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Arizona ‘counting on’ Ryan Luther, who is embracing bench role

Simon Asher

Transferring from Pittsburgh to Arizona has been everything Ryan Luther thought it would be.

“Maybe even more,” the fifth-year senior said Monday. “Just a great group of guys, great group of coaches and the school and fans in general. ... The weather’s completely different out here. This is nice.”

It was an interesting comment because Luther’s role at Arizona, contrary to what he says, has not been what most expected it would be.

Most assumed Luther would start for the Wildcats. After all, the 6-foot-9 forward averaged a double-double at Pittsburgh last season and Arizona had a major void to fill at the 4, after losing Deandre Ayton to the NBA Draft and not having much returning talent to replace him.

And while Luther did start the first six games of his UA career, he was eventually moved to the bench after some up-and-down play.

Oh well, Luther thought, just stay with it.

“I don’t really get too concerned about starting or not,” he said. “I know either way I’m gonna have a chance to impact the game and help my team win, so I just gotta have a good mindset going into every game and contribute in any way I can.”

Luther’s contributions often come and go. The Pennsylvania native has been held to three points or fewer in six of Arizona’s 15 games. In three of those games he did not score at all, his aggression wavering.

“Ryan has to be more confident,” UA coach Sean Miller said Monday, repeating what he has said pretty much all season.

In all, Luther is averaging 5.8 points and 4.2 rebounds in 21.3 minutes, a far cry from the 13 points and 10 rebounds he averaged at Pitt last season before he suffered a season-ending foot injury.

In fairness, Luther spent much of November and December battling a different kind of injury. Luther banged up his non-shooting hand during the Maui Invitational, which he said affected his ability to catch and grip the basketball.

Still, Luther downplayed exactly how much the injury affected him — “that’s no excuse,” he said — and the nature and severity of it was kept under wraps, but the numbers suggest it hindered him quite a bit.

Luther said he has been completely healthy for at least a week or two now, and his shooting percentages in that stretch are much improved. In the last four games, Luther is 6 for 9 from 3, upping his 3-point percentage to 41.7, the best mark on the team. Before that, he was hovering around 33 percent.

Most recently, he sank a pair of second-half 3s vs. Utah on Sunday that were crucial in the UA’s three-point overtime victory.

“My hope is that the more he’s out there, the more confident, the comfortable and sure of himself he’ll be,” Miller said. “Sometimes I don’t think it’s confidence as much as he doesn’t always look comfortable, and you just have to take into consideration he hasn’t been here very long.”

Arizona is “not a very good” offensive team this season to use Miller’s words. The Wildcats rank 114th in offensive efficiency, per KenPom, their worst mark ever under Miller. (Luckily their defense, which ranks 35th in the country, has allowed them to still get off to an 11-4 start).

Part of their struggles offensively can be attributed to poor 3-point shooting. Arizona is making just 32.7 percent of its triples this season, also its worst mark under Miller.

Shooting is Luther’s greatest strength, so it would be a major development if he can stay hot from 3 and avoid the quiet stretches he’s been prone to this season.

“We certainly are counting on him,” Miller said. “I believe that he can become a better player than he’s shown, as you can see by his second half effort against Utah.”

Not only is Luther’s own performance predicated on making 3s — 45 of the 87 points he’s scored this year have come from distance — his shooting opens the court up for his teammates, too.

Among UA’s four frontcourt players, Luther is the only one who has shown an ability to hit 3s at a respectable rate.

“If he’s not our team’s best shooter, he’s certainly one of our team’s best shooters,” Miller said. “Just having another guy out there who can make a shot helps his teammates with spacing. You have to account for where Ryan is on court because he has the ability to shoot a high percentage from 3.”

And that doesn’t change whether he starts or not.

“We want him to play quality minutes and we’re bringing him off the bench and it gives us a different look,” Miller said. “Sometimes bringing in skill allows that second group to be a little bit more fluid on offense.”