. With the change in the one-time transfer rule, many top players are leaving schools where they have had individual success and joining teams poised for deep NCAA tournament runs. This past season Arizona State star Remy Martin joined perennial top 10 Kansas and was rewarded with an NCAA title. 

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College super teams differ from their NBA counterparts in significant ways. The amateur game is essentially a job interview with NBA draft status on the line. This makes it less likely for a lot of top talent with NBA potential to move to one team. Instead, great college players with less professional potential group together.

NBA super teams are built for a window of a few years. Collegiate squads usually have one try to succeed.

What they have in common is the top free agents or transfers sacrifice their personal gain to maximize their chance of winning a championship.

The end of one college basketball season brings a plethora of experts’ “Way too Early” top 25 teams for next season. Already, with the return of Matt Bradley and the addition of Darrion Trammell, SDSU has been a consistent choice among the national media. In the Athletic, Seth Davis had the Aztecs at number 22. Andy Katz ranked SDSU 23. Brian Dutcher’s gang rounded out Heat Check’s Top 25. Jon Rothstein currently lists them at 26. Busting Brackets placed them just outside their top 25. The Washington Post did the same.

Heading into the 2022-2023 season, the Aztecs are expected to be a good team. With a few more additions, they could evolve into a darkhorse contender for a national championship. Below are four possibilities for the Aztecs to reach the exalted status as a super team.

Nathan Mensah and Aguek Arop need to return 

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To be elite, SDSU must continue playing defense at the level they attained in 2021-2022. Mensah is the Aztecs’ best defender and one of the few players in the nation who is a matchup nightmare on defense. How much respect do teams have for him? Late in the year, the opposition set screens to force Mensah off their guards!

If he decides to forgo his fifth year on the Mesa, the Aztecs should lose any chance of being ranked in the official Top 25 preseason rankings. If Bradley was the MVP of last season’s team, Mensah was its MIP, Most Important Player. Replacing him will not be easy.

“I think the player of the year is Nate Mensah,” Bradley said earlier this season. “He guarded Ike, (Orlando Robinson). He’s the reason we won multiple games this year. What Nate has done for our team defensively, it has been really big. I consider him the most valuable player on our team and the most valuable player in the conference.”

On paper, Aguek Arop’s return does not look as essential, but a deeper dive into super teams reveals that they all had necessary cogs like Arop to turn the various pieces into a team. Players like the Lakers of the 1980s AC Green and Kurt Rambis are necessary for super teams to thrive.  Every great team needs someone whose main role is to fill in the thousand little gaps created by the stars around them. Bradley puts so much pressure on opposing defenses that quirky crags open up that are not typically there. Arop’s intelligence, athleticism, heart, and instinct allow him to thrive in these voids. If AG returned surrounded by a super team, his best version as an Aztec would come out.

Add one more center

Conventional wisdom has it that if Mensah and Arop return to SDSU, they will not add another frontcourt player. Why would a starting-caliber player choose the Aztecs only to play behind Mensah? This line of thinking goes out the window, however, when building a super team. To exist together on one squad, elite players sacrifice personal opportunities to maximize postseason success. With the Jayhawks, Martin had career lows in points, shot attempts, minutes, and nearly every other statistical category. He sacrificed all of these to be in a position to hit clutch shots in the Final Four.

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The frontcourt player most often connected to the Aztecs is University of Nevada transfer Warren Washington. The 7’1” center averaged 23.8 minutes a game for the Wolfpack last season. Joshua Tomaic and Tahirou Diabate averaged 20.6 as Mensah’s primary backup. There are enough opportunities for both to exist on the same roster.  

Super teams only work when someone sacrifices their conventional role. During Kukoc’s Hall of Fame ceremony, Pippen praised the Croatian’s willingness to come off the bench as one of the keys to the Bulls’ title runs. Would Washington be willing to make a similar sacrifice to bring a championship to his hometown? 

If SDSU is going to be a super team, they need him to. When Mensah was not in the game, the Aztecs’ level of play dropped significantly. There was simply no one behind him on the roster to match his presence. Washington, a true center, would allow SDSU to have a physical center inside for 40 minutes. As a bench player, Washington would also bring an element many key reserves add to their teams, instant offense. In this light, the two centers might complement each other, with Mensah the better defender and Washington showing more skill on the offensive end.

Add an elite shooter

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As the roster sits in April, there is a clear weakness on the team, three-point shooting. 2022-2023 was supposed to be the year Keith Dinwiddie and Che Evans matured into that role, but their transfers left a void. Bradley is the only player the opposition fears as a catch-and-shoot threat from deep enough to change their entire defense. Bradley, though, had the ball in his hands too much last season to take advantage of this part of his game. With the addition of Trammell, there is a chance Bradley sees more of these opportunities next season with the transfer from Seattle taking on more of the playing role in the offense. 

If Dutcher and his staff feel Trammell’s addition opens up the floor enough for Bradley, they might not need another transfer guard. Adam Seiko, Chad Baker-Mazara, and Lamont Butler proved valuable enough to keep defenses honest. When building a super team, however, the name of the game is more. The transfer market is ripe with players who shoot 40% or better from three, adding one of them would likely push this squad into the top 15 to start the season.  Players who fit this mold and have been linked to the Aztecs include Vanderbilt’s Shane Dezonie, Oregon State’s Jarod Lucas, and Layola (MD) Cam Spencer. 

A current Aztec needs to grow into a star

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Among all the recent NBA super teams, the Golden State Warriors stand out because they built their squad from within. With the notable exception of signing Kevin Durant,  the northern Californian franchise drafted and developed the backbone of their success, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Steph Curry. If SDSU is to reach the heights of a super team, it will, likewise, need one of the players currently on its roster to make the leap into stardom.

The shortlist of players, who fit this description of joining Bradley and Mensah as game changers, is known. TCU transfer Jaedon LeDee must show the benefits of sitting out a year and build off the great year of practice he had last year.

Chad Baker-Mazara enters his third year in college. Consistency on both ends of the floor is key to earning enough playing time to turn into an all-conference performer. Keshad Johnson is a consistent jump shot away from evolving into one of the biggest mismatches in the country. Finally, Lamont Butler took three steps forward but two backward last year. A hard worker, Butler, is sure to improve next season. Will it be enough to turn SDSU into a super team?

SDSU will likely enter 2022-2023 in the same place it typically does.

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They will be outside the national conversation with an opportunity to enter if the Aztecs can come together early in the season. Brian Dutcher and his staff have already assembled a deep and veteran team for next season. With teams in the conference adding talented transfers of their own, there is work left to be done. With a few key additions and continued growth from the players already committed to the Aztecs, next season’s roster could be one of the best in SDSU’s history.

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