Sam Lecholat’s defender sagged off him, drifting underneath the WAC logo below the free throw line.
Teammate Jubrile Belo picked up his dribble in the left corner, rotated toward the open floor and saw Lecholat calling for the ball at the top of the arc. Grand Canyon University’s Ray Harrison couldn’t get back in time, his close-out obscenely late.
Montana State’s first bucket of the season — its first 3-pointer as well — was drilled by Lecholat, the 6-foot-7 sophomore from Sheridan, Wyoming, who stepped confidently into the shot from a foot behind the line.
It was his only field goal attempt of the game, but he did hit three free throws to finish with six points, three rebounds and one block in the first start of his Montana State career.
An interesting pattern had also begun to take shape.
In the team’s second game against Long Beach State, point guard Darius Brown II grabbed an offensive rebound in the paint off his own missed shot and turned to find Lecholat on the perimeter. Another deep 3-pointer served as MSU’s first bucket of the game.
In MSU’s third game, at Oregon, RaeQuan Battle scored in the lane to open the contest, but Lecholat hit a 3-pointer on the very next possession.
As the youngest member of Montana State’s starting five this season, Lecholat is not yet an offensive focal point. But he has shown flashes of promise when the ball does find him.
He will hope to continue his strong start to the season during Montana State’s appearance at the Northern Classic, a multi-team event hosted in Montreal, Canada, that will pit the Bobcats against UNC Greensboro at 2:30 p.m. Friday, Quinnipiac at 5 p.m. Saturday and Middle Tennessee State at 11:30 a.m. Sunday.
Head coach Danny Sprinkle said at a practice this week he hopes Lecholat stays ready to contribute offensively.
“We always tell him we need him to shoot more,” Sprinkle said. “When he picks and pops and he gets his feet set, he’s a great shooter.”
In 8.2 minutes per game last season, Lecholat said he was sometimes hesitant to get involved offensively. He averaged two points per game. He attempted just 39 shots all season (1.2 per game), but he did hit 7 of 17 3-pointers (41.2%). His outside shooting as a freshman is too small a sample size to draw many solid conclusions from, but his proficiency in five games so far (4 of 6) has been an encouraging sign.
Lecholat’s willingness to shoot that shot is a product of feeling more ready and more trusted to take it.
“I’d say it’s about being a year older, being more comfortable,” he said. “Last year I’d shoot the ball, looking back at Sprink, like, ‘Oh no.’ Just being more comfortable in knowing he trusts me in shooting those shots.”
On Nov. 18, Lecholat posted career highs in points (12) and rebounds (seven) in a blowout win over NAIA Warner Pacific. He shot 4 of 4 from the field, including a 3-pointer, made all three of his free throws and had an assist.
After the graduation of last season’s power forward Abdul Mohamed, Lecholat was in line for an increased role this year.
“I learned a lot of good things behind him, and I need to become a little bit more of a leader because we have a couple of new guys,” Lecholat said. “(That includes) being more aggressive. I’m a very unselfish person — just shooting more, being more physical. Coming into this year I needed to step everything up, especially strength-wise. In the summer we were in the weight room all the time.”
Lecholat acknowledged that Mohamed was more of a lanky power forward, whereas he is a little bit sturdier with a more traditional build for the position. The addition of Caleb Fuller from UC Davis gives the Bobcats more flexibility at that spot, Lecholat said.
“It’s good that we got Caleb because in a way he’s kind of like Abdul. He moves quicker (and) I’m not a fast four by any means. I just kind of push around guys and hope for the best. It’s going to switch game to game. I just need to be thankful for every minute I get.”
Through five games, Lecholat has averaged 17.2 minutes per game, a significant increase from last year. Part of Lecholat’s progression, Sprinkle said, will be to look for his shot more.
“His instinct is like a point guard. He’s always looking to get his teammate a shot, which I love, but there’s times when I need him to be a little more selfish too.”
Lecholat’s efforts do not go unappreciated by his teammates.
“He’s not the tallest dude that we have,” Battle said, “but he’s one of the strongest and one of the most feisty dudes we have on the team.”
Brown agreed and called Lecholat a “workhorse.”
“Sam does all the dirty work. He does all the things that you don’t really see,” Brown said. “He sets great screens, he’s always taking defenders away by posting up really hard and drawing attention to himself.”
Like his teammates who were here last season, Lecholat is driven by memories of how the team’s Big Sky Championship run and ensuing NCAA Tournament appearance felt. His role on that team wasn’t as pronounced as it’s shaping up to be this year, but it was still an exhilarating ride to be on as a freshman.
He said last year’s group succeeded in large part because of its work ethic.
“It might not have seemed like it at certain times for our team in general, but we were always locked in and always committed 100%,” Lecholat said. “This year we need to replicate that same thing because if we don’t we might not get to do what we did last year.
“It’s good that we set an example for ourselves.”
Everything Montana State’s players do this season is with the intention of reaching those heights yet again. As a member of the starting five and playing more minutes per game, Lecholat has an opportunity to contribute more to his team’s repeat chances.
“When you’re one of those first guys out, we need a push out of those first five,” he said. “For me being in the starting five, (I just) need to be me — move the ball and set a bunch of screens so we can get our offense rolling.”