Of the 61 players Sean Miller has signed since becoming Arizona’s basketball coach in 2009, it seems, about half of them came in last spring.
Well, not really.
It’s just that eyes can play tricks on you when there’s an avalanche of eight new players coming in along with the here-today-gone-tomorrow antics of Devonaire Doutrive (who decided to transfer but did not), Alex Barcello (who waited until June to transfer to BYU) and Terry Armstrong (who signed with UA but opted to play pro ball in Australia instead).
This fall, the opposite influx could happen: Arizona has a commitment from Phoenix Hillcrest guard Dalen Terry but is approaching the Nov. 13-20 fall signing period without anyone else lined up for the class of 2020.
During his first in-season weekly news conference Monday, Miller said he hopes to sign “more than one” player this month, and wind up with four or five by the end of the spring period, but there are several reasons why the number will be minimal this fall.
For one, while freshmen Josh Green and Nico Mannion are expected to leave for the NBA next spring, the Wildcats may not have as many open roster spots or playing time to offer next season. For another, uncertainty surrounding the ongoing NCAA investigation — which has still not produced a notice of allegations — could be affecting recruits’ consideration.
And then there’s the trend of some top players of committing sometime after the fall signing day period ends — but not actually signing until the spring, thus ensuring a spot without binding themselves to it.
Arizona freshman forward Zeke Nnaji did just that late last November, and it is possible that UA recruiting targets such as Chicago guard Adam Miller, California wing Ziaire Williams or Minnesota guard Kerwin Walton could also wait a bit.
However, North Carolina may be gaining an edge with a target that earlier appeared to be leaning toward a UA fall signing: Four-star Hillcrest forward Puff Johnson, whose father, Gil, played with Miller at Pitt and whose family moved to Phoenix this fall after the Suns drafted his older brother, Cameron.
Puff Johnson took a visit to North Carolina last weekend, where Cameron spent a grad transfer season, and afterward two 247 Sports national recruiting analysts posted new predictions for Johnson: Jerry Meyer said he will choose the Tar Heels, while Josh Gershon entered a question mark.
Meanwhile, 247’s Tar Heels site, Inside Carolina, posted a photo gallery of Johnson’s visit. Of its seven photos, Puff Johnson was seen grinning widely in five of them, while Gil sported a UNC hoodie during one.
Whatever the case, Miller said he didn’t expect to have a big fall class anyway and that things will even out by the spring.
“Sixty-one (signees) in 11 years pretty much tells you where we’ll be when we get to the summer,” Miller said. “Four or five.”
Nnaji in, Doutrive (still) outNnaji is expected to play in Arizona’s season opener Wednesday against NAU, but Doutrive likely will not while his indefinite suspension continues.
Both players missed Arizona’s exhibition game Friday against Chico State, Nnaji because of a sprained ankle. Miller said Nnaji returned to practice Sunday and, while Doutrive has been practicing, he’s not quite out of the doghouse yet.
“You know, a lot of great kids and young people can make bad decisions, and that does not mean that they’re bad kids,” Miller said. “College is a time where sometimes the best lessons are learned in a negative sense: You rebound from it, you learn from it, you grow, and you take a different approach.
“We’re working with Devonaire every day and looking forward to his return at some point.”
Meanwhile, Miller said there was no question Nnaji would have started against Chico State if he were healthy but that he wasn’t sure yet if he would start on Wednesday.
“He’s got to be able to string together a couple days; he has to feel completely comfortable,” Miller said. “I’m confident that he will but we’re just not there yet.”
Smith wins gold jersey
While Miller also indicated Doutrive would have started against Chico State, Dylan Smith was given a start and 27 minutes on Friday. Then, on Monday, he was given the gold jersey for being the best player last week.
“He turned it on,” Miller said. “Dylan is one of our team’s best perimeter players ... and he did a really good job the other night playing heavy minutes and having zero turnovers.
“That’s something we tried to talk to him about — cutting down and eliminating negative plays… that’s what experience starts to do for a player.”
Miller said Smith is part of a “very highly competitive environment going on” that should benefit the Wildcats, who still have roles that need to be sorted out and two open starting spots, one on the wing and another inside.
At the wing spot opposite Green, the battle includes Smith, Jemarl Baker, Doutrive and grad transfer Max Hazzard while Baker, Hazzard and Doutrive have also received looks as backup point guards, a role Baker leads for.
“I think it’s been healthy,” Hazzard said. “I think it’s made everybody a little bit better. You’ve got to come in every day and compete. With Josh, Devonaire, Jemarl and Nico, they’ve made me so much better and I’ve made them better as well.”
While Chase Jeter and Justin Coleman were named co-captains last fall — the first time Miller had ever named captains in his head coaching career — Miller said he won’t do it this season.
“I don’t really believe in it,” Miller said. “Your best players are inherently your team’s leaders, and sometimes that might be a sophomore. Derrick Williams was a sophomore (on Arizona’s Elite Eight team of 2010-11). For me to say he wasn’t the leader of his final team, why would I say that?
“Sometimes you can anoint somebody a captain because of their experience, and you know what? Maybe they’re just not wired for it.”
Miller said UA’s leadership is evolving and that Jeter is “one of our team’s leaders, no doubt about it, but he can’t do it alone.”
Mannion on Naismith list
Mannion was one of 50 players named to the Naismith Award’s preseason watch list. Other Pac-12 players also named included Oregon’s Payton Pritchard, Oregon State’s Tres Tinkle, Colorado’s Isaiah Stewart and Washington’s Isaiah Stewart.