It isn’t exactly a thing of beauty, but there is a certain simplicity to a Brandon Ashley three-pointer.
Open, shoot it.
Forget the crowd, the moment, the intensity.
Just, open, shoot it.
This has perhaps been the biggest surprise of Arizona’s young basketball season, as it was again Wednesday in the top-ranked Wildcats’ 74-48 win over the visiting New Mexico State Aggies.
Ashley thrice found himself on an island, and all three times, he rainbow-dropped the ball in from behind the arc.
This, after hitting four of his last five attempts from deep in Arizona’s previous three games.
This, after going 0 for 4 from three-point range in Arizona’s first six games.
“Like I say every time, my teammates look for me, and I try to get in good positions to score,” Ashley said. “It’s a fact that I feel a lot more comfortable out there. Last year I felt like I could shoot, but now I feel a whole lot more comfortable taking that shot.”
Last year, an Ashley three-point attempt was rare, like a heated blanket in the Mojave Desert. Sumo wrestlers pass up seconds more often than Ashley hoisted one from downtown.
He would be open, a three-foot halo surrounding him, not a defender in sight, but he hesitated.
Now, he doesn’t.
It’s not that they didn’t go in last season — the freshman forward made all three of his three-point attempts, one against Clemson, one against Utah and one against USC. The shot against the Trojans came on Jan. 26. He did not attempt another in the Wildcats’ final 16 games.
But Ashley said he buried himself in the gym, chucking up deep shots, getting into a groove.
“It was the fact I stayed in the gym this summer,” Ashley said. “I got close to 1,000 shots a day. Reps and reps and reps. Once I started seeing the ball go in a little more, the confidence level grew.”
Hard work doesn’t always result in a drastic change in results, but Arizona coach Sean Miller saw Ashley’s inch-by-inch, shot-by-shot improvement from spring to summer to fall.
Ashley’s improvement may be a shock to the outside world, but not in the Wildcats’ locker room.
“Definitely not a surprise,” Miller said. “No one has outworked Brandon since the end of last season. He works on his shooting every day, many times after practice. When he’s open, there’s not a player on our team that’s any better. He’s really developed that shot, which has really opened up things, not just for him, but for his teammates.”
Quickly, Ashley’s Arizona teammates realized that his game had grown, changed, evolved, and as a result, theirs did, too.
“I was passing to him, so I was in there with him,” Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell said. “One of the hardest working guys I ever played with. All his hard work is paying off. Day after day, even at night (he was in the gym). You can see how much his three-point shot has improved.”
Ashley isn’t all about the downtown game, though.
On Wednesday, he had 15 points, six rebounds and one assist, a beautiful dish to a slicing Kaleb Tarczewski in a crowded post for a punishing dunk midway through the second half.
It’s that kind of versatility that toys with a defense, that causes them to sit back on their heels — or in the Aggies’ case, to switch defensive alignments time and time again.
Ashley, frankly, said he “expected them to come at me a little more. They sagged off a lot. I’m not necessarily used to that.”
And when they sagged, Ashley struck.
“He showed signs a year ago, especially in practice,” Miller said. “This summer and fall, you could tell the repetitions are on his side. He has shot enough that he believes in it. When he shoots it, you think it’s going in.”