Flagstaff, AZ — Losing your top four scorers from a season before is a tough obstacle to overcome, no matter who you are.
When it’s a smaller program from a smaller conference, it becomes more of a notable issue moving towards the following season.
That’s the position that the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks find themselves in heading into the 2017-18 season. The Lumberjacks are coming off a season in which they finished the season with a record of 9-23 overall, and were eight games off of the lead in the Big Sky Conference, finishing in 10th with a 6 – 12 record.
With their losses, there isn’t much of a buzz around the Lumberjacks program on a national level this season. However, that shouldn’t be the case. While the team may be young, the foundation has been set for the program to take another step forwards in 2017-18.
From the addition of a pair of graduate transfers to the rise of a star sophomore guard, to the recent memory of a run to the CIT Finals three seasons ago, the Lumberjacks are starting to trend back in the right direction after a down year a season ago.
In 2017-18, the roster for the Lumberjacks will look much different than it did a season ago. Their top four scorers are gone, either via graduation or through the transfer market, but a pair of graduate transfers will look to step in and fill the void left on both ends of the floor.
Most notably, the front court rotation will be without the services of both Jordyn Martin and Ako Kaluna, both of whom graduated from Northern Arizona following the 2016-17 season. Martin averaged a team-high 13.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per contest, while Kaluna averaged 11.2 points and 5.5 rebounds himself.
Sophomore guards Mike Green (10.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.5 apg) and Marcus DeBerry (10.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.9 apg) transferred out of the program following the season, leaving two big holes to fill in the back court rotation.
Green is still undecided on his transfer destination, while DeBerry has committed to the Fort Wayne Mastodons.
On the surface, it looks like the Lumberjacks are in for another down year. Just three seasons ago, they were playing in the finals of the 2015 CIT, where they fell to the Evansville Purple Aces by six, 71-65. The year later, the Lumberjacks won just five games, followed by nine last season.
Despite their struggles the past two seasons, Jack Murphy and company have the program trending in the right direction.
In 2017-18, the Lumberjacks will be a relatively young team, with eight players being either freshmen or sophomores. They have just three seniors on their roster, two of which came aboard as graduate transfers this off-season.
Guards Gino Littles and Malcolm Allen join returnee Kyle de Laveaga as the only seniors on the roster for the Lumberjacks, all of whom will be key pieces to the rotation this season.
Littles played three seasons with the UTSA Roadrunners before making the move back to his home state of Arizona. His best season came back in 2015-16 as a sophomore, where he averaged 8.2 points and 3.3 assists per game, while shooting 50.5% from the field.
Allen is in a similar situation to that of Littles, having played three seasons with the Stanford Cardinal before moving to Flagstaff. He was used sparingly during his time at Stanford, averaging a career-best 12.0 minutes per game as a redshirt sophomore.
Neither Allen or Littles put up big numbers with their respective programs prior to coming to Northern Arizona, but their significance goes beyond the numbers. Adding a pair of veteran talents to a younger roster will do wonders for a program that is looking to take another step forward in their overall development.
Both guards will be tasked with providing veteran leadership to the younger back court members, helping shape them for the rest of their careers. Both Allen and Littles have played in conferences with some more prestige and national attention than the Big Sky, and they can draw on their experiences to help guide a young team.
Their addition also adds more depth to a back court rotation that features rising sophomore JoJo Anderson, de Laveaga, and severla incoming freshmen. Minutes will have to be earned, but having depth on the back end isn’t a bad problem to have.
Despite being only a sophomore, Anderson is the star of the roster in 2017-18. Last season, he averaged 7.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game, while appearing in all 32 games for the Lumberjacks. He shot 40.8% from the floor, and 32.4% from three point range.
Out of the gate, Anderson struggled as a freshman. The native of Houston recorded just two points over the first three games combined. As the season moved along, Anderson found his groove. He closed out the 2016-17 season with five-straight double digit performances, including a season-high 20-point, nine rebound game against the Eastern Washington Eagles.
As the lone returning senior from last year’s team de Laveaga (3.7 ppg, 0.8 rpg) will look to take a big step forward this season and help to shoulder the offensive load.
Up front is where the question marks lie for the Lumberjacks. With the losses of both Martin and Kaluna, the front court is thin.
DeBisschop, a native of West Linn, OR, averaged 3.4 points and 2.7 rebounds per game last season, while shooting 44.0% from the field. At 6’9”, he is the tallest player on the official roster for the Lumberjacks this season, along with junior Isaiah Thomas, and will be the anchor of the front court. With a steady increase in minutes expected, DeBisschop will look to become an impact player on both ends of the floor.
The forward group is unproven for the Lumberjacks, which will be the biggest question mark for the team this season. If they are able to produce from the outset, the Lumberjacks may turn a few heads as the season rolls along.
As it looks right now, the Lumberjacks are a season or two away from truly contending for the Big Sky crown. However, with the way things are going for head coach Jack Murphy and company, Northern Arizona is trending in the right direction.
Graduate transfers are choosing to play at Northern Arizona, which will be big for the program on the recruiting trail in the coming years. They’ve got some strong young talents on their roster, and if they can keep them in Flagstaff, the program will be in good hands for years to come.
Here’s to another step forwards for Northern Arizona.
– T. Bennett