The big recruiting prize of Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley’s tenure, Luguentz Dort, carries lead guard upside in a massive frame.
On a night which was supposed to be headlined by two potential lottery picks in Dort and Stanford forward KZ Okpala the drama was ratcheted down when Okpala sat out pregame warmups and ultimately was scratched from the lineup. However, Dort’s energy showed through and while he didn’t flash the lead guard ability many saw in him heading into his freshman year, Dort still showcased plenty to love about his game as an off-ball fighter.
The difference between effort and energy
Dort plays with energy but doesn’t play hard. By that I mean he can explode into a hole or accelerate into mid-air for a tough finish or to grab a rebound but the effort isn’t consistent. The freshman grabbed two offensive rebounds in the first half but didn’t consistently impact the game with his athleticism and size as you might hope.
Early in the game, Dort skied for a transition dunk but crammed it too aggressively and the ball caromed away. After falling to the ground, Dort failed to get back to his man defending in transition and allowed an easy dunk for Stanford. He also tripped over himself on a defensive possession in the halfcourt and instead of recovering back to the ball-handler on the perimeter, Dort motioned to switch the screen, moving onto the big man but was too late. Stanford scored again.
With three fouls in the second half, Dort’s effort was further impacted. Right away, Dort slid his hands down on a drive by Stanford to avoid a foul at the rim. Dort did the same after a spin move cast him aside a few minutes later, disengaging from the play and allowing an easy basket. He came out of the game at the next dead ball.
Dort’s proclivity to swipe for steals and fall behind the play on screens means he simply isn’t in a position to affect the game on defense as often as necessary for the Sun Devils, particularly on Wednesday night in a must-win to maintain decent seeding in the Pac-12.
Being a dependent talent isn’t bad when you’re huge
However, the explosiveness shows up most when Dort plays off the ball and measures the defense for cuts. Synergy lists Dort in the 70th percentile as a cutter this season, scoring 1.269 points per possession. His first cut against the Cardinal resulted in a turnover when he tried a no-look pass to big man Romello White but his ability to get open in an instant is ultra-valuable as he develops his playmaking comfort.
The next two cuts both resulted in points for Dort, including a strong finish through contact right at the basket that got the crowd at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, Ariz. on its feet.
Starting point guard Remy Martin got into a rhythm at the end of the first half and finished the period with eight points, allowing Dort to slide off the ball and into a more comfortable role. This hasn’t been the case all year, but Dort took advantage and was able to slice through the broken defense for efficient plays. A drive-and-kick play in the middle of the first half resulted in an open 3 one pass later — a hockey assist for the combo guard.
The problem is without an above-average handle or shooting ability, it’s hard for Dort to create for himself and when Martin and the offense aren’t humming, Arizona State has nowhere to turn.
While Dort himself is shooting just 29.7 percent from 3 this year and 68 percent from the line, he has the confidence to keep letting shots rip. The freshman nailed a contested corner 3 after a confused pump fake in the first half that would make you think he was a regular JJ Redick. That confidence combined with the defensive potential (more on that later) and elite size is reminiscent of Marcus Smart, who spent two seasons at Oklahoma State to hone his ball skills.
Dort’s shooting form takes a while to unfurl and limits the versatility of his shot, meaning the typical rhythm associated with catch-and-shoot looks isn’t so simple for him:
Late in the game, coach Bobby Hurley put the ball in Dort’s hands to burn out the clock and take control of the pace of play. Dort easily got to the line as Stanford struggled to defend him driving to the basket.
Defense made easy
The Sun Devils lack a dominant rim protector but Dort’s physicality and versatility help them make up for it. Few college teams consistently switch on defense but Dort has the green light to do so (or chooses to do it and isn’t stopped). Sure enough, the numbers back up his ability to lock opponents down in one-on-one situations. Dort allows just 0.545 points per possession in isolation despite Arizona State’s inconsistent help defense.
In one such situation with a few minutes remaining in the first half, Dort slid his feet to follow a ball-handler toward the basket and blocked the smaller guard’s shot out of a grounded defensive stance, no leap or cocked-back swat necessary. When Dort leans into his defense, he’s tough to score on, leveraging the size and strength advantage he has in just about every matchup.
On Wednesday against the Cardinal, Hurley was most pleased with the help defense. “Part of it was our pressure and what were doing against ball screens,” he said postgame. “They like to go side to side with their ball-screen offense and then wait for the breakdown and we were just more aggressive.” Dort isn’t the typical weakside rim protector but his ability to switch and those moments when his swiping does pay off can result in big plays.
With 6:35 to go in the second half, a broken play left Dort around the basket to protect the rim. He leaped with both hands in the air and again smothered the shot, displaying impressive timing to go vertical and stop the drive.
Arizona State forward Zylan Cheatham, projected as a late second-rounder right now, is a downright gamer and his energy is even more exciting in person. He was the guy holding the notoriously frenetic (and sweaty) Hurley back as the referees made a clumsy call giving Stanford possession to end the first half. It took about six tries for Cheatham to hold his coach back but eventually, Hurley relented.
Cheatham also made a huge transition block with Stanford threatening to cut Arizona State’s lead to five with about five minutes left in the game and the Sun Devils never looked back. While Cheatham has promise as a small ball five passing out of the short roll a la Draymond Green, his passion vision isn’t great yet. Cheatham feels like someone who could return to school and emerge in 2020 as an even more polished modern big man.