China trip offered Sun Devils another step in evolution under Bobby Hurley

Arizona State men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley has high expectations for a team that started its season in China. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

TEMPE – In his time as head coach of the Arizona State men’s basketball program, Bobby Hurley has established a culture that reflects many of his own values as a former player: hard work, calculated decision-making and passion.

Over the past week, Hurley and his players have experienced an entirely different form of culture, but it is one that Hurley still believes will aid his team’s growth.

With nine returning players and a handful of new talent to ease into the rotation, ASU hopes to return to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in three seasons – a feat the program hasn’t achieved since 1963. The first step in that process is a 10-day trip to China that began Nov. 1 and included an 81-71 loss to Colorado Friday in Shanghai. Despite the defeat, ASU valued the trip abroad. The university has a strong connection with China, currently hosting 3,198 Chinese students with nearly 6,000 Chinese alumni earning their degrees at ASU between 2012-2019.

For the Sun Devils, this excursion was about more than just athletics. The players experienced a drastically different culture and its customs. During the trip, the team had the chance to do some sightseeing, meet with Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai and visit Shanghai Disneyland for some bonding.

“It’s a good educational opportunity for our guys, culturally,” Hurley said. “It’s a chance to do something that we may never have an opportunity to do.”

Hurley said that his players took a class to learn the differences between Chinese and American cultures, as well as picking up some useful bits of the language.

Point guard Remy Martin noted that the complexities of Chinese dialects have been difficult to adjust to, but he has picked up a few helpful words and phrases in the process. The most notable difference, he said, was how such short words can have such complex meaning in contrast with English.

“Even like one word is like a full sentence here,” Martin said. “It’s a different culture and I’m open to learning about other cultures, especially (being) from the Philippines.”

ASU’s basketball program has grown exponentially since bringing Hurley aboard and it continues to reach new heights with him at the helm. The 48-year-old is responsible for the commitment of six of the 10 best-recruiting commitments in program history and boasts a 55.7 winning percentage.

The team-first mentality that Hurley employed in his own playing days has been exemplified by Martin, a junior whom the Sun Devils expect to take a major leap as the team’s primary ball-handler this season. Hurley has been impressed with the 2018-19 All-Pac-12 second-team selection through early practices and scrimmages.

“He’s just embraced whatever role we’ve asked,” Hurley said. “He’s just constantly making winning plays for us – and you saw how good he was the last month of the season last year, and he even looks better.”

For Martin, making winning plays isn’t just about scoring. It’s about making sure that the shot taken is the right one, regardless of which player is launching it. As a result, Martin spent his offseason working to improve on his 31.2 three-point shooting percentage from last season.

“I think that just spreading the floor, especially with the three-point line getting back, you just have a lot of more space,” Martin said. “I’m pretty fast, so if I hit that jumper, then you’re just going to have to choose what you want to do.”

Martin showed off his scoring and playmaking abilities with 12 points and six assists in a 49-point defeat of Peking University in Suzhou, China, this past Wednesday.

These early contests are a small portion of ASU’s rigid upcoming schedule, with six of eight games on the road to start the season. Other destinations for the Sun Devils include Connecticut, New Jersey and California.

“We hopefully have given enough time from when we play in China and take into account all the traveling back to get the team ready for games after that,” Hurley said.

Hurley has a deep rotation of viable scorers to choose from at any given moment, but it’s becoming evident that junior college transfer Alonzo Verge is in line for a considerable role with this team.

The junior averaged 30.9 points, 8.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds at Moberly Area Community College (Missouri) last season and led the NJCAA in field goals with 374. His new head coach praised his ability off the dribble, which he showed off on the fast break by leading the Sun Devils with 18 points in their preliminary exhibition game in China.

Coined as “Guard U” in recent seasons for its commitment to the backcourt, ASU’s strong guard rotation got even deeper with the addition of Jalen House, son of the Sun Devils’ all-time leading scorer and commentator Eddie House.

A four-star recruit from Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix, House wears his heart on his sleeve when he hits the hardwood and shows effort on both sides of the floor. Hounding opposing ball handlers is a specialty for the freshman and his ability to go coast to coast could prove pivotal for a Sun Devils squad hoping to establish itself defensively.

House scored 17 points in ASU’s exhibition victory, forcing four steals and grabbing eight rebounds. He’ll need to continue proving himself to secure a larger role, but there’s a chance that Sun Devils fans will see a lot of House this season.

Even though the guards steal the spotlight at times, Hurley noted that forward/center Romello White “looks great” so far this year. The redshirt junior will take on a featured role with Cheatham and center De’Quon Lake both graduating earlier this year.

White ranked first in total offensive rebounding, second in total rebounding and third in blocked shots on the team last season. Martin noted that White is exhibiting growth as a playmaker and could be vital to the team’s offense in the halfcourt because of it.

Alongside him in the paint is 6-foot-9 freshman Jalen Graham, who recovered from an ankle injury quickly and is filling in as a secondary big in Hurley’s rotation.

“He’s bouncy,” Hurley said. “He’s a guy that’s really got good energy above the rim and (is) a shot blocker, so we’re excited about Jalen.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix