Zylan Cheatham has a hard time wiping the smile off his face.
Arizona State’s 6-foot-8 senior power forward sat out all last season after transferring from San Diego State so the fact that he is able to return to the court is reason enough to make him happy.
Better yet, he’ll be spending his final season of eligibility playing for the hometown Sun Devils. It doesn’t get much better than that.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “I have been looking forward to this since the day I decided to come back here. It’s been a long road but I’m finally where I was meant to be.”
Coach Bobby Hurley’s team is looking to improve on its 20-12 showing last year. The Sun Devils got off to a 12-0 start that included a win over Kansas but couldn’t keep the momentum when it got to Pac-12 play and settled for an 8-10 conference mark.
If the Sun Devils are to make a leap into the Pac 12’s upper tier, they’ll need a big performance from Cheatham.
“He is going to be one of those guys that gives us a presence in the paint. He is lanky, athletic, big wingspan,” said Hurley, entering his fourth year at the helm. “But he’s also a very vocal guy, an energetic guy, and very charismatic. He’s a lot fun to be around.”
The new version of ASU basketball opens the season at 6 p.m. on Tuesday at Wells Fargo Arena against visiting Cal State Fullerton.
Cheatham took the court for the first time in his new uniform last Tuesday as the Sun Devils hosted NAIA Arizona Christian in an exhibition. It may have been an unofficial game but his scoring line was indicative of his versatility. Cheatham tallied 14 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and a steal in 24 minutes.
His full range of skills was on display. In the first half alone he had a pair of dunks, as well as a 3-pointer. In the second half he was used in a point guard role with sophomore starter Remy Martin sidelined with an ankle injury and his backup Luguentz Dort on the bench.
“When he is out there, that opens up the whole floor,” said sophomore Romello White, the Sun Devils’ lone returning starter. “He can take it inside but other teams also have to respect his passing ability.”
For Cheatham, the homecoming is long overdue. He excelled at the prep level, although he bounced around quite a bit. He attended St. Mary’s as a freshman, then transferred to South Mountain.
As a junior he moved to Westwind Prep, a since-closed public charter school that had boarding facilities and drew basketball players from around the country. Cheatham had an AAU coach that went there and he thought it would be best for his basketball development. It turned out to be more trouble than it was worth.
Cheatham went back to South Mountain for his senior year but none of the academic courses he took at Westwind counted when going through the NCAA clearinghouse. He had to take twice the academic workload that year at South Mountain if he was to realize his dream of playing Division I college basketball.
He called it a learning experience.
“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” he said. “Usually you just have to worry about your senior year. I was taking my junior year and my senior year at the same time. I learned a lot from it. It built character. If I got through that I can get through anything.”
Cheatham had nearly two dozen offers out of high school but opted for San Diego State. The chance to play for coach Steve Fisher who won a national championship in 1989 while at Michigan was a factor, as was the chance to play in San Diego.
He also thought his style of play was suited for Fisher’s offense.
ASU also recruited him but he thought it might be better to get away from home. It didn’t help that the Sun Devils’ program was in a state of flux after Herb Sendek was fired.
But when Hurley was hired and Cheatham saw progress being made in Tempe, he began thinking about returning home. The issue at San Diego State wasn’t necessarily about playing time. He played 20 minutes a game and averaged 7.9 points and 5.4 rebounds as a sophomore and improved to 9.1 points and 6.3 rebounds as a junior.
“From the first time I talked to coach Hurley I knew I wanted to play here,” he said. “I felt like we were on the same page.”
Cheatham says having to sit out last year has made him even hungrier. It was the second time he was forced to the sideline. When he first got to San Diego State, he dealt with a broken foot that wasn’t immediately diagnosed.
“It was really tough just having to sit and watch when I wanted to be out there helping my team,” he said. “Yes, I was out there practicing with them and hopefully helping other guys get better, but it’s not the same as being able to put the uniform on when another team is out there.”
Facts and figures
Coach: Bobby Hurley (fourth year, 50-47).
2017-18 record: 20-12 (8-10 in Pac-12).
Returning starter: Romello White (Soph., F, 6-8, 10.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg).
Other returners: Remy Martin (Soph., PG, 6-0, 9.6 ppg, 2.9 apg, Pac-12 Sixth Man of Year); Kimani Lawrence (Soph., F, 6-7); De’Quon Lake (Sr., F, 6-9, 7.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg); Mickey Mitchell (Jr., F, 6-7, 5.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg).
Promising newcomers: Zylan Cheatham (Sr., PF, 6-8, transfer, San Diego State); G Rob Edwards (Jr., G, 6-4, transfer, Cleveland State); Luguentz Dort (Fr., PG, 6-4); Taeshon Cherry (Fr., F, 6-8).
About the Sun Devils: Hurley’s team will be changing its identity this year, morphing from a guard-oriented team with several players who could shoot from long distance to one with more size that can also push the tempo when it wants. Hurley likes the versatility he has on the roster with several players who can play multiple positions. Hurley has been stressing defense and thought that was going to be one of his team’s strong suits, although he was not happy with the effort there in last week’s exhibition game. ASU was picked sixth in the preseason coaches poll behind Oregon, UCLA, Washington, Arizona and USC.
Season opener: Tuesday vs. Cal State Fullerton, 6 p.m.
Pac-12 opener: Jan. 3 vs. Utah.
Nov. 6: Cal State Fullerton, 6 p.m.
Nov. 9: McNeese State, 7 p.m.
Nov. 12: Long Beach State, 7 p.m.
Nov. 16: at San Francisco,7 p.m.
Nov. 19: vs. Mississippi State at T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, 9 p.m.
Nov. 21: vs. St. Mary’s/Utah State at T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
Nov. 28: Nebraska-Omaha, 7 p.m.
Dec. 1: Texas Southern, 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 7: Nevada at Staples Center, Los Angeles, 10 p.m.
Dec. 15: at Georgia, 4 p.m.
Dec. 17: at Vanderbilt, 5 p.m.
Dec. 22: Kansas, 7 p.m.
Dec. 29: Princeton, 2 p.m.
Jan. 3: Utah, 6 p.m.
Jan. 5: Colorado, 4 p.m.
Jan. 9: at California, 7 p.m.
Jan. 12: at Stanford, 7 p.m.
Jan. 17: Oregon State, 8 p.m.
Jan. 19: Oregon, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 24: at UCLA, 9 p.m.
Jan. 26: at USC, 6 p.m.
Jan. 31: Arizona, 7 p.m.
Feb. 7: Washington State, 6 p.m.
Feb. 9: Washington, 8 p.m.
Feb. 13: at Colorado, 8:30 p.m.
Feb. 16: at Utah, 8 p.m.
Feb. 20: Stanford, 7 p.m.
Feb. 24: California, 4 p.m.
Feb. 28: at Oregon, 9 p.m.
March 3: at Oregon State, 9 p.m.
March 9: at Arizona, 2 p.m.
0 – Luguentz Dort, Fr., G, 6-4, 215
1 – Remy Martin, Soph., G, 6-0, 170
2 – Rob Edwards, R-Jr., G, 6-4, 200
3 – Mickey Mitchell, Jr., F, 6-7, 225
5 – Kyle Feit, Fr., G, 6-4, 190
10 – Vitaliy Shibel, R-Soph., F, 6-9, 210
11 – Elias Valtonen, Fr., G, 6-7, 195
14 – Kimani Lawrence, Soph., F, 6-7, 210
21 – Jack Roggin, Soph., G, 6-0, 165
23 – Romello White, R-Soph., F, 6-8, 235
24 – Jordan Salzman, Soph., G, 5-10, 175
25 – Grant Fogerty, Jr., G, 6-0, 175
31 – Trevor Thompson, Soph., G, 6-2, 175
32- De’Quon Lake, Sr., F, 6-10, 225
34 – Uros Plavsic, Fr., C, 7-0, 240
35 – Taeshon Cherry, Fr., F, 6-8, 210