Like many cities in the central and western parts of the United States, Bryan, Texas, was founded as part of the nation’s railroad boom during the second part of the 19th century. Officially incorporated in 1871, Bryan will be celebrating its Sesquicentennial this year. Fittingly, the career of one of its native sons, Aztecs guard Trey Pulliam, is about to leave the station.
“Trey Pulliam” was Matt Bradley’s first response when asked which teammates have stood out to him since arriving at SDSU. “He’s playing with a swagger in practice where he’s looking to be a guy where he can be a threat. He’s shooting the ball well. He’s a great competitor. He loves guarding me on defense. Usually, there aren’t many people who step up to the challenge to guard me because I am physical and strong, and banging around with me can become annoying. He accepts the challenge almost every day.”
Both of Pulliam’s parents played college sports in College Station, Texas, Bryan’s neighboring city. His mother, a pitcher, was inducted into the Texas A&M Hall of Fame in 1987. From these bloodlines, his rising status as a star for one of the top programs in America is unsurprising. Yet, the train of Pulliam’s own athletic pursuits was slow getting out of the depot.
He started his career at Bryan High School before transferring his sophomore season to A&M Consolidated High. At Consol, he was the tallest player on his team and spent most of his time guarding and rebounding against taller players on the opposing teams. Pulliam started his sophomore and junior seasons but missed most of his senior year with an injury.
The injury may have derailed his career if not for a chance encounter at his next stop. A zero-star recruit, Pulliam spent part of a year playing on a prep school team, Pro-Vision Academy, in Houston. Pro Vision played Navarro Community College in an exhibition game. He played well and caught the eye of Navarro’s coaching staff, including head coach Michael Landers.
“That fall, we actually played his prep team in an exhibition game,” Landers told EVT. “He played really well against us…literally, only because we played against him and his prep team were we able to get him.”
That chance encounter would be a turning point for Pulliam as he transformed his time at Navarro into a division one scholarship. Navarro was coming off three losing seasons when Pulliam joined the squad, and he was a catalyst for a quick turnaround. In his final year, he led them to a 25-7 record and a spot in the regional tournament finals averaging 12.7 points, 5.3 assists, and 3.5 rebounds a game.
Pulliam’s numbers were not the eye-popping figures fans fawn over, but college coaches saw someone who played winning basketball, made others around him better and defended at a high level. Six schools offered him a scholarship, with SDSU coming out on top for his services.
Pulliam’s train arrived at the Mesa on schedule. He was one of four transfers for the 2019-2020 season and played in every game off the bench as the understudy to KJ Feagin and Malachi Flynn. The Aztecs went 30-2 on the year and possibly would have had a number one seed in the NCAA tournament, but the season was cut short because of COVID. Though a major contributor on the team averaging 17.5 minutes a game, he was clearly not comfortable.
“I had the privilege of coaching Trey for two years,” Landers said. “I watched his progression from when he first got to campus to what he looked like at the end of his sophomore year. I watched that growth and the confidence going into games. Then, he went to San Diego State. I saw what looked like his freshman year again. He was a little unsure on the floor, hesitant to make decisions.”
When a player competes without the swagger Bradley alluded to earlier, they think on the court instead playing by instinct, which slows down the decision-making process. In a game as fast as college basketball, a few moment’s hesitations can be the difference between success and failure.
Trying to find more Zen on the court is difficult enough on its own, add in a global pandemic and what that meant to the routines of college athletes, and Pulliam faced remarkable obstacles. Yet, the Bryan native started all 28 games last season. The Aztecs were at their best when he was at his. Teams dared Pulliam to be great, and towards the end of the season, he became just that.
Over the final two months, he averaged 10.4 points, 2.1 steals, 4.2 assists, and three rebounds a game. He was the best player on the court in SDSU’s opening round win over Wyoming in the Mountain West Tournament. Without his 15 points and four assists, the only title in the Aztecs trophy case from 2020-2021 would have been from the MW regular season.
“It was incredibly important,” SDSU assistant David Velasquez said when asked about Pulliam’s return this season. “It’s going to impact our program not only this year but for years to come. You’re talking about a situation where a player who’s been in the program for two years. He’s learned behind two of the better guards to play here – KJ Feagin and Malachi Flynn – and he got to play alongside two four-year starters in Jordan Schakel and Matt Mitchell. Trey, this past year, finally got comfortable towards the end of the season. Any time you’ve had a junior college guard – any division one coach will tell you – you always think to yourself, ‘man if we could only have him for one more year.’ Well, in the situation we are in, we finally get a junior college guard to be here for a third year.”
Coaches and players alike have raved about Pulliam’s play during the offseason and preseason practices. He was often seen working on his craft on his own three or four times a day. His love for the game and the doors basketball could open for him have made a dedicated player even more passionate. No longer are his teammates and coaches telling him how good he is, he knows, and the results are showing on the court. As much as his play portends an exciting future for Pulliam, it harkens back to a time in the past.
“(Confidence) kind of makes me feel like how I used to feel back in the day when I was in junior college,” Pulliam said. “Playing more comfortable, just being myself, not thinking too much, just playing with a lot of instinct.”
“Confidence was the main thing I was missing a lot of times last year that I found at the end of the year. I feel like my skills are there. They have been there. It’s just me being confident enough. I mean, I have put in enough reps throughout my life. My skills are there, and I am steadily improving them, but for me, it’s the mental side.”
With SDSU acclimating four new players into the rotation while replacing two of the best players in program history, Pulliam’s growth is coming at the perfect time. Pulliam brings more to the game than athleticism, high basketball IQ, and elite fundamentals. He is a professional decision-maker when his comfort level allows his instincts to take over. In his final year at Navarro, the coaches rarely called a play from the sidelines down the stretch of games. They entrusted Pulliam with making the right decision to win the game. If he had come back for an extra junior college season, like he is doing with the Aztecs, Landers doubts they would have called a play the entire game because Pulliam is like a “head coach on court.”
Video games, fantasy sports, and the preponderance of analytics give the impression that players are interchangeable, growth is linear, and all a coach needs to do is reduce players to base skills and reassemble them into a team. In reality, winning is more about the human traits of intuition, chemistry, and personality. With all of the new components and roles, the Aztecs need someone to be a coach on the floor to bring everyone together.
“I’ve seen so much growth in Trey,” Adam Seiko told EVT. “…He’s such a talented player. If he can be more vocal, which he has been this year, it will just take us so much farther. His jumper has gotten extremely better. His defense has been there, and his toughness. He is tough-minded. I can trust him to never take a play off. I can trust him to hit me when I am open. I can trust him to have my back on defense. He’s a dependable and coachable guy. Trey’s going to have a great year. He’s super talented. His numbers are going to go way up for sure. I can’t wait to be on the court with him again and get this thing done.”
Trey Pulliam’s career has one more stop before his train pulls into a professional career, the 2021-2022 season. As the engine driving SDSU, the Aztecs are going to go as far as Pulliam takes them. Aztec nation has one more year to appreciate a player who has embodied the spirit of the program, improved every year, and now is in position to lead—all aboard the Pulliam Express.