ASU basketball freshman forward Taeshon Cherry wasn’t supposed to play in Tempe. But since making his commitment, the program hasn’t stopped giving back.
For Taeshon Cherry, basketball practice ended 15 minutes ago. He didn’t have his shoes on. Most of his teammates were in the locker room. And for the moment, the game didn’t need to be his sole focus.
Still, he couldn’t help himself. He sat in the middle of a row of chairs lined behind the practice court inside Arizona State’s Weatherup Center, staring at the south backboard while articulating how he’d spend his Wednesday night.
“I’m about to get in the gym tonight, find my shot,” Cherry said. “I didn’t have a good practice here, so I’m going to go upstairs, talk to coach (Bobby) Hurley (and) figure out what I got to do to get better in practice tomorrow.”
At the time, the past separated Cherry’s first collegiate loss, a 72-66 defeat to sixth-ranked Nevada, by five days. In three days, the future would present his next challenge – a true road game against Georgia.
Cherry was troubled. Not wanting history to repeat itself, he needed conversation – and guidance – from a coach that shared his feelings.
“He (Hurley) is a fiery coach (that) wants to win every game,” he said. “That’s the way I am, I hate losing. And when I lose, I get mad like he does.”
These are the exchanges a player and coach will share. But 17 months ago, steady contact between Cherry and Hurley wasn’t imminent.
Prior to his senior year of high school, the now-19-year-old thought his mind was made. Cherry was committed to continue his basketball career at USC, a program three hours north of his hometown El Cajon, California.
Receiving offers from other west coast powerhouses, including Gonzaga, Arizona and UCLA, Cherry’s initial decision stemmed from trust.
He shared a close relationship with then-Trojan assistant Tony Bland, who grew to be “like an uncle” during his recruitment.
But shortly after Cherry’s selection, that trust began to unravel.
On Sept. 26, 2017, Bland and nine other people, including Arizona assistant Emanuel “Book” Richardson, Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans and Auburn associate coach Chuck Person, were arrested in wake of an FBI investigation into fraud and corruption in college basketball.
Three months later, Bland was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York for accepting a $13,000 bribe from sports agent Christian Dawkins and financial adviser Munish Sood. The indictment also included Richardson, Evans and Adidas representative Merl Code.
Bland was fired by the Trojans one month later.
Cherry grew detached.
He reopened his recruitment on Dec. 23, believing the program had moved on from him.
“Him (Bland) getting fired really put me over the edge in not wanting to go there anymore,” Cherry said. “I think that they did him in the wrong way, and I didn’t really feel like they cared about me anymore once he left.”
Two weeks later, Cherry scheduled an official visit with Arizona State. He arrived on Jan. 11, just in time for the first of a two-game series against Oregon and Oregon State.
There, he watched the Sun Devils play before crowds of 13,693 and 13,459, the highest attendance in nearly eight seasons.
What captivated Cherry weren’t the crowd sizes or the atmosphere courtside, but rather his discussions with Hurley, whose honest temperament was welcoming.
“I like people that are straight up with me, and he was straight up with it,” Cherry said. “He told me I’m going to have to work for everything.
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“He treated me like family, and all the players were like brothers to me from the day I stepped on campus. I was in love with the school from there.”
Five days after the Oregon game, Cherry committed to ASU. He signed his letter of intent on April 14 to join the highest-ranked Sun Devil recruiting class ever.
Accompanying Cherry during his freshman season is Canadian prospect Luguentz Dort, an elite scorer in transfer guard Rob Edwards and the high-flying Zylan Cheatham. With six rotation pieces returning, Cherry was among a group set to transition the program from ‘Guard U’ to ‘Big Guard U.’
But in his first collegiate offseason, Cherry was faced with more adversity.
He suffered a meniscus injury to his right knee, the same knee he injured in his senior year at Foothills Christian High School, having to undergo surgery and miss several practices leading up to the season opener against Cal State Fullerton.
Upon discovering the news, he immediately went to a player he could trust – Cheatham.
“He was the first person I told,” Cherry said. “I came back to the locker room, because he’s always here. He just told me, ‘You got to be patient. You can’t rush it … Just trust the process, and once you get back, just play hard and get back, get in the gym, find your shot, find your footing.’”
Like his freshman counterpart, Cheatham suffered an injury his first year at San Diego State, a broken foot. He was forced to sit the year out and redshirt.
Cherry believes that Cheatham’s sentiment was pivotal in his development.
“I’ve known Z for a while now,” Cherry said. “He’s just been helping me out like a big brother to me. I think that he’s been a big role in me adjusting and maturing.”
Cherry returned for the first game but struggled to find a rhythm with three points in 15 minutes. In his first four games, he shot a combined 5-of-18 from the field, often forcing shot attempts and showing hesitation with his knee.
According to him, he wasn’t playing the right way.
“I think I adjusted a little bit well, but it took a little while,” Cherry said. At the beginning, I wasn’t playing hard – I was just worried about scoring. And I know that’s not the whole game.”
Despite his struggles, the Sun Devils were rolling. After upsetting then-No. 15 Mississippi State, ASU improved to 4-0 for the second straight season, advancing to the championship game of the MGM Resorts Main Event in Las Vegas.
Cherry didn’t score a single point against the Bulldogs. But before facing Utah State, his ‘big brother,’ Cheatham, approached with much-needed encouragement.
“He told me before the game, ‘This is your game,’” Cherry said. “Like everybody told me, ‘This is your game, this is going to be your breakout game – just trust it.’ And I trusted it.”
What ensued was Cherry’s most exciting performance of his young career, a 15-point effort on 5-of-7 shooting to lead ASU to an 87-82 win and its second consecutive regular season tournament victory in Las Vegas.
In the game, the 6-foot-8 freshman recorded the highlight of the young season – a right-handed tomahawk slam while skying over the Aggies’ John Knight III.
The next week, Cherry joined the starting lineup in wake of injuries from Edwards, Remy Martin and Mickey Mitchell. He continued to find a flow, averaging 16.5 points and three rebounds in two wins over Nebraska Omaha and Texas Southern.
“He’s coming in a role,” said Cheatham after the Nebraska Omaha win. “He’s shooting with confidence, he’s playing with confidence, and that’s what we’re going to need him to do down the stretch.”
“He made some great plays,” Hurley added. “His defense was solid, and he adds a new dimension to our team (as) a guy that you can’t leave unaccounted for behind the 3-point line. That mid-range jump shot is very good too.”
For Cherry, the success has stemmed from more belief in his body.
“I really didn’t trust it as much as I should have,” he said. “I think that’s what everybody (has) with a knee surgery. Like Derrick Rose, you see how he is now. And I’ve just got to trust my knee more, and that’s what I’ve been doing and playing hard.
“Confidence is a big one for me. I’m shooting the 3-ball with confidence, and I’m making it. I’m shooting it at a higher clip now. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keeping in the gym on late nights and keep shooting it.”
Now eight games in, Cherry leads ASU in 3-point percentage (42). He averages the fifth-most minutes on the team (23.4) and his opportunities continue to expand in each game.
Two months ago, the chances of this breakout appeared unlikely. Four games in, it grew to be doubtful.
But with the support of Hurley and his teammates, Cherry, the Sun Devils’ youngest player persevered and continues to perform like a veteran.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.