Last year, Nick Johnson was the emotional leader of the team. As one of the most experienced juniors in the country, Johnson was able to lead by example as he had been through it all before.
Aaron Gordon was the defensive leader of the team, as he not only led the NCAA in defensive win shares, he was the backbone of Arizona’s top ranked defense. He along with Johnson would cover the opponent’s best scorers and his defensive intensity rubbed off on his teammates.
Both of them will be cashing NBA checks soon, meaning Arizona has to be quick in reassigning a head to the monster that is the 2014-15 Wildcats.
Based strictly on games played in an Arizona uniform, Kaleb Tarczewski is the elder statesman. A 7-footer with touch, Tarczewski would likely be the featured player on just about any other team in the country. His combination of strength, size, and skill are unmatched in the Pac-12.
But Zeus won’t be the leader of next year’s team. He’s not the vocal type who will rally the troops, and it’s not easy for a player to put the team on his back when he’s reliant on others to get him the ball in scoring position. Tarczewski is one of Arizona’s best players, but he won’t be the leader.
TJ McConnell is the man that makes the show happen. He has the ball on a string, has eyes in the back of his head, and plays gritty defense. He’s the most important piece of Arizona’s offense because no one else can distribute the ball like he can. Without McConnell in the game, Arizona’s offense sputters.
But McConnell won’t be next year’s leader either. While he has the magnetic personality and humble demeanor that creates a positive locker room environment, McConnell was at his worst when he tried to do too much. A team leader has to be able to carry the team, and until McConnell sorts out his offensive game he won’t be able to do that.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is possibly Arizona’s most physically talented player, and he came on strong toward the end of his freshman year. By all accounts, he should be a lottery pick in next year’s NBA Draft. But Hollis-Jefferson, despite his immense talent and energy, is still an incomplete player due to his offensive limitations and inexperience.
Some of that also applies to freshman Stanley Johnson, though he enters college as a well-rounded player and reliable offensive threat. He could even challenge to lead Arizona in scoring. But like Hollis-Jefferson, he’s just too green to put a top 5 team in the nation on his back. When it’s crunch time and the stakes are high, experience is crucial.
Unless you can’t see the picture attached to this article, you should have already known that Brandon Ashley is the answer. That’s not a shocking revelation by any means. But if his injury caused any doubt in his impact on next year’s team, those thoughts are soon to be squashed.
Ashley is Arizona’s most complete and most versatile player. He’s dynamic on offense, with the ability to shoot from three point distance. That quality alone will make him one of the Wildcats’ most crucial players. Long distance shooting will be of paramount importance next year, and getting it from an atypical position will be a huge asset. And since Ashley can also put the ball on the floor and get to the basket, he becomes very tricky to guard.
He’s also dynamic on defense, with the toughness to defend the interior and the length and agility to contain penetration. One of the most unfortunate parts of Ashley’s injury was that it came at a time when he was just starting to come into his own defensively. If he can continue on that upward trajectory, Ashley projects as a great defender.
But what makes Ashley the natural fit as team leader is his fiery personality. His intensity and killer instinct are qualities that will allow him to take over games and carry Arizona through the rough patches. He has the talent, the mindset, and the motivation. Don’t be surprised if Ashley reminds you of Derrick Williams out there.
Last year will always be remembered as a season of “what could have been” with a healthy Ashley. Next season is Ashley’s chance to rewrite the story and accomplish what he came to Arizona to do: win a National Championship.