For Temple sophomore guard Levan “Shizz” Alston, Jr., the 2016-17 season is all about growth.
After a freshman year that saw him appear in 31 of the Owls’ 33 games and average 2.0 points per game, Alston this year is Temple’s leading scorer. His 13.6 points per game ranked 14th in the American Athletic Conference after this weekend's games.
“I feel like aggressive always wins in college basketball and that’s what I learned most from last year,” Alston said on Feb. 8, a day before his Owls fell to then No. 25-ranked SMU at the Liacouras Center, 66-50. “Last year I came on the court and I wasn’t that aggressive. This year I’ve tried to be aggressive and throw the first punch in every game.”
Alston has definitely come out swinging. He’s scored 20-plus points four times this season, including a span of three straight games earlier this season. He had back-to-back games with a career-high 25 points in losses against Tulsa (Jan. 14) and at Cincinnati (Jan. 18). Then he capped that three-game streak with 22 points in a win against visiting Memphis (Jan. 25).
But it’s not just scoring the basketball that has Alston, the team’s point guard, on leaderboards. He’s making solid decisions and taking good care of the ball. He led the Owls with 104 total assists and had turned it over just 37 times while starting each of Temple’s first 26 games. And his assist to turnover ratio of 2.8 ranked second in the American while he’s played a team-high 35.8 minutes per game. He also led the team in steals (46) and free throw percentage (.848).
“I try to get other guys involved first and try to get other guys off early in the game and then when I feel like everybody has their chin up, I try and turn it up a notch,” said Alston Jr. who is on pace to join former All-American Mark Macon as the only players in Temple history to lead the team in points, assists and steals per game as a sophomore. “I try and throw that first punch early. I just read my teammates. If I see somebody has it going on, then I try and feed them the ball early.
“Patience is very important,” Alston Jr. added. “I’ve had to work on that a lot this year. Especially in some close games, because I want to control the game at the end. I feel like I’m getting better at it, knowing when to pass, when to score.”
Alston followed in his father’s footsteps by choosing Temple after narrowing down his list of 20 offers down to a final six that included VCU, Penn State, Notre Dame, Marquette and another Philly school, the University of Pennsylvania.
“(My dad) had a lot of influence on me. I look up to him so… it made me want to come to Temple,” Alston Jr. said of his father, Levan Alston Sr., who played for the Owls under the legendary John Chaney from 1994-96. “He’s helped me a lot, just telling me how to be a point guard or how to be patient. He told me its going to be tough playing in Philadelphia, because that’s my home city and everybody’s watching. But he told me to go out there and have fun, that was the main thing.”
Alston Jr. also cited another former Owl and Philadelphia native as a major influence.
“(Current Temple assistant coach) Aaron McKie. He played here (at Temple) and wound up playing in the NBA. I formed a relationship with him before I even came here. I’ve known him all of my life. He’s one of the big motivations for me because he did everything I want to do — a Philly guy, stayed in his hometown (at Temple) and then went on to play professionally. (Former Temple players) Lynn Greer, Khalif Wyatt, Dionte Christmas; I looked up to them too because they’re from Philly.”
Alston is excited about the future. Coach Fran Dunphy starts just one senior and only one other senior sees significant playing time. This season, the Owls have knocked off two top-25 opponents (then-No. 25 Florida State and then-No. 19 West Virginia). And five of their losses are by six points or fewer.
“I took a big leap between freshman and sophomore years and I plan to do the same between sophomore and junior and so on, so I’m very excited about the future for our team,” said Alston whose 55 made 3-pointers ranks second on the squad. “We have a lot of young guys, so I’m very excited about what the future holds.”
Mike Shute is a freelance writer based in southern New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter @TheShuter.