There can be little doubt Paul Mills trusts his star guard.
By itself, it was an entirely unremarkable moment when Max Abmas stepped to the free throw line in the closing seconds of Oral Roberts’ game at Denver on Jan. 16. Abmas, the Golden Eagles’ standout guard, was putting the finishing touches on a win over a Pioneers team opposite them in the Summit League standings. But as Abmas sank both free throws, he was at the tail end of a dizzying string of basketball.
His 13th and 14th points of that game came in the 80th minute of basketball he’d played in 24 hours. Put another way, the sophomore didn’t leave the court during the entirety of the Golden Eagles’ sweep in the Mile High City. The remarkable run of minutes came courtesy back-to-back scheduling instituted by the Summit League due to the pandemic, and it wasn’t an outlier for Abmas — the league’s minutes leader — who played 40 minutes 12 times this season, including three times in consecutive days.
The workload is something Abmas relishes.
“It’s about being conditioned, and I’m always ready to just stay in the game, and hopefully give us the best opportunity to win,” he said. “Really, it feels good that the coaches have the utmost confidence in me to be out there and impact wining. That’s always what I want to do when I’m on the court: do what I can to help the team win.”
The heavy minutes are just a part of what has been a remarkable season for Abmas.
The freshly-crowned Summit League Player of the Year rounds the corner into the league tournament as college basketball’s top scorer (24.8 PPG), and the only player in the country to have multiple 40-point games to his name this season. Look in any direction, and the numbers are gaudy for the Rockwell, Texas native. He’s tormented teams from deep all season, making 46.1 percent of his 191 three-point attempts. Only two players — Toledo’s Spencer Littleson and San Diego State’s Jordan Schakel — have made a higher percentage with at least 150 attempts.
Mills talked about Abmas after he dropped in six three’s as a part of a 42-point night in a big win over South Dakota State in mid February.
“He was making three’s, that’s what he does. You give him a little space and he can get it off, and he obviously played really well today,” the fourth-year coach said in the postgame press conference.
Making three’s is something that Abmas has always done.
“Yeah, that’s always been my game,” he said with a chuckle.
It’s a game that, like all games, has taken bits and pieces from different players. Kobe Bryant’s mentality and competitive approach made a big impression on a young Abmas as he grew up watching basketball. And style wise, it should come as no surprise that the Golden Eagles sharpshooter has taken little things from Damian Lillard and Steph Curry as he’s grown into one of the country’s premier scorers.
And whether Abmas knows it or not, his 2020-21 season has eclipsed, at least in parts, even the best his idols ever did in the college game. His 24.8 scoring average edges out Lillard’s highest single season figure at Weber State (24.5 PPG in 2011-12), and his atmospheric three-point percentage is better than the best either Lillard (40.9%) or Curry (43.9%) posted in a single season over their historic NCAA careers.
But Abmas has been more than just a three-point shooter.
Heading into the offseason, he said he knew he’d have to get more comfortable playing with the ball in his hands. A great freshman season (14.4 PPG, 36.6 3P%) saw Abmas primarily playing off the ball, ready to catch and shoot off plays made by others. He knew that as a sophomore that would change, especially with ORU losing senior guards Deondre Burns and Sam Kearns.
He talked about the biggest change for him over last season.
“I think this year it’s more me being on the ball, playing off pick and rolls, just me having the ball in my hands a little more, creating my own shots,” Abmas said. “One of the things I focused on this summer was getting better shooting off the dribble. I just knew coming into this season, we lost a lot of guys this past year, a lot of seniors with a lot of experience. With them being gone and me being one of the returners, I knew I’d have to step up and take on a bigger role.”
That offseason focus has paid off in a big way. As a freshman, virtually all of Abmas’ three-point attempts were created by someone else (89.7%). That’s changed as he’s taken on a more ball-dominant role alongside all-Summit first team forward Kevin Obanor, with Abmas creating over half (56.4%) of his attempts from distance. And to add to that, the sophomore has created for others at a much higher rate, increasing his assist per game average from 1.4 APG to 3.3 APG. That’s been especially important with the Golden Eagles missing point guard R.J. Glasper to injury over the past three weeks.
“What I want to do is have an impact on winning,” he said “That could mean me having to score if we need an offensive spark, or it could mean if somebody else has a hot hand, just finding them and getting them good looks.”
Abmas’ biggest impact on winning, however, could still be ahead of him.
Changing the program
In the end, the Golden Eagles didn’t have a pleasant trip to Sioux Falls last year.
Unlike many teams, ORU did get to see its season play out in full with the Summit being one of the few conferences to complete its league tournament before the pandemic shut down college basketball. An opening win over Omaha was followed by a narrow loss to eventual champion North Dakota State in the semifinals.
Abmas struggled in that game (2 points, 0-7 FG) and remembers the feeling well.
“It was a tough loss for sure, one of the worst feelings,” he said. “It’s one of those feelings you don’t want to experience multiple times.”
For ORU, it was a feeling that had become all too familiar in recent seasons. The Scott Sutton-era Golden Eagles surged into the Summit upon joining the league in 2007, winning at least 10 games or more each of their first seven seasons. Sprinkled in was a 17-1 campaign, a 16-2 campaign, three regular season titles and an NCAA Tournament appearance.
But the program hit choppy waters beginning in 2016, culminating in an 8-22 (4-12) season in 2017-18 that saw them fail to qualify for the Summit League tournament all together. That would be Sutton’s last season at the helm in Tulsa, with Mills taking over the following offseason.
The Golden Eagles would return to Sioux Falls in Mills’ debut campaign, and would finally break a league tournament winless drought stretching back to the 2014-15 season with that opening win last year against the Mavericks. Unlike the semifinals, Abmas played a pivotal role in that win, scoring 20 points on 6-11 shooting from three.
It was the type of effort, and result, that he came to Tulsa to help lead.
“I wanted to just come here to change the program,” Abmas said. “The couple years before I came it wasn’t a winning program, so I wanted to come in and try and turn the program around.”
It’s been a steady rise with Abmas in the fold. ORU’s 10-5 league season this year was its best since 2014-15, and as the four seed in this year’s tournament should have a good opportunity to get to the program’s first NCAA Tournament since 2008. Good opportunity, however, doesn’t mean high likelihood.
The Summit has had pretty clear upper tier that has included regular season champion SDSU, South Dakota, North Dakota State and the Golden Eagles. The quartet each finished with nine or more wins, and were the only teams in the conference to post winning records. ORU — which posted the league’s second-most efficient offense — split season series with both NDSU and SDSU, and dropped their sole game to USD, which enters the tournament without breakout guard A.J. Plitzuweit due to a knee injury.
But with Abmas and his remarkable season, the Golden Eagles are firmly in the mix to cut down the nets in the Sanford Center and complete what would be program-changing campaign.