The forgotten man of Arizona basketball is … you know … what’s the guy’s name again?
Oh yeah, Elliott Pitts.
The junior guard wasn’t one of coach Sean Miller’s one-and-done specials like Aaron Gordon or Stanley Johnson, isn’t an athletic freak like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, can’t jump out of the gym like Nick Johnson.
If you were ranking the Wildcats one through 12 heading into this season, Pitts might have ended up 10th or so on that list, and you would be wondering how the coaches were going to squeeze him into a crowded backcourt.
And then Ray Smith suffered a torn ACL.
If any team in the Pac-12 can absorb the loss of a key player, it’s Arizona, which is deeper than the other expected front-runners — Cal, Oregon and Utah. Miller has a lot of pieces to the puzzle to move around, although Smith, a talented 6-foot-8 freshman, was Arizona’s only true small forward.
Paging, Mr. Pitts …
Miller hasn’t had any press availability since Smith’s injury last week, but the presumed options for small forward are Mark Tollefsen (a 6-foot-9 graduate transfer from University of San Francisco) and some combination of the team’s bigger shooting guards — 6-6 freshman Allonzo Trier, 6-5 freshman Justin Simon or Pitts, also 6-5.
Pitts isn’t flashy, but he’s a do-it-right guy who, most importantly, has earned the coaches’ trust through appearances in 62 career games.
“He came here two years ago and he played in about every game, including those tournament games, high-pressure games,” Miller said at the team’s local media day in early October.
“We didn’t put him in there as a favor to him. We put him in there because we believe in him. Now, he’s an upperclassman. He’s one of those guys that I’m talking about who does a lot of good things.”
Miller likes to play big, which he could have done for 40 minutes with Smith and Tollefsen at the 3. Tollefsen, who figures to also see time at power forward, will be able to score at the highest level of college basketball. He can shoot the 3 and put the ball on the floor for drives to the basket.
He is said to be a plus-defender, with experience at USF guarding smaller, quick guys, but it remains to be seen if he can handle some of the elite wings in the Pac-12.
Trier’s calling card is his versatile offensive skill. Simon’s length gives him a chance to be Rondae-lite on defense, although he’ll need to develop his offense through the course of the season.
Pitts, meanwhile, has a history of playing good defense, of hustling, of being able to knock down open 3-pointers. He has made 37.2 percent of his attempts from behind the arc (38 of 102) and averaged 3.5 points in 14.9 minutes per game last season.
Pitts hadn’t played much as a freshman in 2013-14 until forward Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury on Feb. 1.
“At the beginning, it wasn’t in the cards for him to play, but he kept working,” Miller said. “Brandon Ashley got hurt at the beginning of February, and that catapulted Elliott into a different role, but he was ready for that role and he helped us big as a freshman.
“That seems to happen at some point each year.”
This season, it just happened early with the practice injury to Smith.
Pitts, from De La Salle High in Concord, Calif., was rated the 100th-best prospect in the country in the 2013 class by the 247Sports composite rankings, but he was clearly the “other” guy in Arizona’s class, which was fronted by Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson, both now in the NBA.
This is just another good example of Miller’s deft touch with roster construction. He’s not putting together a fantasy team. He’s constantly mixing the one-and-done types with experienced transfers and solid four-year players he can count on in times of need.
But given the influx of newcomers and the competition in the backcourt, many figured Pitts would have transferred in search of more playing time elsewhere.
“As you compete for something, not everybody wins,” Miller said.
“Part of our program is, when you don’t get that job, or you don’t start, or you’re not in the role you’d like to be in … do you keep fighting, do you keep believing in what you’re being told? Those are the players that really make a program.”
Pitts’ role has been to provide solid defense and a shooting threat off the bench. But more offense lurks. He surprised many — including UCLA — in the Pac-12 tournament last season at a key moment. Getting the ball in the right corner, he shot-faked, drove the baseline against what had been a confounding Bruins’ zone and went under the backboard and around the rim for a layup.
Uh … where did that come from?
That basket kick-started a 15-0 run as the Wildcats rallied from a seven-point deficit to win 70-64.
Pitts said after that game he used to make moves like that all the time in high school.
“It’s something I haven’t done in a while, but teams are scouting me for the 3-point shot, so it’s going to make the pump-fake-and-drive a lot easier,” he said.
That could be something he shows more of this season. Pitts, the forgotten man — the guy often taken for granted — has a chance for a larger role than expected.
“He comes from a winning background as a high school player. He’s won in the big way in the past two years here at Arizona,” Miller said. “He’s someone who can step up, no question, in the future.”