For most freshmen, their first year of college feels massive and intimidating.
They are usually immature with underdeveloped minds, bodies, and souls leading to an arrogance that they have life all figured out. For athletes, it is even more difficult because they must also acclimate to their sport.
Gelling with teammates and figuring out their role on the team is literally a full-time job for professional players. Student-athletes must balance the rigors on the court and in the classroom at a high level from the jump. For SDSU freshman forward Elijah Saunders, there is a lot to learn. Luckily, he defies freshmen stereotypes and is a sponge for learning.
Saunders is from Phoenix, Arizona, where he went to Sunnyslope High School. A four-star recruit, back-to-back Conference 6A Player of the Year his junior and senior years, and a McDonald’s All-American nominee. Saunders is a decorated sports star. Despite these accolades, at the beginning of his junior year, he was still hunting for college attention.
“It was very frustrating for me at times,” Saunders said in an exclusive interview with EVT. “I felt like I was better than a lot of people who were getting offers at the time. But my dad would always tell me my time is coming, and I just trusted him and was patient and believed that the work I was putting in was going to pay off.”
He continued to work and trust the process. Through his belief, he accumulated offers from Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Miami, St. Johns, and many others.
Now the freshman must continue that trend at San Diego State. He has a lot to learn, but he is relying on his veteran teammates and coaches to help him fit into the culture. This season, SDSU has 13 upperclassmen on the roster. Arriving on campus, Saunders was intimidated trying to fit in with his adult teammates. He quickly learned there is no age requirement to fitting in.
“As a freshman, I was thinking; we have a lot of older guys, so you know, I thought that maybe they would try not to share all their knowledge,” Saunders said. “Or try to, maybe joke, you’re a freshman. But no, they really try to help you as much as possible, and the thing I’ve realized is everyone just wants to win at the end of the day, and everyone wants to see everyone reach their goals, so it’s really been great in that aspect.”
Off the court, he says that all the teammates are close. “We’re funny. We laugh and go places together,” Saunders said. “It really helps me get onto the court; the chemistry is there.”
Adjusting to new teammates is not the only change Saunders is navigating. A late bloomer, he did not have the hulking frame he now possesses until early in high school. He joked that he was still bigger than his new teammate Miles Byrd is now, but he was nowhere near what he grew to become in his final two seasons at Sunnyslope.
“I had to learn to play with force but also finesse, so it’s kind of a balance of mine,” Saunders explained. “Really watching someone like Jaedon (LeDee) play, how hard he crashes the glass, and Keshad (Johnson) and AG. Those guys, you have to box them out. It’s almost like you don’t have to worry about getting the rebound yourself as long as they don’t get it.”
Bigger high school players have a disadvantage. On one hand, they can bully smaller athletes on the court, but they pay the price of referees using quicker whistles. Saunders could not use his physicality to his advantage. Stepping into the world of grown adults, he will now be able to make full use of his size.
But Saunders’s adaptability to playing multiple positions adds pressure. He has relied on his frontcourt teammates for their advice.
Arriving at SDSU, he said he struggled defensively. His bigger teammates abused him in the post, and he learned to combat them with physicality. He credits Aguek Arop and Nathan Mensah for helping him understand that he can use his strength to his advantage. Johnson coaches Saunders on perimeter defense and stuffing gaps.
Saunders humbly admits that there’s a huge gap between the newcomers and the veterans. According to Saunders the best of being at SDSU has been the opportunity to focus more on his basketball career and seeing his game improve.
It is the film room that is leaving the biggest impact on the freshman. “It’s been different watching practice film every day,” Saunders said. “Like you might have a bad practice, and you go back and watch it, and you see your growth. I go back to the summer and watch some tape and almost laugh at how bad it looks, then go now and see how much more comfortable I am.”
Fit in the rotation
The coaches are taking notice. In the closed-door scrimmage against UCLA, he logged almost eight minutes. In the first half, he scored seven points on 2-of-2 shootingwith a three-pointer and tallied three rebounds.
Saunders’ frame allows Dutcher to fit him into different roles. He has experience playing as a small forward. He considers himself a four that can play the three and, due to his size, also play the five.
“That’s the position (the four) where the most competition seems to be,” Dutcher said in last Tuesday’s press conference. “We’re really deep at that power forward, stretch forward position. We gotta figure out a way to play a bigger lineup at times to get them all on the floor (Keshad Johnson, Jaedon LeDee, and Saunders).”
Saunders must develop defensively, and he will receive minutes. Playing the three, he will need to be quick on his feet for perimeter defense, and at the five, he needs to master his size and strength.
SDSU typically does not give extended minutes to true freshmen. With the exception of Matt Mitchell, who started 32 games and averaged 26.5 minutes a game his first year on campus, Lamont Butler and Jordan Schakel are the only true freshmen to contribute under Dutcher. They averaged 12.4 and 13.8 minutes, respectively. Off the bench, Saunders is going to bring size and versatility.
This is an important year in his development, and with so many graduating teammates, this will be Saunders’s team in the years to come.
As he is learning Aztecs’ culture, he will have a duty to spread this knowledge to his future teammates. SDSU’s program works like a cycle, utilizing a system where the older guys train the newcomers. Saunders’ time to mentor will come, but as of now, he is acting as a sponge, soaking in everything so he can make an impact as a true freshman.