Who fills the leadership void for the Aztecs?

SDSU breaks the huddle after practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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SDSU players and new coach Aguek Arop enjoy a moment on the bench during practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Of all the teams to grace the Halls of Montezuma, why did the 2022-2023 basketball squad make such a deep run in the NCAA Tournament?

Other iterations of the Aztecs under both Steve Fisher and Brian Dutcher had more top-end NBA talent. Numerous teams had better individual collegiate players.

During the Tournament, most pundits paid attention to SDSU’s suffocating defense. Statistically, however, the Aztecs played better on that end of the court in the previous three seasons than they did a year ago.

What made last season’s team special was the chemistry and leadership that defined them. As SDSU attempts to replicate its success, these intangible qualities will determine its ceiling yet again.

Two summers ago, Darrion Trammell spoke about the Final Four potential of his new team. What sounded like bravado at that time took on new meaning when his predictions were revisited in Houston at the Final Four. What Trammell described was the unique quality of last year’s group to compete fiercely in practice and then spend hours off the court enjoying each other’s company.

That togetherness accounted for the team’s ability to be greater than the sum of its parts. Adam Seiko, Aguek Arop, Keshad Johnson, and Nathan Mensah competed as one because they had played so many minutes together. What looked like intuition was actually the byproduct of years of practice.

Dutcher explained last April that so much of what those players did on the court was off-script and not in the gameplan. They covered for each other, knew how and when to provide help, and expertly played off each other on the offensive end.

There is no way this season’s team can duplicate that recipe.

“(The team) definitely has to find its own identity,” Butler explained to Andre Haghverdian at Wednesday’s Aztec media day. “It’s hard to duplicate the chemistry that we had last year. The bond was just so tight-knit. It’s a little different. It’s new people coming in. It’s going to take some time. … I feel like we’ll be able to get great chemistry for this year. We’ll try to figure that out.”

Lamont Butler shoots in practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Lamont Butler: Floor General

Last season’s team succeeded because the COVID-19 pandemic gave them an extra year together. Unless eligibility rules are changed, it is doubtful any team will ever be as seasoned as the 2022-2023 Aztecs. To match last year’s success, SDSU will need to excel in more traditional means.

They will need leadership. That starts with Lamont Butler.

While Butler will be best known around the world for “the shot” against Florida Atlantic, internally, he will be remembered as one of the best teammates in program history.

Early in his career, he took on the persona of a little brother who everyone wanted to be around. As the transfer rules changed, Butler was instrumental in acclimating new athletes to the team, even when they competed at the same position. The coaching staff pointed to him as the key to keeping and transmitting the culture to a new wave of Aztecs.

“We hang out a lot still every day in the locker room,” Butler said. “Even after practice, we be chilling in there for 30 minutes, an hour, just talking and stuff like that. We have group chats where we are sending funny things or just having conversations. That kind of helps. On the court, we’re just playing with each other. Everybody’s so selfless. It just helps throughout the year.”

What last season’s team learned to do because of time, this year’s group needs to learn because Butler is the floor general who teaches them how to play. Butler admitted that leading by example is more natural for him. A season ago, that style worked. This year, it will not. The Aztecs need Butler’s voice.

This offseason, Butler seriously considered leaving for the professional ranks. Part of the feedback he received from the NBA was to work on becoming this same type of vocal leader on the court.

Basketball has increasingly become perimeter-driven. At the next level, teams want Butler to control the tempo, run the offense, and manage the game.

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Butler’s personal and team goals align this season.

“(Being a floor general) looks like Chris Paul, Steph Curry,” Butler explained. “Just out there making sure everybody gets their touches, everybody else is happy on the court. Taking the opportunity for myself to go out there and figure things out. Time management, clock management, knowing when I have to go score, knowing when I have to go make a play for someone else. That’s what a floor general looks like.”

Jaedon LeDee attempts to block a Elijah Saunders shot attempt in a drill. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Jaedon LeDee: SDSU’s best player

Among the returning players, Butler and Jaedon LeDee are the only athletes who have seen significant minutes and been in the program for more than two years. If anyone needs to carry the leadership banner along with Butler, it is the Houston, Texas, native.

LeDee is also 24 years old. He figures to be the last Aztec player ever born last century. Life is the greatest teacher, and what LeDee has learned about the game, he must pass down to his teammates.

Despite Butler earning preseason all-conference accolades, LeDee might be SDSU’s best player.

“The obvious answer would be Jaedon LeDee,” Cade Alger replied on Wednesday when asked which teammate has stood out to him. “Just the energy he brings every practice. I know he had a great year last year, but I think you’re going to see a different Jaedon this year. Just the energy and hustle he has, (he’s) the best rebounder I’ve ever seen, and the coaches would say the same thing.”

More than most in recent memory, this year’s team could take any number of shapes. The past few seasons, Nathan Mensah determined the Aztecs’ playing style. He was not fit for an up-tempo game, so SDSU did not run as effectively. His limitations in the pick and roll forced Matt Bradley into isolation at the end of the shot clock. As Dutcher looks to mold the 2023-2024 team, LeDee will be at the center of his calculations.

LeDee will likely also decide which of his teammates are included in the rotation. SDSU cannot reach its ceiling without LeDee developing into one of the most dominant players in college basketball. Complementing him and unlocking his full potential is what those around him must do. Those who play best with LeDee will likely see the most minutes this season.

If LeDee holds this place on the team, it is up to him to orchestrate those around him. Every opponent will game plan to stop him, and he will have to adjust to whatever they throw at him. His ability to lead those around him will be paramount.

“I’ve been taking it head on,” LeDee said on Wednesday when asked about how he’s approached taking on a leadership role. “Taking what those guys poured into me last year. Taking it and put a little twist on it and pouring into these guys. It comes with the responsibility, and I’m taking it head on.”

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Darrion Trammell warms up before practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Been there, done that

In addition to Butler and LeDee, Alger, Trammell, Micah Parrish, Elijah Saunders, Demarshay Johnson, and Miles Byrd witnessed what made the Aztecs great last year. If anyone can glean from that experience, it is this group of returnees.

Byrd spoke about how frustrating it was not playing a year ago but how, over time, he not only accepted learning behind great college players but found ways to add to the team. Trammell and Parrish transferred into the program and acclimated their game to the players already on the roster.

Saunders rarely saw the court last year but spent a year mastering the nuances of the Aztecs’ defense. In his third season with the program, Johnson has reworked his body, and multiple players mentioned him as someone ready to contribute. Alger earned a scholarship this offseason and has already been given more opportunities than at any time in the past.

More than their basketball development, this group saw firsthand how close a group could become on and off the court. Chemistry is often spoken about as a critical ingredient for success. These athletes lived out what that quality looks like in their daily lives.

They felt the joy of being embraced by the established players and saw how they could flip a switch from competing in practice to living as a family afterward.

“It’s a balance,” Trammell said on Wednesday when asked how the team goes about building chemistry. “It’s up to the coaches, but it’s also up to the leaders who played last year. That chemistry is obviously going to take time. People have to learn where they fit in. People have to learn the system, offensively and defensively. … It’s bigger than ourselves. At the end of the day, if we’re all locked in on winning and doing what we need to do defensively and pouring into the team, we’ll be perfectly fine.”

On paper, the 2023-2024 Aztecs arguably have more talent than the national runner-up a year ago. Skill alone, however, will not be enough to make an impact in the postseason.

For SDSU to play deep into March, Butler, LeDee, and their teammates will need to develop their own chemistry and fill the leadership void left by some of the best Aztecs to ever play for the school.

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