SDSU Men’s Basketball Season Preview: Offense

Steve Fisher Court at Viejas Arena (Don De Mars/EVT)

SDSU Head Men’s Basketball Coach Brian Dutcher addresses the team after practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

SDSU reached a Final Four.

Before Steve Fisher and Brian Dutcher arrived on the Mesa in 1999, the school had completed 78 basketball seasons with a combined record of 1056-892. Only 13 of those years ended in the postseason.

The Aztecs boast a 537-256 record in the 24 years of the Fisher/Dutcher era. As they laid the program’s foundation, the duo had a losing record (81-97) over their first six seasons. In the 18 years since, they have yet to double their loss total (159) while racking up more than 5.5 times more victories (456).

If the 2019-2020, 30-2, Covid-canceled season is included, the school has been to as many NCAA Tournaments under Fisher/Dutcher as the school had any postseason tournament before their arrival. In the six years Dutcher has led the program, SDSU has continued its upward ascent.

33% of Fisher’s 18 seasons as head coach ended with fewer than ten losses. 66% of Dutcher’s campaigns have reached that level of excellence. Fisher’s best consecutive four-year span began when Kawhi Leonard first stepped on campus. From 2011-2014, he won 80.9% (114-27) of his games. SDSU surpassed that by winning 83.7% of its contests under Dutcher the past four seasons.

Preview of San Diego State Basketball’s Offense

In the first of the East Village Times preview of the 2023-2024 season, EVT contributors Tron Johnson, Andre Haghverdian, and Paul Garrison take aim at answering some of the key questions facing the Aztecs this upcoming season. Each question ends with a quote from an expert, SDSU Men’s Basketball assistant coach Dave Velasquez.

How might this year’s offense look different than last year?

Andre Haghverdian
Without playing traditional two-big lineups for the majority of the game, the offense should have more spacing and freedom of movement for all five players in the half-court. As great as Nathan Mensah was as a screener, his lack of offensive repertoire allowed defenders to sag off and help double ball handlers coming off screens. With Jaedon LeDee expected to play minutes at the five next to perimeter players such as Micah Parrish and Reese Waters, who must be respected out to the 3-point line, the offense should have more open lanes to the rim that would lead to layups or kick-outs to the corners for open 3-point attempts. Additionally, the offense will play more through LeDee at the top of the key, matched up against bigger, slower defenders.

Brian Dutcher at practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Tron Johnson
The biggest thing is the offense shouldn’t have a big man on each block as much this year. It will still happen occasionally, but it shouldn’t be the default. Between players like Micah Parrish, Elijah Saunders, and Jay Pal, the Aztecs have athletes who can stretch the floor at the power-forward position. I’m expecting them to run a lot more mover-blocker sets, which is what they ran in the 2020 and 2021 seasons. The bigs will set screens for perimeter players, and it will flow into a high pick and roll.

They ran mover-blocker some last season, but it often had Keshad Johnson or Aguek Arop on a block already, clogging up the lane for the pick-and-roll. This year, the blocks will be empty, giving space for guys like Butler and LeDee to operate. In general, the team will take a lot more 3-point shots.

Last year, they were among the worst in the nation in 3-point rate. It will be higher this season. We have already seen this change play out. In the secret scrimmage against ASU. Nearly half of the Aztecs’ shots (32 of 67) came from deep. In the first half, 65% (22 of 34) of their shots were from 3. If they had hit more than four attempts, the 3-point barrage would have likely continued.

Paul Garrison
Everything SDSU did on the court a season ago revolved around the unique skills of Nathan Mensah. He was the team’s best and most important player. This year, the team will run through Jaedon LeDee. The difference in their two skill sets will make this year’s offense different. Mensah’s struggles on the offensive end made creating space challenging for the Aztecs. LeDee’s ability to score at a high level will give the offense a completely different feel. The more room LeDee has to work with, the more pressure he will put on opposing defenses.

Dave Velasquez
There will be much better flow. The flow of the offense (and) how comfortable guys are in the offense. Even some of the tweaks we’ve made as a coaching staff within the offense, it will be much better from the get-go. The ball will be moving side to side. We’ll be harder to guard. We’ll play faster in the half-court if that makes any sense. You know, the pace of getting to screens, getting out of screens, sprinting to the rim, moving the ball side to side. There will be more cutting, which is always fun and really hard to guard. … We’re all growing. We’re continuing to grow. None of us have all the answers. We never think we do. But offensively, we’re going to just continue to grow and get better.

How might the offense look similar to last season’s offense?

Andre Haghverdian
When a team has been coached by the same “system” for the past 24 years, you can expect some of the same packages of plays still being utilized regardless of the personnel. With the starting backcourt returning, Dutcher will look to continue to put Trammell and Butler in comfortable positions that worked well for them last year. That would mean lots of pick-and-rolls and coming off screens for dribble handoffs heading towards the middle of the floor. There will still be a strong emphasis on driving the ball to the basket to draw fouls and crash the boards for putbacks.

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Tron Johnson
Year over year, the offense doesn’t change much in terms of the plays in the playbook. A lot of them go back to the days when Steve Fisher was the head coach. What changes is the frequency the specific plays are used. That means the Aztecs will still use two duck-ins from time to time. They’ll continue to run delay actions into Chicago actions. It’ll be a great way to get Butler the ball already on the move with LeDee rolling to the rim. They’ll also likely continue to focus on getting offensive rebounds. LeDee and Pal both excel at dominating the offensive glass and scoring on putbacks.

Miles Heide practicing his hook shot. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Paul Garrison
The offense will look the same at the end of the shot clock. Last year, Dutcher went to Matt Bradley in isolation or a point guard in the pick-and-roll. These are near-universal ways to beat the clock as time ticks down in a possession. What will be interesting is who Dutcher goes to in those moments.

Last year, Darrion Trammell emerged as the point guard of choice, so he is an early favorite for the role. Players and coaches have raved about Reese Waters’ scoring ability. He sounds like someone to replace Bradley. LeDee also is an option but if the offense flows through him, he likely will have had his chance already. Plus, freeing him from scoring late in the shot clock would allow him to contribute with one of his greatest attributes: offensive rebounding.

Dave Velasquez
What will be similar is really trying to put pressure on the rim, whether that’s with an occasional duck-in. We won’t be ducking in every single possession like we were last year. Try to open up the lane a little bit more for Trammell and Butler to get downhill and our other wings. It’s crazy to say because we have the guard for so darn long (with) how hard we play defensively, but offensively, Dutch wants them to play fast. Whoever gets a rebound is allowed to push it. Every player that plays here knows that.

How will “the shot” catapult Lamont Butler on the offensive end?

Andre Haghverdian
It is hard to make the case that one made shot would automatically turn a player into a monster on the offensive end. Surely, it provides him supreme confidence in whatever game situations that present themselves in the future. In addition to the expected growth a fourth-year player with the work ethic Butler possesses would make, I believe the draft workouts and feedback he received from NBA scouts should be the main catalyst for his ascension on that side of the court. Improvement as a floor general, knowing when to pick his spots to score and when to set up teammates, will take a step forward, as will consistency with his 3-point range.

Tron Johnson
The biggest thing is confidence. That shot doesn’t make him any more talented on its own, but it should boost his confidence in a way that lets him be “the guy” this season. With Matt Bradley gone, the team needs to establish a new leading scorer, and Butler seems to be in prime position to be that guy.

Micah Parrish eyes the basket. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Paul Garrison
“The shot” will be among the greatest sports memories in my life. Sitting courtside covering the game, Butler was about as close to me as he was to the rim. From my vantage point, he blocked my view of the basket with his shoulders as he elevated to shoot. When he came down, the shot was pure. Ted Leitner sat to my right. Hearing his broadcast without a radio as the Aztecs stormed the court left an indelible impression on my mind.

Life is often fortuitous in the wrong ways, but not this time. No one was more deserving of that moment than Butler. His character, work ethic, and others-centered approach made him fit for that shot. Those qualities are also why “the shot” will not catapult his offensive game. His game will improve on the same career arc whether or not his heroics happened in Houston.

Dave Velasquez
It’s giving him confidence. It’s giving him the maturity on and off the floor that probably he wouldn’t have had to deal with. And so now he’s a little bit more grown. He’s always been a really well-put-together young man in the classroom, in the community, (and) amazing to coach.

He just really understands the importance of possession by possession. Now, I think he understands leading a team. … Lamont’s just grown up. I’ve seen it so many times. I’ve been fortunate enough to be here for so long. He’s just another of those special guys. Over time, they just grow up, and they become young men. And he’s turning into absolutely a great leader. … It’s more just leadership, (and) calmness about him that I think he’s learned from that moment last year to where we’re at now.

Will this team be better in transition compared to years past?

Andre Haghverdian
On paper, there’s no doubt they will be. If the four-position is played predominantly by a wing (Waters or Parrish) or Elijah Saunders, the team should be faster with more ball handlers who can lead the break or have the speed to fill the wings as finishers. Even a bigger lineup with Demarshay Johnson or Miles Heide at the five should be able to get out in transition because of the speed and athleticism of those guys as long as the defense can force turnovers and/or rebound a missed shot. I wouldn’t expect them to try to get in transition off made shots because that isn’t something the Aztecs have prioritized in the past, and we haven’t seen whether any of the bigs have the ability to make quick, full-court length, inbounds passes.

Reese Waters catches his breath. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Tron Johnson
It should be. Last season was the worst the Aztecs have played in transition since coach Dutcher took over as head coach in 2017-18 on a points-per-possession basis. That alone suggests the team should be better this year. The team has multiple players who can lead the break this season. Seven or eight of the players in any nine-man rotation can be trusted to grab the rebound and lead the break up the floor rather than pausing to look for an outlet, so running up the floor quickly shouldn’t be a problem if the team decides to do that.

The question becomes, how much will they want to run. The pieces are there to make it work, but the team very rarely decides to push tempo on a regular basis. This year, though, might be the year to do it. Between the depth of the team, the lack of defensive talent relative to previous years, and the slew of ball handlers, getting easy points in transition would be very beneficial. It is similar in that way to the 17-18 Aztecs, who were also coincidentally the fastest-playing team in Coach Dutcher’s tenure.

Paul Garrison
Dutcher brought in Terrell Gomez as a grad transfer in 2020-2021. Gomez frequently spoke about the need for SDSU to play at a quicker pace. Lamont Butler played at a faster level as a sophomore in 2021-2022, but no one joined him. Last year, Trammell tried to speed up the game for the Aztecs on the offensive end. For three seasons, Dutcher has attempted to run more, but the players he had were not conducive to it. This year could be different, but it remains to be seen how the team fits together.

SDSU actually had more transition points in the NCAA tournament than its opponents (34-30). It did that because in the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and national semifinal, they gave up zero fast break points. Butler and Trammell can play fast. LeDee, a former point guard, should be able to as well. The players who join that trio most on the court will be those who compete best on the defensive end. If one of them is Jay Pal or Miles Byrd, the pace will improve.

Dave Velasquez
“(There are) guys that are more naturally comfortable (playing in transition on this year’s team), to be honest with you. Guys that are more natural pushing it fast, making plays going downhill. One of the things about Miles Byrd when we recruited him was his passing at his size was the best thing that he did. It’s not necessarily meaning that he’s going to be the point guard; it’s more about, he’s going to push it in transition, push it into the paint, and he will find a guy.”

I’m hoping that in transition, we can be better. We’ll be honest and tell you the principles haven’t much changed. It’s more about how comfortable the guys are playing fast. Coach Dutcher wants to play fast. It obviously is to our advantage to get teams to speed up ’cause we can make them take a really hard shot 10 to 15 seconds into a possession where we are hoping to get a little bit of an easier shot … that early in the shot clock and then we’ll just continue to make more possessions which everyone considers playing fast.

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What will the newcomers add on the offensive end?

Andre Haghverdian
The newcomers will add a ton of versatility, ball handling, and shooting. The two transfers, Reese Waters and Jay Pal, both have played NCAA tournament games, so they have experience at the highest level. They fit the positionless style the Aztecs love to play and can help out the backcourt with initiating sets on the perimeter. While nobody on the team will fully take on Matt Bradley’s role as an isolation player, Waters might be the closest to it in certain situations.

Missing out on finding a replacement for Mensah in the transfer portal opened the door for true freshman Miles Heide to play important minutes this season. His development as a defender, rebounder, screener, and energizer could be the final piece to the puzzle that is the 2023-2024 SDSU basketball team. Fellow true freshman BJ Davis is a talented guard with a bright future, but his time on the court will likely be limited for this season, barring major injuries to the backcourt.

Tron Johnson
Reese Waters will add some offensive punch and defensive versatility. He may not be a direct replacement for Matt Bradley in terms of being the leading scorer, but he’ll be efficient and fill multiple roles.

Jay Pal will add length, off-ball IQ, and a lot of defensive versatility. He has the tools to guard almost every player in the Mountain West, and he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to impact the offense.

Miles Heide adds some depth at the center position. He’ll be needed to play the minutes when LeDee needs a breather or when LeDee gets into foul trouble.

BJ Davis adds efficiency on offense. He had multiple 50/40/90 seasons in high school, which is no small feat, and showed off his nice shooting stroke as well as good decision-making in regard to shot selection.

Dave Velasquez coaches at SDSU’s practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Paul Garrison
As a group, the newcomers (Miles Heide, Jay Pal, BJ Davis, and Reese Waters) will add complimentary pieces to the nucleus already at SDSU. Looking at the box score for the closed-door scrimmage against Arizona State, Heide, Waters, and Pal (Davis did not play) combined for 16 of the team’s 67 shot attempts and no free throws. Those are role-player numbers.

Waters, who was picked as the Mountain West Newcomer of the Year, started. Among the quartet, he would be the player most expected to play a larger role with the team. His nine attempts last Saturday (two makes) were the fourth most on the team. Looking closer, though, seven of his shots came from three. At the college level, shots from deep are usually created by others.

Dave Velasquez
We’ll go with the transfers to a start. Reese Waters: obviously a guy you can rely on to make really good plays with the ball in his hands, whether it’s scoring or just finding a guy. He’s done this at a high level. He’s had success at this high level; two of his better games came in the NCAA tournament over at his last school.

Jay Pal: He provides a completely different type of player but can play the three and the four. He’s a really good cutter. When guys are driving, he just finds his way to wiggle in. He times up his cuts really well. He can stretch it to the (3-point line). Kind of gives you a unique kind of balance because he’s a good passer, but at the same time, he’s really good off of pick and pop. He truly is a 3/4, which we were excited to kind of find out when we got him. For the most part of his college career, he played the four.

We got BJ Davis, who’s a freshman point guard. Imagine, he’s an 18-year-old; he’s going up against Darion Trammell every day and Lamont Butler. I mean, that’s about as good as it gets and about as good a competition as you’re going to see for any true freshman that’s out there. He’s just – the word that comes to mind, some of your listeners will get it, some won’t- he’s just a hooper. He’s a kid who can hoop, and he does it unconventionally at times. But he loves the game. He plays really hard. He’s going to be a really good player for us just because of his demeanor. He really wants to be good. So, he’ll be a guy that can help.

Miles Heide, who is our inside guy, who will play a ton of minutes as a freshman.
It will be a learning curve for him, but he’ll be out there. He’ll be a guy that I think our fans will really love and care about. He’s going to dive on every loose ball. He’s going to play as hard as he can on every possession. He’s got way more athleticism than it might seem. He’s just the best to coach. He’s like a dream come true for a coach because all he wants to do is just get better. He asks great questions (and) comes from a basketball family.

What will Jaedon LeDee’s game look like this season?

Andre Haghverdian
Last year, nearly all of LeDee’s touches came deep in the post. No matter what position he plays this season, the expectation is that the ball will be in his hands more. The Aztecs will rely on him to initiate their offense and create opportunities for others.

LeDee should also figure prominently in the pick-and-roll with Butler and Trammell at the top of the key. LeDee’s offensive repertoire will put tremendous pressure on the defense in these situations. He has the ability to shoot the midrange jumper, score rolling to the basket, or face up a secondary defender. LeDee was able to showcase some of his full arsenal of offensive weaponry last year, including the two plays in the Final Four prior to Butler’s game-winner. Depending on the set, however, he may find himself farther out on the floor when shots go up, and his offensive rebounding rate may slightly dip because of that.

BJ Davis dribbles in practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Tron Johnson
First, we know LeDee excelled in the post last season. He was more efficient than 86 percent of players in the nation in post-up situations last year. So he should still get a healthy dose of post-ups this season. He also flashed the ability to score from the area around the free throw line, where he could hit a jumper over the defender or drive by them with his ball-handling skills. LeDee has reportedly focused on extending his range out behind the 3-point line. In addition to what he already does well, adding a 3-point shot will let him thrive in all sorts of other actions. He’ll be able to add pick and pops, shooting out of delay actions, and open up the floor for everyone else to drive to the hoop.

Paul Garrison                                                                                                                  Jaedon LeDee will win Mountain West Player of the Year. He will be the best player on a championship-contending team. He will have terrific scoring, rebounding, and assist numbers. Dutcher will design both sides of the court according to LeDee’s strengths.

If playing center does not tire him out, the Aztecs will play four wings frequently. If it is too taxing for LeDee to carry the offensive load and bang download on the defensive end, Heide, Johnson, and possibly Saunders will take the center role from him.

Dave Velasquez
Well, there will be some people that say, ‘Wow, I did not see (that coming).’ There’ll be others that say, ‘Man, I was waiting for that last year.’ But he will be a go-to guy. He will be a guy that, if he stays out of foul trouble, it’ll be hard to keep him out of the game. He can really score the ball, and he can make great plays when he gets double-teamed. He scores in a variety of ways. …

We’re expecting a lot out of Jaedon. He’s going to be a guy we’re going to rely on as much as anyone else on the team. There’s no other name you could say to me right now that’s going to mean as much or more to us than Jaedon LeDee.

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