Signs that SDSU basketball could be special in 2022-2023 emerged last summer. Elite competition during grueling workouts in June, July, and August showed a team filled with impact performers.
“The first week of practice in the summer, I remember calling my dad one day…, ‘Man, there’s no way it’s this hard. There’s no way every team is this good,'” SDSU forward Elijah Saunders said with a laugh on Episode 95 of The SDSU Podcast. “Not knowing we were going to be in the national championship. That’s how good our team was.”
Ten months later, on one of basketball’s biggest stages, the nation would see the talent Saunders saw firsthand in those early weeks of the offseason. The Aztecs’ run to the Final Four, though unpredictable even to the people involved in bringing it about, made sense.
Fresh off an NCAA Tournament appearance, Nathan Mensah, Aguek Arop, Matt Bradley, and Adam Seiko returned for an extra season to play with upperclassmen Lamont Butler and Keshad Johnson. Add impact transfers Darrion Trammell, Micah Parrish, and Jaedon LeDee to the mix, and the potency that took the nation by storm last March emerged.
Playing behind veterans with years of success at the D1 level lessened the opportunity Saunders, Miles Byrd, Demarshay Johnson, and Cade Alger had. In hindsight, the eventual roles they played last season came as no surprise.
Though he failed to log significant minutes on the court, Saunders contributed to the team’s success off of it. In practice, players are separated between black and red jerseys. The athletes in black are those preparing to play, while those in red are the scout team preparing their teammates to perform. All season, Saunders wore a black jersey and gained invaluable reps in the sets SDSU uses in the game.
He also was the team’s de facto DJ, providing the soundtrack to the historic championship game journey.
“During the whole run, I was on the music,” Saunders explained. “A lot of people don’t know this, but music was a big piece for us last year. Just before the games, listening to music it got everyone in the right mood. I was in control of the music (last season). … “I wasn’t playing, so I would have my phone out, clicking the songs. All the guys are getting focused, getting ready to play. I would play the music on the bus. I remember leaving the JAM heading for the flight all year; we would be listening to R&B, old pop songs from early 2010, and things like that. We would always be singing coming back from shootarounds.”
Shedding the Freshman Fifteen
As for any freshman, Saunders’ first year on the Mesa was challenging. As he watched his older teammates compete for a national title while he cheered them on from the bench, Saunders admitted that he did not do all that he could to find time on the court.
Unlike many four-star recruits, Saunders was a late bloomer. He grew to become a national recruit as a senior after holding no offers as a junior. Without playing time last year, his confidence waned. By the end of the year, he had gained 20 pounds from his listed weight of 240 to nearly 260 pounds.
Even among a team of older players, Saunders’ physical profile stood out. He is tall with broad shoulders and massive legs. The extra weight was not noticeable. Saunders wore it well.
After the season ended, Saunders returned home for a few months and went to work. He and his dad competed to drop the most weight. The elder Saunders put up a valiant effort, losing 20 pounds. Going against a world-class athlete in his prime, though, the outcome was never in doubt.
Saunders trimmed down to 228. He has added a few pounds since returning to campus and has a chiseled, NBA body at 235 pounds. Every aspect of his game has improved as a result. He is quicker and more explosive, making him more versatile than ever. But, more than anything on the court, his success off of it with his family, away from the Mesa has brought with it the most important attribute any athlete can have: confidence.
“This summer went really well for me,” Saunders said when asked to reflect on the offseason. “Got to go back home for a couple of months and really focused on some things I needed to work on. For me, a lot of the things I needed to improve on weren’t really just on the court. I felt like I needed to work on my mentality and my approach to each day, each play. Even some self-confidence things, building that back from not really playing much last year and still feeling like, ‘I’m a really good player.'”
Saunders’ role this season
If SDSU is able to reach the expectations that come with making a Final Final run, unlocking Saunders’ potential is essential. The shape of the upcoming season is still to be determined, and unlike most years, that form could go in a number of directions.
With long athletes throughout the roster, head coach Brian Dutcher could play small (height-wise) with Micah Parrish, Reese Waters, or Jay Pal at the power forward position. The coaching staff could also play big by playing Miles Heide or Demarshay Johnson at center while sliding LeDee to power forward and pushing Parrish, Waters, or Pal to the perimeter.
The wild card in whatever lineups Dutcher wants to employ is the 6-foot-8 sophomore, with the skill to nearly crack the rotation as a true freshman on the most successful team in program history. Saunders could truly make the Aztecs positionless.
“I would say that has everything to do with my goals that I have for basketball,” Saunders said when asked what motivated his offseason work. “Realizing what it takes to be in the best shape you can be. It comes down to everything. Me, realizing I’m going to be in a bigger role, and seeing that for myself and knowing I’m going to have to be ready for that.”
“Last year, I admit I got complacent at times. Kind of feeling like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to play anyway,’ so it didn’t really matter to me. But seeing all these guys, AG (Aguek Arop), Keshad (Johnson), Nate (Mensah), and Jaedon (LeDee), last year. Watching them play, watching how hard they had to play and their physiques, I have to be ready. That’s all I think about. I have to be prepared. I have to be ready for the season. My body has a huge part to do with that.”
His ascension to a critical contributor would open the game for everyone around him. LeDee would not have to grind in the paint on every defensive position. Saunders’ shooting ability would open the court for Butler and Trammell in the pick-and-roll. His hulking physique would be perfect for all of his teammates to run screens off of. His intelligence and high IQ would get the offense running the fast break like never before while filling in gaps on defense.
After the championship game against UCONN, Dutcher spoke about Saunders as one of the best freshmen SDSU has ever had. 2023-2024 promises to be a coming out party where the nation sees what the Aztecs head coach has been talking about for more than a year.
My earliest sport’s memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.