TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Arizona State coach Herb Sendek took a chance with Shaquielle McKissic, signing a junior college player with a checkered past.
It couldn't have worked out much better. McKissic was a key contributor in the Sun Devils' return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 and one of the team's hardest workers.
The positive experience with McKissic, along with a changing college basketball landscape, helped shift Sendek's approach to signing junior college players and led to the signing of four this past offseason.
"I wish I had started doing this sooner," Sendek said.
Sendek didn't recruit many junior college players at North Carolina State, in part because he could get so many high-level high school recruits. He's had a handful of JUCO players during eight years in the desert, including swingman Carrick Felix, now playing for the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers after playing three seasons at Arizona State.
McKissic became the latest JUCO success story after being offered a second chance by Sendek and the Sun Devils.
A talented high school player in the Seattle area, McKissic nearly had his basketball career derailed by a difficult stretch in his life that included three months in jail for attempted burglary, the death of his best friend in a shooting and living out of his car for a few weeks.
At Arizona State, McKissic got off to a slow start before becoming one of the Sun Devils' best players down the stretch of last season. The athletic 6-foot-5 swingman scored in double figures 16 times and shot 53 percent at Wells Fargo Arena, helping Arizona State to its best home record (16-1) since 1974-75.
McKissic was just as good off the court, proving himself with an insatiable work ethic and never-take-anything-for-granted attitude.
"Someone like Shaq every day taught his teammates, taught his coaches, reminded us of the value of being grateful," Sendek said. "It was so refreshing. Not a sense of entitlement, just a real sense of appreciation, a real appreciation for the chance to be here. It rubbed off on his teammates, his coaches. It was a good daily reminder of how important it is to live with a grateful heart, not an entitled heart."
McKissic's success helped push Sendek toward signing more junior college players to replenish his roster.
The Sun Devils had some holes to fill after sophomore point guard Jahii Carson opted to leave early for a shot at the NBA and center Jordan Bachynski graduated. The needs became even greater when Calaen Robinson, Brandan Kearney and Egor Koulechov all decided to transfer.
Arizona State got some good news when McKissic was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA and Bo Barnes is back after nearly losing his scholarship. The Sun Devils also return forward Jon Gilling and big man Eric Jacobsen.
Four junior college transfers will compete to fill some of the remaining spots: Willie Atwood, Savon Goodman, Gerry Blakes and Roosevelt Scott.
Though Goodman won't be eligible until the second school semester, the four are expected to have a big impact, athletic players who should fit into Sendek's up-tempo style, like to play defense and have the same prove-themselves mentality McKissic had.
"They have the same type of hunger that I had when I came from JUCO, so I relate to them," McKissic said. "It's fun to see guys come in with the confidence like they have, the expectations they have going into next year. You can mold a JUCO guy a lot because they just want to learn."
McKissic's success wasn't the only variable in Sendek turning to the junior college ranks.
College basketball has changed in recent years as transfer rules have loosened and players have moved from one program to the next with much more ease. Between star players who leave early for the pros, players that transfer into programs and others that transfer out, it's gotten to the point where it's rare to have a player stay four years at one school.
Seeing the shift, Sendek figured it was time to become more aggressive in adapting to it.
"It's just a really good time to look at junior college players when you look at the overall landscape of college basketball," Sendek said. "It seems to me that you could make an argument that with any player, you're going to have them no more than two years."
McKissic made the most of his first year. Now he wants to add to it in the second.