As a graduate transfer, Mark Tollefsen was able to leave the University of San Francisco and go to any school in the country with the ability to play right away. His top options included Washington, UCLA, San Diego State, Cal, and of course, Arizona.
While the Arizona Wildcats had the most crowded depth chart among the schools, Tollefsen chose to become a Wildcat for once distinct reason.
"The biggest thing for me was just winning. I just want to win, and wherever that was the best place I could do it, that’s where I was going to go and that’s why I’m here," he said.
Tollefsen seems to be the perfect player to help the Wildcats do that. Arizona's depth chart is full of talented players at different positions, but I'm not sure any player offers the versatility that Tollefsen does.
"I bring versatility," he said at the team's annual media day. "I can play on the wing and on the perimeter, and shoot it from out there. Or take a mis-match inside and go that way."
We saw Tollefsen hit a jump hook in the low-post in the Red-Blue game, and win the dunk contest, so he certainly can play inside and provide athleticism. Sean Miller also called him a "clever passer". But his calling card is his shooting ability. In three seasons at USF, he shot 38.2% from behind the arc. With Tollefsen standing at 6-9, his sweet stroke for his size allows him to be used in a multitude of ways.
"[At the] three, [I can] come off screens, or just be on the wing waiting to shoot, and [at the] four, [I'm] able to pick-and-pop, which is my bread and butter. I really like to shoot it off a ball screen," he said.
That not only makes him a difficult player to defend, it will also open things up for his teammates and allow Sean Miller to tinker with plenty of different lineup combinations.
"Especially at the four, I can step out and give [Kaleb Tarczewski] space down there to create and do what he does since he’s an absolute monster down there. Or if we want to go big with Ryan [Anderson] at the four, Kaleb at the 5, and me at the 3, either way it works. With this whole team, we’re so talented and deep that we can throw so many different options out there," Tollefsen said.
Tollefsen led San Francisco in scoring last season with 14.0 points per game, but he doesn't think his transition from being "the man" to more of a complementary player will be difficult. In fact, he's looking forward to not being the main focus for opposing defenses.
"I’ve always been a pretty unselfish player." he said. "And It’s nice having a lot of great players around you because then you seem like less of a threat. The team doesn’t necessarily have to take away one or two guys, they have to try to take away everybody because everyone can play."
Offensively, Tollefsen's skills should be a great asset to a team that can struggle to score from time to time, but on the defensive end is where he may be needed the most.
With the departures of Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to the NBA, and the season-ending injury to Ray Smith, the Wildcats will need someone to emerge as the team's next "defensive-stopper".
Sean Miller thinks Tollefsen could be that guy.
"I look at him defensively as somebody who could in a sense mimic some things Rondae brought to the table, or Aaron [Gordon], where they’re versatile and they guard almost like a perimeter player but they’re bigger," he said of Tollefsen. "He’s not as heavy, but he’s a very intelligent player who can do a lot of things."
It wouldn't be an unfamiliar role for the forward. Tollefsen was often asked to guard to team's best player while at USF, and it's something he enjoyed doing.
"That’s definitely something I pride myself on," he said. "When [San Francisco head] coach [Rex] Walters started putting me on guards and some of the best players on the other team, I started to take pride in that, and making sure I shut them down and keep them under their averages.
Obviously, the West Coast Conference is not the same caliber as the Pac-12, but Tollefsen believes his experience guarding the other team's best player in the WCC has him ready for --and looking forward to -- the challenge that the tougher competition in the Pac-12 will bring.
"I think that’s really helped prepare me for this [upcoming] year in the Pac-12 where every night you’re playing against good players," he said. "It’s going to be great. There’s a lot of competition in this conference and a lot of great players and it’s going to be fun. Every night out you’re going to have some type of battle that’s going to make you work."
But as good of a fit Tollefsen appears to be on the court for this Arizona team, adjusting to a new team, school, and conference is easier said than done. Team chemistry off the court is equally important, but often understated, and Tollefsen was blown away by how close the team's bond is.
"My first impression was the team camaraderie," he said. "For me, a lot of teams can have different groups of guys hang out, but here, we all hang out, we all go to dinner together, we all go to the movies together. Our team camaraderie is off the charts."
His fit on the court along with the team's closeness off of it will not only make Tollefsen's transition to the desert smoother, it will also help him do what he came to Arizona to do. Win.
"I think we’re a really experienced team...and the biggest thing is a championship. That’s something that we’re really, really hungry for, and we want to make it happen and make it a special year," he said.