By Rich Manfredi - @PhillyOwl
With their 102-86 defeat of #15 Xavier at the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational, Arizona State won their first tournament championship since 1994. Currently ranked at #16, the 7-0 Sun Devils are enjoying early-season success, and the main man to thank for it is senior guard Tra Holder.
After a near-triple double (18 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists) in the season opener against Idaho State, Holder’s 35 points on 13-for-15 shooting against UC Irvine on November 19th were a career high… but not for long. The upset of Xavier in Las Vegas saw Holder go off for 40 points, scoring from the paint and beyond the arc alike.
Holder had been an effective player prior to 2017, averaging 14.2 and 16.2 points per game in his sophomore and junior seasons, respectively. Thus far in the 2017-18 campaign, he’s upped that figure to 22.1 PPG, good for 19th in the nation. Holder is the leader in PPG out of all players on AP Top 25 squads, a hair ahead of Duke’s phenomenal freshman Marvin Bagley, Jr. (21.9).
It’s not Kobe-esque shot volume that has led to this scoring boom for Holder… he’s simply shooting far more accurately than ever before. His shooting percentage has improved every season (.317 to .387 to .433) but this year it has shot up to .495, including .488 from three-point range. Even without his 6-7 night from downtown against UC Irvine inflating those numbers, Holder would still be shooting a crisp .417 from deep after shooting .346 in years one through three.
Holder is a solid ball handler, not elite, but it doesn’t keep him from being an effective scorer. Holder can catch and shoot, or beat teams by penetrating into the paint. Despite his 6’1”, 180-pound frame, he is extremely physical when driving to the hoop and he doesn’t shy away from contact.
That penchant for physicality partially explains the increase in rebounds for Holder; he’s averaging 6.77 rebounds per 40 minutes this year. In contrast, he averaged 3.94 per 40 in his first three years. It’s likely due to increased focus as well, the kind of focus that helps a player improve his free throw percentage from a career 73.9% to 86.4%. In general, players are who they are at the charity stripe from early on. Anytime there is a significant jump it is usually attributed to something positive between the ears.
The upset of Xavier, and Holder’s place at the center of it, begs the question of how much noise ASU can make in the Pac-12 this season. Holder has improved his stats everywhere (even assists, where he’s up to 5.81 per 40 from a career 4.41 per 40), but his ability to score for numerous spots on the floor is what makes him so intriguing. Holder’s play has helped propel Arizona State to the fifth-ranked scoring offense in the country.
In the Xavier win, Holder darted from the top of the arc on a straight line to the bucket, drawing contact and getting the shot to go for the and-1 play. Teams must respect him as a spot-up shooter as well as someone who can drive to the net. Holder’s newfound focus and tenacity in all aspects of the game should continue to bear fruit, both for his senior campaign and the growth of Arizona State as a team.
If you haven’t had a chance to see Holder play yet, this weekend provides a prime opportunity. Arizona State travels to Lawrence to take on #2 Kansas in a matchup of potent offenses that projects as one of the best games of the week. (You can see that game on Sunday at 2 PM EST/11 AM PST on ESPN.)
Rich probably loves the NFL too much, the NHL too little, and the NBA/MLB just the right amount.