SDSU Season Preview: The Frontcourt

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Demarshay Johnson Jr battles for a rebound with Elijah Saunders. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Three-time Aztec Scholar Athlete, Nathan Mensah, returns for his fifth season on the Mesa. Mensah has 171 blocks over his four years with SDSU, putting him in the chase for second on the all-time blocks list. Leonard Allen currently sits second in program history with 214 blocks. Skylar Spencer is first with 303.

Mensah is also looking to join a category of elite former Aztecs with 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. The only two players in the program’s history to do it were Michael Cage (1,846 points and 1,317 rebounds) and Al Skalecky (1,271 points and 1,090 rebounds). To reach it, he needs 333 rebounds and 268 points. Mensah would have to average about eight points and ten rebounds a game to get there. Both would be career highs. He has averaged 6.2 rebounds (total of 667 rebounds) and 6.8 points (total of 732 points) in his time at SDSU. 

Former forward Matt Michell, 6’6”, was the premiere scorer and rebounder for the Aztecs before his departure at the end of the 2020-21 season. He was the third Aztec to get 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 200 assists, and 100 steals in his career. Trey Kell and Winston Shephard are the only Aztecs to accomplish the feat. During his time on the Mesa, Mitchell frequently played out of position next to Mensah in the frontcourt. This season, SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher has a variety of taller, bigger athletes to play next to and behind the Aztecs’ Ghanaian star.

This is the final portion of the East Village Times’ 2022-2023 Aztecs season preview. EVT’s staff broke SDSU’s roster into three groups: backcourt, frontcourt, and small forwards. Since the Aztecs do not employ traditional roles, this division of the players is arbitrary and done only for clarity and organization. 

SDSU assistant coach JayDee Luster sat down for an exclusive interview. He provided the insight for this review of the roster. There is a quote from coach Luster about each Aztec on the team. 

11      Demarshay Johnson Jr. F   6-10  235   RS Fr  

2021-22 stats: N/A 

UCLA scrimmage stats: Min: 3:39, 0 points (0-1), 2 rebounds – 1 offensive. +/- 0

Demarshay Johnson Jr., who committed to San Diego State on May 12, 2021, after receiving offers from UNLV and Cal Poly, utilized his redshirt year a season ago and focused on getting in shape. During his four years at Salesian College Prep High School in Richmond, California, he helped the basketball program to a 101-12 record, 37-0 in Tri-County Athletic League (TCAL) play, three TCAL championships, and back-to-back CIF North Coast Section Division lll titles. In the first three seasons with Salesian, they were nationally ranked.

Demarshay Johnson Jr dunks during practice. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

For three years on the varsity team (sophomore year to senior year), he went 150-of-248 from the floor, 51-of-99 from the free-throw line, recorded 284 rebounds, 43 blocks, and 40 steals in 70 games played. 

The three-star recruit, according to Rivals and 247sports, was 215 pounds when he committed, added 20 pounds of muscle in his redshirt year, but might not be ready for the college court yet. Balancing life as a student-athlete can be challenging. According to Luster, Johnson benefitted from the year off. It allowed him to get acclimated to being away from home for the first time. There are high hopes for the Oakland native to be a key shot blocker and defensive player for the Aztecs in years to come. If he is able to shorten the learning curve this year, he could be a capable backup to Mensah.

Jaydee Luster quote:

“The main thing for Demarshay is that he has gotten a lot bigger. He has gotten stronger.  One of the things that he does at a high level is he has a very high basketball IQ. He understands all the defensive coverages. He understands where he’s supposed to be.” 

“For Demarshay, the one thing that we need him to do is just get in incredible shape, and that’s the next step for him. He’s worked on his body. He understands the concepts. He understands the schematics now. It’s just getting in shape. Sitting out for a year, there’s a difference between being in shape and being in basketball shape. Now, he has to get in basketball shape.”

14      Cade Alger    F     6-9   195   Jr.      

2021-22 stats: 0.6 points per game, 0.3 rebounds per game, 2.1 minutes per game

UCLA scrimmage stats: Did not play

Forward Cade Alger has not started one game for the Aztecs since his arrival in 2020. In his two years with the team, he has played 15 games. He averaged 1.1 points, 0.3 rebounds, 0.1 blocks, and 2.1 minutes in those contests. 

Cade Alger with Nathan Mensah in practice. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Alger, a two-time SDSU scholar-athlete, has the potential to get more playing time off the bench this year because he has proven to be a very good teammate, an “energy giver,” and helpful in any situation.

The former Academic All-Mountain West in his redshirt freshman year has good size and could be that deep frontcourt piece that the Scarlet and Black need instead of only earning time at the end of the game when SDSU is blowing out their opponent. 

He potentially has the ability to fill the shoes of former forward Joshua Tomaić, who played 31 games last year off the bench, or former forward Tahirou Diabate, who played 25 games last year off the bench. Both are the same height as Alger. 

Jaydee Luster quote:

“I never put limitations on people or opportunities. If (earning playing time) is his aspiration, who am I to say it won’t happen? Cade is a good player. He has good size. He can do multiple things on the perimeter and in the post. Cade’s role is to help us any way that we see fit. If the opportunity does come, just be ready. Be available.”

13      Jaedon LeDee F        6-9     240    Sr.

2021-22 stats: N/A redshirted last season

UCLA scrimmage stats: Min: 27:05, 14 points (FG 4-9, 3P 0-1), 10 rebounds (5 or)  +/- 1

In an interview with EVT this week, Jaedon LeDee said his “time is coming.” He has played on the big stage before in his freshman year with the Ohio State Buckeyes (playing 26 games and starting twice) and his sophomore and junior years with the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs (53 games played). His senior year, he transferred to SDSU and redshirted because of NCAA transfer rules.

Coach Luster said his size and athleticism has made him a great offensive rebounder. He also has the ability to score from all three levels, as his field goal percentage has increased over his college career. At OSU, he went 18-of-47 (38.3 percent) from the field, then 23-of-44 (52.3 percent) from the field in his sophomore year with TCU, and 49-for-91 (53.8 percent) from the floor in his junior year at TCU.

Jaedon LeDee attempts to block a shot in practice last season. Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

OSU and TCU utilized his size, putting him at center. As a result, he did not receive opportunities to shoot from the mid-range or three point-line. During the year he sat out, he worked to reestablish his confidence in his perimeter game.  

Another big key to this season is how he and Mensah fit together. Both should be good rim protectors and rebounders. How their offensive games fit together is a storyline to follow.

Jaydee Luster quote:

“(LeDee and Mensah) complement each other well. Jaedon can step out. He can ut the ball on the floor. He can pass. He’s a really good passer, especially once you get in the paint. He’s unselfish. He shares the ball. He gets others involved. So, you know Nate’s a guy who is a great rebounder in his area. I think Jaedon is a tracker, so they complement each other on the rebounding aspect of the game. They also complement each other because Jaedon can step out and play and give Nate the space and ability to do what he needs to do on the low post.”

 25      Elijah Saunders F        6-8     240    Fr.

UCLA scrimmage stats: Min: 7:41, 7 points (FG 2-2, 3P 1-1), 3 rebounds (1 or)  +/- 2

The incoming freshman from Phoenix, Arizona, Elijah Saunders, is bringing an incredible high school resúme to SDSU. He received offers from Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, and Miami, to name a few, before choosing SDSU as his destination spot.

As a junior and senior at Sunnyslope High School, he won back-to-back Conference 6A Player of the Year, 6A Southwest Section Player of the Year, and the Arizona Republic All-Arizona Team honors. 

Elijah Saunders and Miles Byrd participate in a rebounding drill. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

During his junior year, he averaged 15.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.0 assists. His team went 21-1 and won a state championship.

It will be hard for him to receive a lot of minutes this season because of the veterans he is competing with for time. Saunders has great size, awareness, and shooting ability. Hustle plays, rebounding, and making open shots, especially from three, will be his ticket to early playing time. 

Jaydee Luster quote:

“Elijah’s had a great preseason. He’s going to be a great player. The thing about Elijah is he’s very smart for a freshman. He has a high basketball IQ. He makes winning plays. He’s another guy who can really extend the floor and shoot the three. I think that’s one of the things that’s going to help him get a play. He’s just physically gifted.” 

“Being the guy on defense, guarding multiple positions, guard, maybe the five through one at times. We switch a lot of ball screens, doing those things, being active, extending possessions. The little things for him would be able to extend his minutes, and it’s the hustle plays. I definitely see Elijah playing.”

31      Nathan Mensah          F        6-10  230    Sr.

2021-22 stats: 7.0 average points, 6.9 average rebounds, 71 blocks (team high), and 24.7 average minutes

UCLA scrimmage stats: Min: 22:58, 5 points (FG 1-5), 7 rebounds (5 or)  +/- -3

The question for Mensah at the end of the season was to either come back and play a fifth year for SDSU or test his value at the professional level. He decided to return and build off a marvelous 2021-2022. He was No.1 in blocks, No.5 in offensive rebounds, and No.7 in total rebounds in the Mountain West a year ago.

Nathan Mensah rebounds against Demarshay Johnson Jr. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

He shot 48.2 percent from the floor with seven double-digit point games last year. His highest points scored were 19 against UC San Diego on Dec. 22. He recorded nine rebounds in that game as well. How much offense he provides on a team with plenty of scoring options remains to be seen.

Only 35 Aztecs have scored 1,000 points in their careers. As mentioned above, Mensah is 268 points away from reaching that plateau. Mensah also has a chance at another record. Billy White is the program’s all-time leader in games- started with 124. Mensah needs 32 starts to tie White. He started 32 contests a year ago. If he stays healthy and repeats that number, he will pass White, provided the Aztecs win one NCAA tournament game.  

Already one of the best defenders in program history, finding consistency on offense continues to be his primary growth area. After averaging 11.5 points a game against Boise State in the regular season, he put up four points in 32 minutes in the Mountain West Championship against the Broncos.

Mensah struggled from the free-throw line last year. He had the lowest free throw percentage out of the starters (.533). He was perfect at the line in five games and missed all his free throw attempts in seven games. His best game was against Wyoming on Feb. 28, where he went six-for-six on foul shots. Regaining the form from his freshman year, where he shot 70.8% from the charity stripe, would allow Dutcher to keep Mensah in late in tight games. 

Defensively Mensah is more than a guy that blocks shots. Like most elite big men, he has the ability to guard smaller players on the perimeter. What makes the Ghana native special according to coach Luster is “he can guard one through five off the ball as a big man.” If someone at Mensah’s size is playing consistent off-ball defense, it will be a struggle for opponents to get to open passing lanes for decent shot opportunities.

Mensah, the reigning MW Defensive Player of the Year, will still be the top-tier defender for SDSU this season. If consistent offense shows up in games, he will be among the deadliest all-around players in the NCAA and will add more firepower to a team already ranked #19/#20 in preseason polls.     

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Jaydee Luster quote:

“Nate’s done a great job of locking in and buying in this summer. I think he’s made strides on the offensive end. The thing that I love that I’m seeing right now is he’s playing with a lot of confidence. On the offensive end, confidence is everything. Right now, I don’t think there’s a shot that Nate doesn’t believe he can make. He’s stepping out, shooting some threes from time to time. His face-up jumper’s been good, and then in the post, he’s been simple.”

“Sometimes big guys overthink it once they catch the ball on the block. To me, it’s a simple game. You don’t need 1000 moves on that block. You just need two. You need a go-to and a counter. Just simplifying it for Nate will help his game on the offensive end. He’s done a good job this preseason.”

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