For a consensus high school All-American, Brandon Ashley is leading a strangely under-the-radar existence these days.
The Arizona Wildcats sophomore forward has also found doing so has its advantages.
Much of the attention around the second-ranked Wildcats has revolved around newcomers Aaron Gordon and T.J. McConnell, as well as veteran guard Nick Johnson. But Ashley says that’s “no big deal” and instead has been quietly improving without having to deal with much external pressure.
After hitting 6 of 8 field goal attempts against both Duke and Texas Tech, he’s now UA’s third-leading scorer with an average of 11.9 points a game and is shooting 63.2 percent from the field.
And, just in case opponents also overlook him on the perimeter, he also has added the ability to hit open three-pointers, making both attempts he took Tuesday in UA’s 79-58 win over Texas Tech.
Ashley has improved on the other side of the ball, too. He and Gordon did the bulk of the work on Duke’s Jabari Parker, who was limited (at least by his lofty standards) to just 19 points on 7-for-21 shooting Friday at New York.
“I don’t think Brandon Ashley gets as much credit as he deserves,” UA coach Sean Miller said earlier this week. Parker “is a handful … and Brandon did a great job. He made the game hard, moved his feet well, followed the scouting report, (and used) his length.
“He’s a much better player right now than he would have been a year ago.”
Ashley finished last season with an average of 7.5 points and 5.3 rebounds a game, shooting 52.5 percent from the floor but struggling at times defensively. He started 21 of 35 games but lost his place in the lineup late in the season when Miller opted to start Kevin Parrom on the wing and go with Solomon Hill at power forward.
Now, through eight games, his numbers are improved almost across the board. And the ability to hit threes gives UA another dimension it lost when Grant Jerrett opted to leave for professional basketball after last season.
Ashley hit two open threes Tuesday, after making no more than one in any previous career game with Arizona. That has helped add to a team that now shoots a collective 40 percent from beyond the line, even though three-point shooting was one of UA’s biggest concerns entering the season.
“With Brandon, a wide-open three-point shot for him is really a good shot for our team,” Miller said. “You haven’t seen it yet, but I see it every day. You can tell he’s really comfortable shooting. It’s not as if he’s going to shoot a challenged three-point shot but … it was good to see him knock those down.”
It hasn’t come easily.
“I put in a lot of work on it in the offseason, and I’m still putting in a lot of work right now,” Ashley said. “I have a comfort level with it.”
So do his teammates. McConnell isn’t hesitating to set Ashley up for a three when they’re there.
“It just makes the offense run more smoothly,” McConnell said. “I have 100 percent confidence in Brandon to shoot that shot. He’s been knocking them down and it makes the offense that much easier.”
Specifically, Miller said, having Ashley hit three-pointers means defenses must rotate more toward him, freeing up passing lanes.
“They have to respect him and guard him further away from the basket, which for Brandon opens up some driving opportunities, which he’s very good at,” Miller said. Tuesday’s game “wasn’t any different than we see from him at any time. He knows a wide-open three is a good shot. He works very hard at it, and he’s going to settle in and shoot a good percentage of them.”