The offseason is when most of the skill development takes place. The Aztecs didn’t get a lot of time for development last offseason due to the pandemic. While the pandemic is still happening, those restrictions don’t currently exist. Even on a team as transfer heavy as this year’s Aztecs, internal improvement from year to year is key to sustaining success. Every player has a lot of things to work on, but what they focus on depends on their position/role. Let’s take a look at the top priority for improvement for each player on the team.
Trey Pulliam – Trey Pulliam is not the perfect point guard, but he showed a lot of improvement and resolve last season. He was a lockdown defender according to the DPOE metric, he averaged 3.5 assists per game, and played his best ball during the mountain west tournament.
The thing Pulliam needs to work on the most is his shooting. He shot 27.1% from behind the arc last season. It’s hard for point guards to be efficient when they can’t space the floor at all. He doesn’t need to be a sniper from outside, but if he can connect at a rate of around 33% other teams will have to take his shot seriously. That will be really helpful when the Aztecs run two-big lineups. Developing an outside shot will also help Pulliam be more efficient in the paint, as players will have to close out harder, allowing him to attack a broken defense.
Matt Bradley – Bradley has a lot of great qualities. He’s a three level scorer, and a great defender. His size and strength lets him overwhelm defenders and get to the foul line, where he’s a career 83% shooter. The facet that limits his game is his playmaking. He can create shots for himself easily enough, but he doesn’t do much to elevate the games of his teammates. If he can add some facilitation ability, especially in the pick and roll, it will raise the ceiling of the team. Coach Dutcher loves guards who excel in the pick and roll. Pulliam is solid but not great. If Bradley can become great in that regard the whole team will improve. There are signs that are encouraging. For one, Matt Bradley has been playing well in the Swish League, and has been making some good passes out of double teams. The other encouraging thing is that Bradley will have better teammates around him, and so they should be able to convert on more opportunities than his previous teammates.
Chad Baker – Chad Baker is slotted to be the successor to Jordan Schakel. A guy who will stretch the floor and play quality defense. At 6’7″ he has great size and length out on the perimeter, and will likely play the power forward spot in small ball lineups when shooting is needed.
He has flashed some ability as a ball handler and has been quoted saying he’d prefer to get assists than points, so he has a great team first mindset and wants to become an all around offensive player. His priority this offseason though should be improving his defense. In the tape I was able to watch Baker got blown by a couple of times and was out of position a few more times. Baker will need to correct those mistakes if he wants to see extended time on the floor.
Tahirou Diabate – Diabate is a versatile big. He is athletic enough to be able to hedge and recover, and even switch onto guards if needed. The way he moves his feet and contests shots will really help the defense. He will remind Aztec fans a little of Yanni Wetzell with his footwork while in the post. He took last season off and so he will likely be rusty to start the season. He has been working a lot on his own however and developing his ball handling and shooting ability. That is very convenient because those are the things he should work on the most. He showed some ability at portland to handle the ball in certain situations, and to be able to pass out of double teams occasionally.
The priority for Diabate should be increasing his shooting range. Being able to hit 3 point shots would be great, but even just the 15 foot shot from the free throw line/ elbow would be great. Diabate then becomes the zone buster in the middle of a 2-3 defense the way Jalen McDaniels was a couple of years ago. He would also be a great high-low passer when Nathan Mensah gets fronted down low, which is sure to happen. Diabate has the skill down low, he has the defensive versatility, now if he can add that 15 foot jump shot, the Aztecs will be even harder to beat.
Nathan Mensah – Nathan Mensah is the anchor of the defense. Similar to Diabate, he can hedge and recover, he can switch onto guards if needed, he can move laterally, in addition he’s a great shot blocker.
Mensah’s defense has been lauded many times over. He will be the preseason favorite to win DPOY in the Mountain West this year. What Nathan needs to work on is offense. He had a few breakout games last season. 18 points and 13 rebounds against St. Mary’s, 17 points and 15 rebounds against Arizona St. However, most of his points come from shots that are created by others. He has flashed some ability to create his own shot, but mostly his shots come from rolling to the basket, dumpoffs, alley oops, and putbacks. Mensah is versatile enough defensively to be left on the court if the opponent tries to go small, but he needs to improve his game down low to take advantage of those opportunities offensively. David Roddy may only be 6’5″, but he’s really strong, and gave Mensah some trouble last season. Mensah should be able to score almost every time with that type of size advantage, otherwise the Aztecs will have a tough time punishing teams when they go small.
Adam Seiko – Seiko will be in a competition to be the first player off the bench this season, and could potentially even start depending on his improvement and what the coaching staff wants out of their lineup. Seiko is a tenacious defender who severely hampers the opposing team’s best player. He embodies the defensive mindset the coaches want on the floor, and as a 5th year junior (due to the Covid Waiver) he will be asked to lead the team defensively and impart that mindset to the transfers and younger players.
Offensively he doesn’t provide much outside of shooting. That’s not a problem when shots are falling. He’s a career 36% shooter from behind the arc, which is good enough when paired with his defense. He can be streaky however, and last season he dropped to 32.9%, which is slightly below average. After shooting 40.7% from behind the arc in the first 17 games of last season, he managed only 17.9% in the last 10 games. The thing Seiko can do to help this team the most is to become more consistent in his shot. If he can maintain a clip of at least 35% from behind the arc it will stretch out opposing defenses and open up the middle of the floor for Bradley, Diabate, etc. Combine that with an improved focus on locking down the opponents best player and Seiko becomes a great 3 & D threat.
Lamont Butler – Lamont Butler showed a lot as a freshman. He has the ability to get to the basket when he wants, and he is a really pesky and disruptive defender. His flashiest performance was against Utah State when he had 5 steals, and drew the 5th foul on DPOY Neemias Queta to get him ejected from the game.
Despite the hot start, Butler has a lot of room for growth. He gets to the rim with ease but needs to work on finishing once he’s there, he had a lot of turnovers as a freshman, he would sometimes miss contested layups rather than kicking the ball out to an open shooter, and he shot only 29% from behind the arc. Butler will absolutely improve all of those things this offseason. He now has a full year under his belt and having his first full offseason will help him greatly. The thing he should prioritize most however, is his shooting. Shooting will help the team the most as he could space the floor for Bradley, Pulliam, etc. It will also indirectly help most of his other deficiencies. Many of his turnovers came when driving against a set defense. If defenders have to come out further to contest his shot he’ll have more space to drive. That space will also mean less contested layups as help defenders can’t just sit at the rim and wait for him. If he can shoot while spotting up it will help the team. If he can hit about 33-35% of his threes when coming off of screens he will open up the floor for himself and become even more dangerous on the drive. Matt Mitchell improved his shooting between his sophomore and junior seasons and it helped him tremendously.
Keshad Johnson – Keshad Johnson is the most athletic player on the team, and according to some the most athletic in the history of San Diego State Basketball. He came in as a very raw player however, the classic case of being able to dominate with athleticism and not needing to develop as many skills. He has improved a lot since then though. Most of his improvement has come on the defensive side of the floor. Knowing where to position himself, especially in help defense situations. He improved his block percentage to 5.7%, second best on the team. He is also the most aggressive rebounder on the team, and sported the second best rebounding percentage at 15.7%.
Keshad has spent most of his time playing the power forward spot, partly due to his defensive versatility and help defense, and partly due to his lack of perimeter skill offensively. Those perimeter skills are what Keshad needs to work on, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, his shooting specifically needs work. He shot 33.3% from behind the arc last season, which is right about average. If he can improve that to at least 35% on a greater volume (less than 1 attempt per game last season) then he will stretch defenses out. Defenders will also have to close out harder to him and in turn he can use his athleticism to drive by them and finish at the rim with greater efficiency. In reality he needs to work on all the wing skills (ball handling, passing, shot creation, shooting, etc), but shooting will be the most important one both for this year and his pro potential.
Joshua Tomaic – Tomaic filled in as a solid backup big last season. He wasn’t stellar at any one thing, but he also wasn’t terrible at anything. He provided solid backup minutes at the center position. His role will likely be similar this season. He may see more minutes playing with Nathan Mensah as a power forward this season, seeing as Diabate can fill in as well. There are a number of directions Tomaic can go. He can improve his shooting from deep (21.7% last season), he can improve his shot creation down low to draw more double teams and break the defense.
Probably the thing he should focus on is his post defense. He won’t be Nathan Mensah down low, he won’t rack up blocks the same way or deter drives the way Mensah does. There were too many times last season where the opposing big made a move and got a clean shot off close to the rim. If Tomaic can make life tougher for opposing bigs they’ll have to pass out to the perimeter to reset the offense or force up a tough shot, either way is a win for the defense. Tomiac will likely improve in many facets of the game for similar reasons as others (being more comfortable after playing a full season, having a full offseason to improve, etc.)
Aguek Arop – Arop has been described by the coaching staff as a swiss army knife defensively. At 6’6″ with a 7’0″ wingspan, Arop is big and athletic enough to guard any position on the floor. He would often be involved in the full court press last season. His versatility earned him a starting spot early on last season.
Arop isn’t very skilled offensively, and it would be great if he could add a three point shot to his arsenal. It’s not likely to happen though. Even if it was, it’s not the most important thing. Arop has missed games every year since coming to SDSU, missing 18 games over the last two seasons. Players can’t help their team from the bench, and the best ability is availability. Despite his offensive limitations, Arop can help this year’s Aztecs squad. His ability to defend, cut, gather offensive rebounds (best on the team) and provide energy and hustle are all valuable. None of it matters though if Arop isn’t healthy. Here’s to hoping he can stay healthy this season.
Che Evans – There’s really no telling what Che Evans should prioritize this offseason, because he hardly played last season. He played all of 41 minutes as a freshman, about one full game. In that time he collected 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 3 steals. It looks like a solid line, except for the fact that it all happened in garbage time against the opponents walk ons. He also only shot 23.5% from the field. That’s really bad.
There is reason for optimism however. Evans has a lot of potential, as evidenced by the G-League and international offers he had before committing to SDSU. He was also playing hurt last season. How hurt is unknown. It may be the case that he was physically healthy but didn’t trust his body yet. His trainers seem to think he’s in for major improvement this season however.
At this point we simply don’t know what Evans’ game is, and so we can’t say what he should focus on. The big thing is trusting his body and being fully healthy. If he can do that he can compete for minutes on the wing, where the Aztecs need help. So far they have Baker, Bradley, and Keshad at the wing. All of those players pose potential problems, so there’s minutes to be had for Evans.
Keith Dinwiddie – Similar to Evans, Dinwiddie didn’t really play enough to know what he needs to work on. His situation is a little different though. Dinwiddie played for 44 minutes last season, and scored 36 points on 45.5% shooting from deep in that time.
Coach Dutcher loves players who can shoot, and even though it was on a small sample, Dinwiddie has shown he can shoot. Dating back to high school he’s always been a sniper. If he’s a sniper from deep, why didn’t he get more minutes? This is speculative, as the coaches haven’t addressed this specifically, but it’s a safe bet that the answer is defense. The coaching staff won’t give players minutes if they don’t defend, plain and simple. This suspicion in given more evidence when looking at the synergy numbers. Dinwiddie was the primary defender 15 times last season, all in garbage time mind you, and in those 15 possessions he gave up 20 points. That put him in the 1st percentile (meaning he was worse than 99% of other division 1 defenders.) Dinwiddie isn’t the biggest player, standing at only 6’0″. He has the athleticism to be a good defender though. Even the 5’8″ Terell Gomez was a solid defender last season, and Dinwiddie is taller and more athletic, so there is no excuse for Dinwiddie. He needs to start with knowing his assignments defensively. Where to be, when to help, etc. Like the others, having a full offseason to work on his game should help Dinwiddie’s development. Dinwiddie has the right combination of high usage and efficiency to be the first 20 point per game scorer the Aztecs have seen since Anthony Watson in 1986. If he doesn’t improve defensively though, we’ll never know.
Demarshay Johnson – Johnson is an incoming freshman. He brings length and athleticism, and for the moment looks like the heir apparent to Nathan Mensah. Johnson will not play much this season, being limited to garbage time minutes and possibly redshirting. He will likely have a similar development curve as Keshad Johnson. He’ll come in and wow fans with athleticism, but will need to take time to learn the defense. Once he does that he’ll get more minutes and will be able to expand his offensive game outside of cuts, alley oops, and putbacks.
That wraps up all the scholarship players. Keep an eye on the swish league games to see how the players are improving their individual skills.