This story originally appeared in the Holiday issue of ESPNHS magazine’s Arizona edition.
Let’s say you’re trying to build a college basketball team. Where would you start?
It would probably help to have an explosive combo guard, someone who can bring the ball up or get his own shot at will. And you’d need some size, so if you could get a couple of 6-foot-10 big men, that would be a great foundation. And if one of those bigs was a low-post threat while the other was a versatile weapon who could shoot from the perimeter and run the floor like a guard, even better.
If those players were also the three best in your state, and they all went to high school within 30 minutes of your campus, well, that would almost be too good to be true.
Luckily for coach Herb Sendek and Arizona State, this is reality.
First, the Sun Devils landed Hamilton’s Eric Jacobsen, who’s rated the nation’s No. 43 power forward by ESPNU, back in May. Two months later, Kellis big man Kenny Martin, the No. 35 power forward, came aboard. And then in August, the nation’s No. 18 point guard, Calaen Robinson of Corona del Sol, rounded out the trio.
“Kenny’s tall, but he moves like he’s 6-5,” Robinson says. “And Eric is a strong kid who can post up and also has a good shot. We should definitely work well together.”
The players had different reasons for signing but are now united in the goal of bringing ASU hoops to prominence in an area long dominated by the Arizona Wildcats.
For Jacobsen, there was never really any choice. His mom played ball for the Sun Devils. His grandparents are ASU football season-ticket holders and have taken him to games since he was little. It might have been the easiest recruiting job Sendek has ever had. Jacobsen took an unofficial visit this spring and was offered at the end of his campus tour. He accepted on the spot.
“I guess you could say I was kind of waiting for them to offer,” Jacobsen says. “Ever since I was little, I wanted to play there, so it was like a dream come true.”
Martin talks about staying close to home, where his biggest fans can continue to attend his games regularly.
“If I went somewhere else, my family would have to travel to see me play,” he says. “They come to a lot of my high school and club games. I get a lot of family support.”
With Robinson, it came down to coaching. He mentions Sendek and assistants Dedrique Taylor, Lamont Smith and Robert Spence as the primary reason for his commitment.
“All of their coaches are great people,” Robinson says.
And the opportunity to play in front of his mom was too good to pass up.
“She’s my everything,” he says. “She’s a single mom raising a son, and if you go to any Corona games and mention my mom, people will tell you she goes crazy at all times during the game.”
Robinson has certainly given her a lot to yell about.
After being the first freshman called up to varsity in Sam Duane’s nine years as Corona del Sol coach, Robinson struggled with confidence as he adapted to a new role as facilitator instead of scorer. But starting with his sophomore campaign, he gained the swagger and passion — to go along with the unstoppable first step he’d always had — that have been trademarks of his game ever since.
“He can score in a lot of different ways,” Duane says. “He can shoot the 3, and he’s extremely explosive getting to the basket. He has the ability to take a game over.”
After scoring only a few points per game as a freshman, he broke out for 13.4 as a sophomore and 17.8 last year.
Martin, meanwhile, transferred to Kellis as a sophomore after moving from Tucson.
“We knew he was definitely going to be an impact player right away,” Kellis coach Curtis Green says.
Martin’s stats were modest that year — 5.8 points, 6.1 boards — but he showed star potential. Despite being 6-foot-8, he had great footwork, a respectable jumper and the athleticism college coaches look for in players his size.
But perhaps Martin’s most important attribute is his work ethic.
“He goes hard all the time,” Green says. “Some of the kids on the team get mad at him because they want to take a break and go through a drill at half speed, but he’s constantly going 100 percent.”
Last year, all that effort paid off. He averaged 12.9 points, 10.9 rebounds and 4.8 blocks per game as Kellis went 22-4, falling in the Class 4A-I state semifinals. By the end of the season, Martin had established himself as arguably the premier big man in the state.
Vying for that title with him is Jacobsen, who has a more traditional big man’s game, focusing on the low post.
“He bought into being the back-to-the-basket type of player,” Hamilton coach Kevin Hartwig says. “A lot of kids love to run out to the 3-point line, but he was willing to be that guy. He has a passion to be good and is willing to do whatever the team needs.”
Put these three together, and Arizona State looks like a team on the rise.
Starting last year with the signing of Mesa’s dynamic playmaker Jahii Carson, the Sun Devils have succeeded at recruiting locally.
“Coach Sendek has done a great job,” Duane says. “In the past, a lot of the best players have left, and he’s made a point to recruit Arizona.”
It’s tough to escape the shadow of the Wildcats, though. Even though ASU snagged the state’s top trio, U of A had the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class at press time according to ESPN, thanks to the commitments of three players from California.
But perhaps a sign of things to come occurred on Sept. 24, when Martin and Robinson were on their ASU official visit.
The highlight of the trip was going to the football game against USC. The Trojans had dominated the rivalry in recent years, having won 11 straight games against their Pac-12 rival. That night, however, belonged to the Sun Devils, who emerged with a 43-22 victory with two of its top basketball recruits cheering from the student section.
So even though the Wildcats have followed up an Elite Eight appearance with a loaded recruiting class, the future Sun Devils are dreaming big.
“I’m hoping that we can make it to a Final Four and get Arizona State basketball on the map,” Martin says.
Ryan Canner-O'Mealy is the managing editor of ESPNHS magazine.