In the past couple of years, the Arizona Wildcats have had a standout freshman make a significant impact. Last season it was Stanley Johnson, the year before it was Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Allonzo Trier was Sean Miller's highest-ranked recruit in the 2015 class, so it was assumed that he would be the guy to take the figurative torch.
Coming in, Trier was known to be a relentless driver, crafty finisher, and a smooth shooter. On the flip side, the volume scorer was also seen as a player that needs the ball in his hands, can get tunnel-vision from time to time, and is a work-in-progress on the defensive end.
How would he gel with Sean Miller, a defensive-minded coach with a balanced offensive system?
It didn't seem to be as natural of a fit as it was for Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson, and we saw Stanley Johnson, who is similar to Trier, need a few weeks to get comfortable. Now we're seeing the same with Trier.
In the season opener against Pacific, Trier went just 1-10 from the field while missing five of his six three-point attempts. His shots didn't fall, he had more turnovers than assists, and he simply seemed to be pressing out there.
It was certainly a rough debut, but Trier isn't one to dwell on a poor performance.
"The thing I love about Allonzo is he’s the hardest worker I’ve ever been around," Sean Miller said. "No one is in the gym earlier, no one stays longer, and no one is more consistent than him. You think he went one for 10, he must be really worried. Nope. If he had an 11th shot, he would have taken it."
In the very next game against Bradley, the guard scored 22 points (on just five shots) in 23 minutes. His ability to get to the rim was apparent. He got to the line 14 times, and knocked down each and every free throw.
"He’s just very, very good at getting fouled," Miller said. "He’s very good at finishing around the basket. When he’s in the open court, he’s a freight train."
Trier then followed that performance with two more double-figure scoring games against Boise State and Northwestern State.
He seemed to be establishing some consistency, but then he hit a wall in Anaheim in the Wooden Legacy tournament.
He played just 12 minutes in the overtime win against Santa Clara and 14 minutes in the Wildcats' loss to Providence. He only scored 10 combined points in those two games.
Not only was his time on the court limited because his defensive ability -- or lack thereof -- his ball-dominant style of play seemed to be out of place in the Arizona offense. The concerns about him not being a ideal fit in Tucson seemed legitimate.
But on the other hand, it's understandable for a freshman to have go through a learning curve. The college game is vastly different from the high school game and the transition from one level to the other varies among players. The important thing is for freshmen to keep working and learning, and that's what Trier has done.
"We are teaching him, we are coaching him, he is incredibly coachable," Miller said. "He is one of the hardest working kids I’ve ever been around and he’s on a great track doing the right things on the court more often."
The results speak for themselves.
In the three games since the Wooden Legacy tournament, Trier is averaging 18 points per game, including a 27-point outburst against Fresno State -- the highest-scoring game by a freshman since Derrick Williams scored 28 against UNLV in 2009.
His three-point stroke hasn't quite translated just yet, as he's shooting just 7-25 (28%) from behind the arc, yet he is the team's third-leading scorer -- averaging 13.0 points per game --and has an impressive 52% field goal percentage.
"He’s just more efficient on offense and I think for such a young player in our program – and I know you’ve seen a lot of great ones come through here – a performance in tonight’s game in early December, I think says a lot about how good of a player he is," Miller said.
We know Trier will be able to score, but more importantly, he has made significant strides on the defensive end.
"His defense is so much better than it used to be," Miller said after the win against Fresno State. "We actually put him on [Marvelle] Harris for a stretch. A few weeks ago, we never would have done that."
"You can see him being more comfortable in our system, you know, just his awareness off the ball, knowing our concepts on ball screens," Ryan Anderson said of the guard. "It’s a lot of those little things that you don’t see in the stat sheet, but it’s a lot of things that are really key to our success.
It's a product of his work ethic.
"I’ve been working hard every day," Trier added. "I watch so much film with the coaching staff almost every day about how I can get better defensively and every time I get in practice we compete at a high level against each other. That’s making me better and that’s been the biggest thing."
While he's still not a lockdown defender by any means, his steady improvement on that end has translated into more playing time. Trier has played 35 and 33 minutes in the last two games. His previous high was 29 minutes.
"It allows me to play more minutes and not be a liability on defense," he said. "And I hope to be a guy that can help on defense because I have a big, strong body and I’m athletic, and I can really make a difference on that end."
All the early season concerns about Trier being a misfit in Miller's system are quickly fading -- though those concerns never existed within the program.
"I know Allonzo really well because I’ve spent multiple summers with him," Miller said. "And I know when we we’re in Anaheim and when you were watching us early on, you were probably asking ‘is he as good as advertised?’ or maybe ‘this isn’t going to work out with how Arizona plays and how he plays’, and I think that’s the furthest thing from the truth,"
"I have a very strong belief in myself and my teammates do as well," Trier said. "Coach Miller, after the first couple games, just told me ‘I just want you to go out there and be free and I’m going to give you a longer rope. He said ‘just be yourself, don’t worry about missing a shot, don’t worry about coming out of the game, or something like that. Just go out there and play hard’."
And even though Trier's progress is encouraging, he's still not a finished product. He's a streaky shooter, his defensive ability -- while improved -- still needs work, and he's constantly learning when and when not to utilize his slashing ability.
"You just have to pick and choose your spots," he said. "Every game you play you’re going to get more comfortable, so to learn more, I think right now I’m getting better but I’m far from where I’ll be pretty soon."
As the season goes on and he gets more and more adjusted to the college game, he's going to continue to improve, and ultimately, will be the player that Arizona fans expected him to be. Perhaps even more.
"As he learns how to play with other good players in the college environment, some of these other things will continue to evolve for sure," Miller added. "He’s going to do nothing but get better."