Arizona State star Zylan Cheatham took home First-Team All Pac-12 and Pac-12 All-Defense as a senior, leading the conference in rebounds.
The forward had an inspirational road to get to where he is today, including transferring from San Diego State and even playing in a game shortly after his younger brother’s life was taken due to senseless gun violence. Now, he looks to take the next steps in his journey as a role model citizen and NBA player.
When including his playmaking, Cheatham was one of the most efficient scorers in the open court among all NCAA players next season. He spoke to HoopsHype about his mentality and what he can bring to the pros.
First, I want to thank you again for your time and pick your brain a little bit about what you’ve been doing to prepare for the draft and how you’ve really become a better player this offseason as you prepare for this next chapter of your life.
ZC: Man, it’s been a lot of work and it’s been a grind. Just trying to prepare my mind, body and spirit for what is coming up next. Obviously, getting better at basketball, all aspects, especially shooting and ball handling. Just trying to turn my weaknesses into strengths. Mentally, just trying to deal with adversity better, learn how to be a better teammate, a better person, a better player and it’s going really good.
One thing that obviously helped you was the G League Elite Camp so I wanted to hear your impression of what you really got from that experience and how you were able to kinda prove how good of a player you really are when you were out there.
ZC: I was totally honored to even be a part of it. It was an unbelievable event that gave players like me a chance to showcase our talents against the most elite guys in the country in front of every NBA’s team’s personnel and I really felt I took advantage of it. Playing hard, proving that I can compete with anybody and man it was just an unbelievable event like I said.
What did you learn about the G League while you were out there that might have impressed you and what were some of the things that you felt cool about that experience for future prospects?
ZC: Little do people know, the majority of everyone actively on any NBA roster has spent some time in the G League. I just spent some time and kind of learned that it’s not what it seems and it’s not what everyone makes it out to be. Everyone kinda makes it seem like G League means “You’re not good enough” or something like that. It’s definitely not that, man. It is what you make it and if I have to spend some time in the G League, I’m really looking forward to maximizing that opportunity and trying to get better as a player.
One thing that I think stood out was that during the scrimmages you had 10.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game which is so impressive especially given your size. How much do you think rebounds and steals and some of the things beyond your scoring are going to add to your profile?
ZC: It takes a basketball guy to know it. If you watch any NBA games, you see that on every team, there are pretty much two or guys that are going to log a majority of the shots. They’re going to do a majority of the scoring and at this point, it’s not about trying to get on an NBA team and take over and I don’t need 15 to 20 shots because that’s just not realistic, especially if I’m a rookie coming out of college. Personally, I’ve understood that and I’ve embraced my role as an elite defender and an elite rebounder and I know those two things translate at any level. I feel like the way I rebound and defend, I can help any NBA team. I know that rebounding is an important aspect, considering it gets you extra possessions. Limiting teams to one shot is very important. Those things are what win. Defensively, my ability to switch and guard multiple spots and my size and just overall my defensive presence on the floor, I feel like, is a skill within itself and that’s what will separate me from a lot of guys.
One thing I that I think you are really elite at is picking the ball up in transition. I think when you are in the open court, there were few better players who were more efficient and more productive last season in all of college basketball. I’d love to hear about your impression of your game in transition and why you think you’re able to thrive so well.
ZC: No question, and I appreciate that by the way. I mean, it’s something I have worked diligently on. I have always had kind of a natural ability to find people. I’ve always played unselfish since I picked up a basketball. In transition, I’m pretty fast and athletic and can get up and down the floor. When I snatch a rebound and put the ball on the floor, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense. Depending on who my matchup is and who is responsible for getting back, it’s usually a four or a five. I’m usually pushing the ball up the court so fast sometimes the point guard has to pick me up, meaning that the four/five is stuck on somebody else that he’s not supposed to be on. I’m pretty good at exploiting those mismatches, making the right plays. If you don’t stop me, I’m pretty good at getting to the rim and finishing myself. So, it just puts pressure on the defense and gives my team a whole different aspect of scoring and just being a mismatch.
Obviously, you are very athletic and tested very well at the G League Elite Camp and I’m curious about your athletic background.
ZC: No question. Growing up, I played football, Pop Warner football from 5th grade to 8th grade. That added a level of physicality to myself, a level of dog and passion physicality. It taught me certain things like that. But just like I said, being athletic and being able to do the things I’m blessed to be able to do, it is a different aspect man. It gives an edge over other people. Just where I grew up at, the circumstances I grew up under, it just gave me that dog mentality. Anytime I’m on the floor, I’m in go mode. I don’t really take plays off. I play as hard as possible as much as I can. I’m an elite competitor. I want to win every time I’m on the floor. I want to do anything that will put myself and my team in the best position to do so.
When teams ask where you came from and what your upbringing was like, what do you tell them, what are some things you want them to really know about your past, how it helped shape the person you are right now?
ZC: I grew up in South Phoenix, which is not the best neighborhood. It’s what you consider ghetto. I grew up in an impoverished situation. I didn’t have unbelievable amounts of money or resources, all those types things that offer an edge for certain players, offering the best training and the best situation, and I didn’t have that growing up. My environment was a high-gang area, high violence and high crime – just the schools I went to and all the stuff growing up. It’s basically, you got to make a choice, its either you go the gang, violence, crime route or you figure out your niche and stick with it. Growing up, there were a lot of players more talented than I was, guys that were bigger, stronger, faster, but the mentality that I adapted on my own pretty much was ‘Imma make it by any means’ and I know I didn’t want to be involved with gangs and I never wanted to be involved with that type of lifestyle. So I had to do something else and I got to figure it out. Once I figured out basketball was my way out, I haven’t looked back since. It’s obviously paid off at the moment and I couldn’t be more proud of myself and my family for keeping me focused. They are pretty much my support system. I wouldn’t be here without them today.
How did you find such a love for the game and where did that mentality come from? Obviously, you said its helped you make a bunch of good decisions in your life but also what is it with the game that stuck with you?
ZC: Honestly, there is no real answer to this. It’s crazier than it sounds, man. I just picked up a ball and fell in love with it. I didn’t have anyone pushing me, saying “You got to be in the gym, you got to do this, I want you to do this, I want to live my dreams through you” type of person. It’s pretty much something that I decided on my own. Once I started playing and started to get a little good at it and started to get a little better, from that point on, I just sacrificed everything. That’s just what I wanted to do by any means. Every day after school, I was in the gym pretty much from when I got out of school to the time the gym closed. Anyone who grew up around me can attest to that. I really became a gym rat and didn’t hurt me that I grew a couple inches. I started to discover my athleticism and things like that and seemed like it was love at first sight type of thing. Like I said, I have an obsession.
I’m curious how ASU’s coaching staff and the program helped prepare you for the road you’re on today?
ZC: I appreciate to this day for taking a chance on me, pretty much. It wasn’t guaranteed. They had an idea what they were getting themselves into but they didn’t have to do it. I mean, looking back it, Arizona State was the best thing that ever happened to me. They put me in a position where I had every resource I needed to become a better player and person. They put me in a leadership role where I went from being the young guy on the team at San Diego State, looking up to the older guys to now I was the older guy on the team and pretty much I got to establish the tone and what kind of team we’re going to be, stuff like that. We lead by example and by my voice and in the last year, I learned so much about myself as a person, as a player, just leadership things. I sacrificed everything, I became a better guy off the floor. I really dedicated my whole life to my craft and getting better and wanting to be a better person for the younger guys that are now looking up to me. You got guys like Luguentz Dort, Taeshon Cherry, these guys that are really young. They didn’t know what to expect with the college thing and you got me who’s been in college for four years, going on five. I just wanted to really set a good example and set the tone for those guys and that I wanted them to be better than me initially and I wanted to have something I didn’t have coming in and I think I did a really good job with that and I’m proud of my journey at Arizona State and couldn’t be more proud of what I accomplished.
You mentioned Dort and now that you’ve got two ASU guys in this draft process that are picking up some steam. What are some things that you have done to help each other and become more ready for the draft and more prepared for this big moment and the next step in your career?
ZC: I think that pretty much started from the go. He was coming in as a highly touted recruit, five-star and had done all these types of things. I’ve never had that type of journey. I couldn’t relate to him in that aspect but one thing that I could relate to him in is we are both dogs on the court, really dedicated to our craft. We both played extremely hard. I pushed him every day in practice, he pushed me every day in practice. There were times where I had to rev him up cause I expected so much of him. As a leader, I couldn’t let certain things fly and me and him. I wouldn’t necessarily call it bumping heads, but he respected me as a big brother and pretty much as a leadership figure. So that’s been the relationship we’ve had since he stepped on campus. As far as this draft process goes, we’re in constant communication. If he has a workout that I have coming up, I’ll hit him up like, “Yo, bro what do I need to expect from that workout.” We’ve kind of bounced ideas off each other, make sure we’re prepared for what’s next.
What are you going to take away from your college experience and how will that help propel you become a better NBA player and an even better person?
ZC: I learned so much on and off the floor. I think one of the biggest things from my college experience is just never getting too high, never get too low. When things are going good, they can get better. When things are going bad, they can definitely get worse. Just pretty much never get too high, man. Stay true to your principles, stay true to your morals and things that got you to that point. Be yourself at all times. Don’t let a little bit of fame or a little bit of adversity change who you are. Try to stay true to yourself and just be a good person. You never know the impact you can have over someone’s life. Something just as simple as asking them about their day or responding to some fan mail, just stopping to take a picture with someone. You never know what kind of impact you can have, you never know what that person is going through. I pride myself on just being a good guy. Regardless of whether that person can benefit you or not, just being a good person and staying true to my morals. That’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve got out of it.
I’ve heard from talking to the Arizona State athletic department that you’re one of the best student-athletes that they’ve ever seen. What motivated you as a student to get the most out of that experience?
ZC: I’ve always been a type of guy, if I got to do it, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. I’ve got to do it anyway, I might as well. My passion for basketball has always motivated me in school. For example, so many guys had unbelievable talent but just couldn’t get it done in the classroom. My parents have always been really strict with me. “I don’t care what you do outside of the classroom. We know you’re a good kid and we know that you’re not going to make any stupid decisions. When you’re in that classroom, make sure that you’re applying yourself and getting good grades and doing things right.” Like I said, the fact that I love basketball so much made me not want to do anything to jeopardize the opportunity. I never wanted to be in a position to not be able to accept a scholarship and take the next step basketball-wise. I’ve always thought that this what I got to do and this is what I’m going to do. It’s helped me for sure. Credit to my academic advisors that I’ve been able to experience and work with, for not giving up on me and just pushing me to be better. I’ve embraced it and it made me a better student.
You are one of the older prospects in the class, given how much time you had in college. I still think there’s a lot of room for you to grow but I think you’ve got that hunger and that mentality to do that. Whether it be your elbow jumper or your hands in the pick and roll, whatever it might be, what are some things that you think you can add to your game and you think will make you more polished and a ready player to fit into a rotation?
ZC: As many years that I’ve played college, and as many years that I have over some of these young prospects coming in, I still don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface of what I can be as a player. The last two months, for example, I’ve become such a better shooter from the end of the season to now. If I can accomplish stuff like that in two months, imagine the kinds of things I can do in a couple of years with the right resources, the right situation, coaching staff, and training staff that believes in me. I think, personally, I can become a better shooter in all aspects. I can become a much better ball handler. I think my passing ability and my playmaking ability is sort of underlooked in my opinion. Once the game slows down and I really start to make reads and I don’t have to beat people with sheer athleticism all the time, I can really play angles and kind of outsmart people to a certain extent, and then use my athleticism to finish and do certain things like that, I think the sky is the limit for what type of player I could be. I look at some of these situations, the one that first comes to mind is Kawhi Leonard, who out of college, he had a lot of similar talks. People didn’t really know whether he would be a 3 or a 4. People didn’t know how good of a shooter he could become. They kind of had those types of things labeled on him. He took it personally and pretty much said “You guys aren’t going to determine my future. You’re not going to determine how good I can become as a player.” I don’t think anyone predicted that Kawhi was going to become this good. I want to have a similar story, and I really think it is very possible for me. I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface for how good I can be.
You guys even went to the same school for a little bit too. One thing that I wanted to touch on a little bit with you before I let you go is some of the things that you do off the court, anything that you might be involved with or anything that you’re passionate about, any hobbies or extracurriculars or ways that you spend your free time.
ZC: I really love dancing. I really love being happy, energetic. I love playing video games with my friends, Fortnite and stuff like that. Just a really chill, cool dude. I think given the resources, I think I’m going to be a really good community guy. I have a community that hasn’t been touched at all pretty much that I really have a lot of access to in South Phoenix. Once I get the resources and the funds behind the vision that I want, I think I’m really going to do some really good things in that environment. Just changing kids’ lives, giving kids opportunities that I didn’t have growing up. That’s something that I really take pride in.