GVSU continues to lean on freshman duo

GVL/Kevin Sielaff
#4 Sam McClendon

GVL / Kevin Sielaff

GVL/Kevin Sielaff #4 Sam McClendon

Jay Bushen

When the Lakers of Lake Superior State step onto the court for an intergalactic rematch of last year’s “Fight at Fieldhouse Arena” against the Lakers of Grand Valley State in time for Pizza Wars on Thursday night, GVSU coach Ric Wesley could trot out any number of starting lineups — and Wesley’s Lakers will be ready to roll with the (proverbial) punches.

They’ve had to all season.

A long, long time ago, in a crossover tournament far away, GVSU sent out its first five for the season-opening tip. But the troops have been under attack ever since. In that span, five different starting combinations have been patched together, six different players have earned at least one start and the 11 “starters” have combined to miss about 30 games due to injury. Those injuries have taken their toll, and, on account of the team’s 5-5 GLIAC record, the Lakers are on the outside looking in if the GLIAC Tournament begins today.

But it doesn’t. And with 12 games left to play, GVSU fans have every reason to envision a new hope. The Lakers are not only within empirical striking distance (one game back of the would-be eighth seed), but also expecting a return of the junior transfer, Aaron Hayes, the heir apparent to Rob Woodson at point guard. After missing six straight games, Hayes returned to practice this week and could play as soon as Thursday night — and all is well that ends well. The Lakers may be bruised with much to prove and no time to lose, but they’re close. 

A pair of freshman guards, Sam McClendon and Myles Miller, has a lot to do with that.

“They’ve been doing great,” said Ryan Sabin, the only Laker to start every game this season. “Myles is more of a spark off the bench. He’s going to go in there and shoot, he’s going to score. That’s kind of his role, like a J.R. Smith or Jamal Crawford. Sam can run the show for us, he’s more of a point guard, a strong guard. He’s heady, he’s smart.

“Two different guards but they’re the best of friends so it’s kind of funny. Those guys are inseparable, it’s crazy. But it’s good to have them both, they give us two different styles.”

Like Han Solo and Chewbacca, it seems there is much to like about McClendon (Southfield, Mich.) and Miller (Ottawa Hills, Mich.) — albeit for different reasons.

McClendon (6’0, 190) is a strong on-ball defender who uses his physicality to his advantage. He’s got quick hands, a frame built to drive the lane and a season of prep-school hoops under his belt. The former Orchard Lake St. Mary’s High School team MVP played last at Score Academy, a prep school in North Carolina, where he recorded averages of 18.3 points, 5.8 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game in 2013-14.

He has 43 points, 14 assists and a .452 shooting percentage this season. He’s started six straight games for the Lakers, and is a big reason the team ranks third in GLIAC play with 8.5 steals per night. He’s got 16 steals on the year — and he’s playing with a dislocated finger.

”I’ve been trying to get adjusted to the tempo, it’s very different from high school,” McClendon said. “I’ve just got to get adjusted to my teammates, still trying to find chemistry. But me and Myles, we gel together really well on and off the court. We help each other out.”

Miller is a 5-foot-8, 155-pound slasher and former McDonald’s All-America nominee at Ottawa Hills (where he recorded a 3.86 GPA). Like McClendon, he has 16 steals on the year and has started six games. He makes the most of his 12.5 minutes, too, scoring 3.5 points a night with a .526 shooting percentage. The team is 5-1 with him in the starting lineup. And he can dunk.

“I don’t like to tell a lot of people,” he said. “It takes a lot of energy to get up there.”

For GVSU, it’s going to take a lot of energy to rally back into the thick of GLIAC North contention down the stretch. The Lakers may have to endure more injuries before it’s all said and done, but, especially since the pair of freshmen seems to be developing at light speed, they’ve got a fighting chance.

“When the fans are all in their dorms or maybe out at a party having fun — me and Sam are right in here,” Miller said before practice Tuesday. “When they come to watch us play games, they’ll know we’re putting in hundreds of shots, hundreds of crossovers and working those slides to get steals. I think it would be great for them to see us withhold that consistency and even grow, so it’d be nice to hopefully (have) a packed house in here some time.”

If you like pizza, George Lucas, lightsabers or GVSU basketball, fly over to Fieldhouse Arena to witness the all-Laker battle on Thursday at 8 p.m. If you can’t, feel free to check out these up-and-coming freshman guards at any of their six remaining home games this season.

The force certainly appears to be strong with these ones.

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