LOGAN – The Utah State men’s basketball team is going through a historic level of turnover with nine players so far leaving by way of the transfer portal or an end of eligibility (check out the transfer tracker here to see which players have left and where they’re going). That means nine players should be incoming, possibly more if new walk-ons are added as well which is long list of names to try and learn.
This is part one of a what unintentionally became a two-part series on Utah State newcomers. This one contains breakdowns on five players — Dallin Grant, Garrison Phelps, Kalifa Sakho, Karson Templin, and Nigel Burris — those who committed before April 27. Part two will feature the flurry of commits Danny Sprinkle landed in the last few days of April and beyond so if one of Utah State’s new players isn’t on this list, check that one out when it gets published the first week of May.
Without further ado, here’s an introduction into five of the newest Aggies on the roster.
The Aggies just finished saying farewell to a tall, volume 3-point shooting power forward in Taylor Funk but they’ll get to say hello to another this year. Grant is coming off a two year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, having graduated from Cedar High School back in 2021. He possesses the length of a power forward but has a very good shooting touch for someone of his size.
Long-range shooting will be likely be the defining trait for Grant in his collegiate career. He shot 43 percent from deep on about three attempts per game his senior season and 39 percent for his career on 182 total attempts. Grant has a very quick release on his shot though, oddly, he also doesn’t jump very high into the air. It mitigates his length advantage somewhat but the quick release could make up for it since opponents will barely have the chance to challenge the shot before Grant lets it fly.
Along with 3-point shooting, Grant should bring an ability to attack closeouts, which he’ll attract a lot of with his shooting. His first step is pretty quick and he attacks the rim aggressively. The dunks he managed in his high school days probably won’t happen as often at the collegiate level, but Grant should still be able to finish among the taller Division I players. His high 2-point field goal percentage as a player (58 percent as a senior) attests somewhat to a good rate of finishing shots at the rim.
Defensively, Grant does look a little weak as a prospect. He doesn’t possess any rim protection skills, didn’t rack up many steals that can often showcase active hands, and doesn’t have the explosiveness and quickness required to be a top-tier defender. At the end of the day though, Grant has enough quickness, length and size that if he doesn’t slack on defense, he’s not going to be a liability on that end of the court. Just don’t expect All-Defense team selections for Grant.
Phelps isn’t a typical freshman recruit in that he’s not from the high school class of 2023 but rather 2022. He was a four-year letter-winner at St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Arizona and following his prep career, Phelps went on to play a season with one of Link Academy’s national postgraduate traveling teams. Phelps will be older than most true freshmen and will come with the experience of playing top-flight prep basketball teams.
During his high school career, Phelps became quite the decorated player. His team made it to at least the state semifinals in three straight seasons, winning the Arizona state title his junior season. As a senior, Phelps was named both region and state Defensive Player of the Year and earned all-region, all-state and all-Arizona honors.
Phelps is just about the complete package as a wing prospect. As evidenced by him winning DPOY, Phelps possesses a commitment to defense and has good tools to do so, standing 6-foot-6 and a sturdy 190 pounds for a young man. He’s also displayed three-level scoring in high school and at Link Academy. Phelps’ prep stats show a very healthy 58 percent on field goals and 37 percent on 3-pointers.
With good height, great size, above average athleticism, decent ball-handling, and a solid history shooting-wise, Phelps has the ability to develop into a volume scoring wing that can put the ball in the bucket at all three levels of the court. He could also become an All-Defensive team selection with many of those same tools. And some of those physical tools are already present, not much development required so how much Phelps can contribute year one will come down to how he transitions to the collegiate level mentally. And given that Phelps is the son of a former collegiate basketball coach there’s every chance that the son is very well versed in basketball and can adjust quickly.
*Stats are from Phelps’ senior year at St. Mary’s, not his season at Link Academy
It’s been two full seasons since Utah State has had a true rim-protecting center. No one in the two years since Neemias Queta left Utah State has fully replaced what he brought to the defensive interior of the Aggie defense. It’s possible Sakho could change that.
Coming out of South Plains College, Sakho is probably the first center since Queta with both the length and instincts to be a shot-blocker on par with the former Aggie big-man. In limited minutes, Sakho averaged 1.8 blocks per game. This level of shot-blocking not only has the obvious impact of stopping shots, but can also create a true rim-deterring effect which is really what the Aggies have missed since Queta. Teams weren’t afraid to attack the paint during the Odom era but Sakho can change that as the Sprinkle era begins.
On offense, Sakho’s game is somewhat limited. He possesses essentially one go-to post move, a turn over his left shoulder into a right-handed hook. He has the footwork to vary slightly from this go-to but isn’t super creative with any of those finishes yet and Sakho isn’t going to beat many seasoned defenders with his post game. It’ll be viable only in low volume. Where Sakho is likely to be able to contribute more on offense is as a rim-running center. He’s an athletic leaper for his size and can rise high in the air to grab lobs and finish them with power. Alongside that he can make plays from the dunker’s spot, fielding dump-off passes from teammates and then slamming the ball home on a one-step leap.
The limited minutes thing should probably be addressed. Sakho only started 21 times in his 60 games played at South Plains College out of 30 appearances and very often didn’t break the 20-minute mark in games. It’s why his stats across his two seasons (5.8 points and 4.7 rebounds per game) are fairly low. The reason behind him playing so few minutes is probably related to the fact that two of Sakho’s teammates with SPC — forward Christian Coleman and center Malek Abdelgowad — both rank in the top 20 of junior college players according to JucoRecruiting.com (Sakho ranks 65th on that same list BTW). A crowded frontcourt didn’t leave much room for Sakho to shine.
If one were to adjust Sakho’s per-minute stats (which is actually a much more complicated and ultimately inaccurate process than one would think because of incomplete data) then Sakho’s per game stats would be closer to 9-10 points and 7-8 rebounds per game. Those still aren’t really world-beating numbers, but it’s worth noting that rim-running centers aren’t the kind to be putting up 20/10 games. Their impact is usually more felt on the court than read on a box score after the game.
Of all of Utah State’s incoming high school recruits, Templin may be the most ready to make an impact as a true freshman. Saying that could raise expectations a little too high (like Freshman of the Year too high) but there’s a world in which Templin earns a key role on this team in his very first collegiate season. The Texas forward possesses enough skill, size and length to be an effective power forward in the Mountain West right out of the gate.
A couple of factors feed in to why Templin could be a year-one contributor. Firstly, he is ahead of the curve skill-wise than most freshman power forwards. He’s comfortable in his handling of the ball and also has a solid outside shot. Secondly, he’s got the size and physicality to step in right away. He won’t physically dominate his competition like he did in high school, but he’s got enough size and athleticism now to go toe-to-toe with just about anyone in the conference. These things could allow Templin to come in and be a contributor.
How much Templin could contribute defensively right away is a bit more of a question. In high school, being taller and way more athletic than a lot of players he faced allowed Templin to rack up blocks (2.0 per game as a senior). He’s got enough length and athletic ability that he could average about one block per game at his peak in college, but rim protection is not really going to be Templin’s thing. Instead, he’ll need to adjust to perimeter defense, since he’ll likely be matching up against more perimeter-oriented forwards rather than guarding centers in the paint each night. This will be an adjustment and probably the hardest for Templin to deal with early in his career. Whether he handles it well could determine if he plays a lot this year or not. Templin has the tools to be an above-average defender, both inside and outside the paint, but he’s likely not fully developed as a defender.
Templin’s post-up game is another area that’s not fully developed, featuring only a couple of very basic step-through moves that relied on Templin being both taller and bigger than his defender to pull off reliably. Templin will need to develop a new go-to move if he wants to be an effective back-to-the-basket player. Though it’s arguable the he doesn’t even need to work on that part of his game. Templin could find it far more useful to develop his perimeter skills. Right now his ball-handling is likely not good enough to put the ball in his hands consistently and ask him to make something happen against college defenders, but as already stated Templin has a leg up on his fellow freshman forwards. He’s got a few moves in his bag that helped him navigate past defenders in high school without simply relying on brute strength and size. Those skills can be developed until Templin becomes more of a point forward instead of a simple off-ball forward destined to get points off cuts and spot-up shooting.
Simply put, Templin fits the bill of a modern power forward, one capable of the traditional power forward duties like rebounding and finishing shots in the paint while also possessing the 3-point shooting and on-ball skills of modern stretch 4’s. He could contribute year one, but it will depend both on who else gets recruited to Utah State and how much two-way impact Templin can show immediately.
The Freshman of the Year from the Big Sky comes to USU on the crest of an historically efficient scoring season for a first-year player. Burris shot 52.7 percent from the field including 44.8 percent from three. Wrapped all up it gave the young forward an effective field goal percentage of 63.2 percent. Normally, players that take all of their shots next to the rim (such as centers) are the only ones capable of higher eFG% numbers like that. Other highly efficient outside shooters can get in that range (Steven Ashworth was at 61.0 last year) but they are rarely freshmen. Case in point, since 1992 Burris is one of just 14 players to attempt at least 185 field goals — with at least 85 of those being 3-pointers — to post an eFG% of at least 63.2 as a freshman.
Burris doesn’t get his historically high eFG% just from any one area of offense. He’s efficient at virtually every kind of shot he takes. Catch and shoot? Ranks in the 96th percentile per Synergy Sports. At the rim? The 88th percentile. Even on dribble jumpers he ranks in the 78th percentile. Breaking these down into further sub-categories like spot up, transition, put-backs on offensive rebounds, shots off screens, Burris is in the 90th-plus percentile in close to half a dozen different shooting categories.
All of this should probably come with the caveat that Burris is not an on-ball offensive creator. He didn’t create many of these shots for himself. His shots from spot-up, in transition, on put-backs and off screens are largely assisted by his teammates. So, while Burris does possess a great deal of versatility in the kinds of shots he can take, the number of shots he can create for himself has a limit — for now. Burris was only a freshman last year so development in on-ball creating is something that can be worked on in the coming years. But for now his role on offense will be as a support and off-ball shooter/cutter.
On the defensive side Burris has potential but hasn’t capitalized on it. Advanced stats like Sports Reference’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus and EvanMiya.com’s Defensive Bayesian Performance Rating paint Burris as a negative on defense. It’s possible that playing for a 10-22 Idaho team that ranked 309th in defensive rating could be dragging those numbers down but there are cases of Burris being an inattentive defender. It’s clear he’s trying and putting in some effort, but freshmen aren’t always able to put it all together. Getting into Sprinkle’s system could do wonders for Burris’ defensive impact, as will simply having more time to work on his game.
One thing to keep an eye on is where Burris’ spot in any given lineup will be. Is he more of a power forward or small forward? At the moment he definitely leans more toward being a power forward with his skillset and the role he played at Idaho, but there’s a possibility he could become a combo forward. It’ll take development in ball-handling and a defensive adjustment to guarding more perimeter-oriented players, though in the end it could prove valuable to have that versatility in a guy like Burris. Finding the combination of length and perimeter skill at small forward is something a lot of mid-major teams aren’t able to do (just look at how many teams run three-guard lineups even in the Mountain West). Utah State was spoiled with Sean Bairstow, and could be once again with Burris.