About 200 miles of interstate highway separate Dallas and Austin, but Max Abmas never stopped there. The latter city was always on the way to something else, or an ever-growing skyline breezed by on the drive home. The state capital was a figment. Never a destination. Never the place Abmas needed to be.
While Austin still isn’t the end of the line, it’s now a necessary stopover that will dictate every move from here.
Four years of scoring a bunch of points at Oral Roberts, plus a couple dips into the NBA Draft process, amounted to a bit of a basketball time loop, in which Abmas kept waking up in the same place with the same things to prove despite his best efforts to move forward. In a few weeks, though, he’ll be wearing Texas practice gear. He’ll be a Big 12 guard. He’ll have the same questions to answer, only with a better chance to do so definitively.
“To those on the outside, it shows me playing at the highest level,” Abmas says on an evening in early May. “It’s a gauntlet, night in and night out. Playing against these stronger, faster, longer, athletic guys, they’re more of your prototype NBA-type bodies. That’s what scouts want to see. I know how much time I put in the gym. I know the things I’m capable of. It’s about those at the next level, those higher-ups making those decisions, and what they need to see to feel comfortable.”
Portal season produced more than a few intriguing player-program matches, and we’ll enumerate more of them below. Max Abmas and Texas, though, resonates as a potential escape from a flat circle. Across four seasons in the Summit League, Abmas scored 2,561 points, shot better than 50 percent from 2-point range and 38.8 percent from 3-point range. He also never grew. He’s still listed as a 6-foot guard, and that’s with the help of some generously soled shoes; at the 2021 NBA Draft Combine, Abmas checked in at a fraction above 5-foot-10 barefoot. There is absolutely no other reason why he will still be a college basketball player in 2023-24.
The dynamic at Abmas’ new program, meanwhile, is fascinating, because of the responsibility potentially foisted on him. Going to Texas and fitting in with a deeper, more talented roster seemed to be the play at first. Then transfers and five-star recruit decommitments scattered that talent. A potential backcourt mate and returning lead guard, Tyrese Hunter, dipped his toe into the draft waters. While Hunter didn’t receive an invite to either the NBA Draft Combine or the G League Elite Camp and therefore is likelier than not to play at Texas next season, the sum of the changes prompts a thought: Is Abmas going to wind up having to do all the stuff he’s done for four years, just so the Longhorns have a chance? Does he actually have a better opportunity to prove himself than he even initially thought?
Rodney Terry, fully immersed in his first overloaded offseason as Texas’ head coach, put it to Abmas like he put it to Marcus Carr for the 2022-23 season: Don’t worry about what “kind” of guard you are, other than a good one. “We told the same type of thing to Max,” Terry says. “Come in and be the best version of yourself. We’re not trying to change who you’ve been over the course of your career. You’re a guy who can score the ball at a high level, but you can also make the guys around you better.”
Really, it’s the ultimate weatherglass for up-transfers, in the form of a kinetic 175-pound human. When Terry began his research on Abmas, his first call went to his friend and new Oral Roberts coach Russ Springmann, and much to Terry’s surprise the most revealing feedback had little to do with Abmas’ scoring. “He said this is a kid that’s so competitive, when you challenge him to guard, he can be a really good defender as well,” Terry says. That’s a must for the defensive-minded Texas coach, of course. Abmas indeed will have to find his way offensively against that bigger and longer and better competition, and to address that the Longhorns staff rolled clips of how they deployed Carr on and off the ball over the last couple of seasons. Carr has a couple inches or more on Abmas, yes. Every extra bit of height matters. Still, it’s as close to a like-for-like comparison as is available. “When you talk about trying to go where they want to go in the future, in terms of playing professional basketball, you’re going to play with multiple ballhandlers and decision-makers at a high level all the time,” Terry says. “He really embraced that he could play with another really good playmaker, potentially.”
Abmas, in fact, could be an improvement in at least one crucial area.
Texas and Oral Roberts ran similar amounts of screen-and-roll action in 2022-23, but the Longhorns’ ballhandlers averaged 0.723 points per possession in those scenarios (23rd percentile nationally) while the Golden Eagles averaged 0.875 PPP (88th percentile), per Synergy Sports. Abmas was in screen-and-rolls on nearly 30 percent of his total possessions and averaged 0.915 PPP as the finisher in those scenarios. “I understood what they envision,” Abmas says, “and how they’ve done it already.”
It’s tricky to use Abmas’ past performance against power-conference competition as a gauge. The 80 points across three NCAA Tournament games in 2021 look great. The three points against Houston and the 12 points against Duke last season, not so much. But Oral Roberts also didn’t have as much complementary offense lately to help offset schemes designed to choke off its star guard, at least against higher-level teams. Life in Austin will be different, regardless of the roster churn. Texas has established talent, even if Hunter is not among it. It will not be Max Abmas or bust.
But he also might be even a bit more important than he anticipated.
His first impression of Austin, he says with a laugh, is that it is “kind of the opposite of Tulsa.” Which is precisely the point. Abmas might, at last, be in a place where he’ll get everything coming to him, one way or the other. “To other people probably, I don’t pass the eye test of being this real big guard that can do (everything),” Abmas says. “But for me, it is what it is. I’m big on controlling what you can control. I know I can control my work ethic, how much time I put in the gym. That way, when the lights come on, I can go out there and show what I’ve been working on.”
As for other transfers of significant intrigue:
T.J. Bamba, Villanova. You know you’ve made it as a program when Year 2 of a coaching tenure feels immensely consequential. Kyle Neptune doesn’t have to win a national title, but he does have to do much better than a .500 record to alleviate the pearl-clutching on the Main Line, and for that he needs stars. Can Bamba, who had one truly impactful season at Washington State, be one of them? His effective field goal percentage last season was a fine-but-not-incredible .496, and while his assist-to-turnover ratio has improved each year, he still had 10 more miscues than dimes in 2022-23. With Justin Moore back and Hakim Hart transferring in, this isn’t Bamba’s load to carry exclusively. But All-Big East level production is the expectation, and the stakes are high.
Jordan Dingle, St. John’s. A two-time Ivy League Player of the Year will be a centerpiece in Rick Pitino’s brick-on-the-gas-pedal build in Queens. Come on. This is incredible.
Graham Ike, Gonzaga. It’s sort of less about the 6-9 forward being able to perform at the level — Ike had 26 points against Washington, 17 against Arizona, 25 against Stanford and 17 against Indiana in 2021-22 — than the context. No one at Gonzaga will be Drew Timme, ever again, but someone has to do some Timme-like things for Gonzaga to continue to be Gonzaga in the coming years. Ike averaged .911 points per possession on post-ups as a sophomore, so that’s a decent start. But he also missed all of last season with a foot injury. When health is a variable — particularly when it’s a lower extremity injury with a big man — things get scary. And the bet on Ike being on the floor, a lot, for the next one or two seasons is a substantial one.
J.J. Starling, Syracuse. The Blake Wesley Plan did not work out as anticipated. Starling’s freshman season at Notre Dame was fine, but not revelatory, and even before the season ended there was chatter that a change of scenery was afoot. But other than being closer to home (Baldwinsville, N.Y.), is anything guaranteed about life at Syracuse? What does an Adrian Autry-coached team look like? Will the player development plan be good enough that Starling improves on 29.9 percent shooting from 3-point range? Because the Orange and Starling came together so swiftly, the benefit for the player is clear: Syracuse really wants Starling to be good and for this to work. Just how it works is a pretty huge question.
Kel’El Ware, Indiana. The former top-10 recruit did not always meet the level of physicality and ruggedness that even the Pac-12 conference required, but Ware still averaged more than 10 rebounds and three blocks per 40 minutes. Somewhere in there is the player plenty of coaches viewed as an impactful modern big. Or he’d better be, in the Big Ten. Anyway, extracting potential almost always comes down to relationships. Ware’s primary recruiter at Oregon, Chris Crutchfield, never actually coached him; Crutchfield left for a head coaching job before the 2022-23 season. Not an excuse for Ware’s freshman year, but certainly a speed bump in development. Can Mike Woodson and the Hoosiers staff establish trust in very short order? The way Indiana’s roster sets up, Ware can be one of the Big Ten’s most impactful weapons … or Bloomington can be just another stop on a confounding journey.
(Illustration: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic; Photo: Steven Branscombe / USA Today Sports)