For Arizona State University basketball fans, it might seem strange to see one of the program’s greatest players ever in anything but maroon and gold.
No, not James Harden, who spent just two years in Tempe and now dons blue and orange for the Oklahoma City Thunder. I’m talking about Jeff Pendergraph, the four-year forward/center who finished his career at ASU having played and started more games than any player in Sun Devil history.
Pendergraph now sports the red and black of the Portland Trail Blazers after being drafted 31st overall by the Sacramento Kings and traded. Wednesday, Pendergraph returns to play in the Valley for the first time since graduating from ASU.
Pendergraph missed about half the season after undergoing hip surgery before the season began. By the time he was ready to play, the Trail Blazers really needed him.
Ravaged by injuries, the Trail Blazers needed size, and at 6-foot-9, Pendergraph offered exactly that. The season-ending injuries of centers Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla opened the door for Pendergraph to get his chance.
Pendergraph hasn’t gotten the minutes he may get in the future, but has done well in the 13.0 minutes he’s averaging. Pendergraph is contributing 2.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 0.5 blocks per game as Portland’s backup power forward behind LaMarcus Aldridge.
Pendergraph’s career-best scoring game came in just his fourth appearance, against the Philadelphia 76ers, when he scored 11 points to go with five rebounds in 19 minutes. Two days later, against the Los Angeles Clippers, Pendergraph posted a career-high in rebounds, grabbing 14 boards to go with eight points in 25 minutes.
Pendergraph has started at center more than once in place of Juwan Howard (seriously, did ANYONE think that Juwan Howard would be starting in the NBA at 37?) and has shown that he can be very productive. He’ll only now have to establish some consistency.
Even though Pendergraph doesn’t return to the Valley as a superstar or a defensive force, his return is significant in that few players gave so much to the ASU fans. Four years of hard work, passion and determination, culminating in the team’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003 last year.
Few players have taken the court at Wells Fargo Arena with the kind of passion Pendergraph did as the foundation of the ASU program. And while that passion often got him into foul trouble, it was also his greatest asset, constantly pushing him to be better and better. Through the highs (25-10 in 2008-2009) and the lows (8-22 in 2006-2007), Pendergraph gave everything he had to Arizona State basketball and it paid off.
A true hard worker who cared about the game more than everyone else while never sacrificing his studies (he earned a business degree in 3 1/2 years) is getting the chance to do what he loves on the grandest stage of all. And Wednesday, he gets to do it in front of a community that cheered him on for four years.
Pendergraph may now belong to Rip City, but he’ll always hold a special place in the Valley. And while Suns fans who also root for ASU will certainly be hoping for the team’s sixth straight win, it wouldn’t be unfair to assume that a little piece of their heart is rooting for Pendergraph.