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At Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd’s preseason media availability last year he volunteered that he knew what good teams looked like then stated he was looking forward to working with the 2021-22 Arizona basketball team.
It’s hard to imagine even in Lloyd’s most optimistic vision that this team would be so good that it would lose three players after one year, all of whom are legitimate NBA first round draft picks.
This success is no doubt a testament to the hard work of talented players, but also the sign of a next-level coach.
Going into this past season there was nothing to indicate that Arizona had three potential first round picks on its roster.
Intriguing due to his athleticism and 3-point shooting, sophomore small forward Benn Mathurin was viewed as a potential first round pick but there were major concerns about his ability to create in the open court.
Junior center Christian Koloko’s first two seasons at Arizona were plagued by band hands, foul trouble and the quick substitution.
Sophomore wing Dalen Terry’s first year rotated between complaints that he couldn’t shoot and didn’t have a position.
Where some coaches fixate on what a player can’t do, Tommy Lloyd took a different approach, looking to highlight what his players could do.
And there was no better example of this than Terry.
Lloyd quickly realized that Terry possessed a better-than-average perimeter handle and point guard-type vision to go along with stellar defense.
By the end of the 2022 season Terry was leading the fast break, dishing off to others and hitting the occasional 3-pointer while contributing stifling defense.
The 2022 Terry was a far cry from the 2021 Terry resigned to standing in the corner looking to stay out of the offense’s way.
Koloko’s 2022 season saw a similar metamorphosis but unlike the new-found freedom Terry enjoyed under Tommy Lloyd, Koloko’s improvement was as much mental as physical.
When asked during conference play about where the shot-blocking, dunk-in-one’s-face-Koloko came from, Lloyd simply responded, “we love on him.”
No doubt a reference to letting a player still new to basketball enjoy playing while not looking over his shoulder at a snarl from the sideline.
The metamorphosis of Mathurin was the easiest to see.
Already possessing NBA skills, Mathurin lacked the creativity off the dribble to take his game to the next level.
Mathurin found a perfect coach in Lloyd who pushed him to reach that next level while also affording him the opportunity to be far more than just a straight-line driver.
It remains to be seen what kind of professional players Terry, Koloko and Mathurin will become, but there is no doubt they were greatly benefited by the arrival of Lloyd.
A benefit Arizona fans hope to watch at McKale for the foreseeable future.
Next season Arizona has a strong, if unspectacular core returning in power forward Azuolas Tubelis, Kerr Kriisa, Pelle Larsson and multiple newcomers.
This team on paper appears to be a fringe-top 20 team but there is one aspect every Wildcat fan can be sure of: Lloyd will bring the maximum potential out of next year’s roster, just like he did for players like Dalen Terry.