Kyle Smith added more defense, rebounding and experience to Washington State’s 2021-22 basketball roster and the third-year coach didn’t have to go far to get it.
Kim Aiken Jr., a defensive specialist and double-digit scorer who was key to Eastern Washington’s 2020 Big Sky Conference championship run, has transferred to Washington State, he told The Spokesman-Review on Wednesday.
Previously, Aiken was committed to play for Sean Miller at Arizona, but the Wildcats parted ways with their longtime coach and hired Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd last week. Aiken reneged on his commitment to the Wildcats and reopened his recruitment, instead landing with a WSU team that’s coming off its first winning season since the Ken Bone era.
In a phone interview with The Spokesman-Review, Aiken said he was intrigued by Smith’s commitment to analytics and the defensive-oriented approach WSU’s coach has taken in Pullman.
“He’s a big analytics guy and he’s talking about being in the top percentile on the defensive end,” Aiken said.
“That’s something I really thrive on doing, whether I’m shooting the ball or just out there defending, defense is always going to be there.”
Aiken , the 2020 Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, should fit well into the defensive-minded culture Smith has instilled in two seasons as WSU’s coach. He intends to win the same award in a conference that recently sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament and had three still alive by the Elite Eight.
“So, I really think defensively we’re going to be pretty solid and I’m really hoping we are,” Aiken said, “because I’m trying to be defensive player of the year in the Pac-12.”
The 6-foot-7, 215-pound forward was the Big Sky’s leading rebounder at 8.4 rebounds per game and averaged 11.4 points per game to go with 2.0 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks. In a 90-76 victory over Montana, Aiken scored a season-high 28 points on 4 of 5 from the 3-point line and 8 of 9 from the free-throw line to go with 10 rebounds. He pulled down a season-high 14 rebounds two games later in a win over Idaho State.
Aiken posted better numbers during the 2019-20 season, nearly averaging a double-double at 13.3 points and 9.7 rebounds, but he improved his field-goal percentage between his sophomore and junior seasons, from 39.8% to 43.8%, along with his free-throw percentage, from 78.7% to 81.7%.
“There’s definitely always room for improvement on the defensive end,” Aiken said. “There’s things I’ve got to get better to do, especially going to have to guard bigger-caliber teams, but as for now … I’ll hopefully be an arsenal. Whatever coach Kyle Smith wants me to do, I’ll do.”
Aiken committed to the Wildcats on April 6, one day before the program fired Miller, who’d been the coach in Tucson for 12 years.
The two-time All-Big Sky forward hoped to stick with Arizona under Lloyd, but Aiken indicated the Wildcats wanted to go in a different direction after bringing in a high school center, Dylan Anderson, and Gonzaga transfer Oumar Ballo.
“I was like, ‘Hey, man, I can provide the same services for you and I’m already committed,’ ” Aiken said of his conversation with Lloyd. “But they’re trying to put me on a waiting list. They were trying to achieve other players and it didn’t seem like I was that great of an asset to him.”
Nonetheless, he should be a major asset for the Cougars, who have emphasized getting bigger and longer across the board. He said coaches envision him playing as either a “3” or a “4.”
Because of COVID-19 rules, Aiken should have two years of eligibility once he arrives at WSU.
He will add game experience and defensive fortitude to a young, talented frontcourt that also includes Efe Abogidi, Dishon Jackson, DJ Rodman and Andrej Jakimovski.
Aiken had a few chances to observe the Cougars in person, facing off against Smith’s team in a closed-door scrimmage and again when WSU and EWU met on Nov. 28 for a nonconference game at Beasley Coliseum. A shorthanded EWU team had just one available sub off the bench, but the Eagles had an opportunity to take a lead inside the final 20 seconds when WSU’s Noah Williams drew the deciding charge.
The player who committed the foul? Aiken .
“It’s a situation where the ball’s in my hands for the last (shot),” Aiken said. “It’s funny we get to be teammates now, but I think Noah Williams flops (on the play).”
Aiken is in Portland helping Shantay Legans – the former EWU coach who recently accepted the same job at the University of Portland – move into his new house. In exchange, Legans, the man who recruited Aiken out of East Valley High School in Redlands, California, will spend another week or two working with the three-year Big Sky starter on his game as he prepares for the next stage of his career.
“Leaving Eastern was really hard. We’re really family, as you can see,” Aiken said. “I’m helping Shantay move right now and he’s helped me with a lot of stuff, so I feel like I owe him that much.”
The Cougars had been targeting another EWU transfer, Tanner Groves, before the Spokane native and Shadle Park graduate elected to play at Oklahoma alongside his younger brother Jacob.
Along with the Groves brothers and Aiken , EWU lost four other players, including Jacob Davison (Cal Poly), Jack Perry (Portland), Tyler Robertson (Portland) and Mike Meadows (Portland).
Ryan Collingwood contributed to this report.
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