The Macmillan Dictionary describes the word swagger as a “proud or confident way of walking or behaving.”
San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher and his staff describe swagger as a key to building a winning program.
For the last 15 seasons, first under coach Steve Fisher and then under his successor, longtime Fisher assistant Dutcher, the Aztecs have piled up victories (an average of 25.2 a year), dominated the Mountain West Conference, and have been frequent participants in the NCAA Tournament by adhering to certain core principles. Defense is a bedrock of the program, and when it comes to stocking it with players, the SDSU coaches look for a skill they consider to be just as important as any other in the game.
The theory behind that is simple. To win conference championships, a team has to win on the road. And to do that consistently, it helps to have a roster filled with players who have a proud or confident way of walking or behaving.
That’s why San Diego State and Malachi Flynn joined forces, and why Flynn is now preparing for a career in the NBA.
Last season, Flynn, a 6-foot-1 point guard who transferred from Washington State, helped the Aztecs to accomplishments that stood out even compared to the program’s high standards — 30-2 record, a 26-game winning streak, 45 days as the No. 1 team in the NCAA’s NET rankings, victories at BYU, by 31 over Creighton, by 10 over Iowa. The Aztecs clinched the Mountain West regular-season championship on Feb. 11 and ended up winning it by a league-record five games. They’ve won 12 consecutive road games over a two-year period, and before a last-second loss in the MWC tournament, had won 16 consecutive games on the road or neutral sites.
Flynn wasn’t solely responsible for the Aztecs’ success, but he led them in scoring, assists, field goals made and attempted, 3-point field goals made and attempted, free throws made and attempted, steals, assist-to-turnover ratio and minutes played.
Heading into the NCAA Tournament that was never played because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Aztecs — despite that loss in their conference tournament title game — were confident they could make a deep run. The nation would have loved watching them play, especially their dynamic point guard.
It wasn’t to be, but Flynn, who since high school had been overlooked and underappreciated because of his lack of size, did what he was recruited to do, did what the San Diego State staff knew he could do since the Aztecs lost to Washington State in the 2017 Wooden Classic when Flynn scored 24 points with six 3-pointers and handed out six assists. That game was played in Cal State Fullerton’s 4,000-seat gym before a crowd of about 1,700, which also allowed the Aztec coaches to hear Flynn verbally jousting with their fans.
“It’s a skill,” Dutcher says. “Confidence is a skill. Some players blame the coaches for not letting them do this, or that. When you play here, I’m gonna tell you that you can shoot as many 3s as you want. If you don’t believe in it, don’t put that on me. I’m giving you the green light to do it. At the end of the day, smart players know what their weaknesses are. They know what they can and can’t do. You don’t have to overcoach them.”
By either the dictionary’s definition or Dutcher’s, Flynn embodies swagger. How else to explain the confidence he showed last April, when he decided to bypass his final season of college eligibility, sign with an agent and declare for the NBA Draft? Most analysts — perhaps using the measurables that have worked against Flynn his entire career — think he’ll be chosen in the second round. But those who know him and have coached him believe he’s a first-round talent.
“The No. 1 thing that’s going to separate him in the NBA, besides his competitiveness, is he’s an elite, elite shooter,” says San Diego State assistant coach David Velasquez. “But he’s also in elite condition. When you put those together, in draft workouts — if there were draft workouts — he would have gone in there and just smashed shooting drills and competitions.
“I think the way he shoots the ball and how much he’s obsessed with basketball, his NBA stock would have risen through the roof. He might be one of the last players I’ll recruit that’s never played [the online video game] Fortnite, as silly as that might sound. Because he’s just a basketball guy. Basketball all the time.”
Flynn came by his competitive nature and work ethic by way of his large family. He was the youngest of seven siblings, and to hear him tell it, survival of the fittest was the rule of the household.
“I learned that nothing’s going to be given to you, no matter what,” Flynn says. “Even in the house. If there’s one last piece of food, I wasn’t going to be able to go get it. I don’t think I won a game of one-on-one growing up. [His older brothers] were not going to let that happen. Not in my family. Everything is earned.”
Clearly not many college programs delved into that aspect of Flynn’s background when he played at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Washington. As a senior, he averaged 29.7 points, six rebounds and four assists and was voted the state’s player of the year. Still, his choices were limited — the University of San Diego, Pacific and Washington State.
Flynn took the power conference offer. In two seasons at Washington State, Flynn averaged plenty of minutes (33.3 per game) and hoisted plenty of shots (655, including 378 from distance), but the Cougars were a combined 25-37. Flynn wanted to play for a winning program, and one that put the ball in guards’ hands and let them make plays.
When after the 2017-18 season Flynn announced on Twitter his intention to transfer, he quickly became a hot commodity. He trimmed an impressive list of schools down to two that fit his criteria — Creighton and San Diego State. The Aztec coaches left little to chance, reasoning that the key to recruiting Flynn was to recruit his family, too.
“When I’d go up to Tacoma, I’d have to go to the sister’s house, the brother’s house and the mom’s house,” Velasquez says. “Then I’d meet up with dad. Then I’d get on a plane and fly to Pullman, Washington to see Malachi. And I just kept doing it, over and over.”
Dutcher and Velasquez didn’t just tell Flynn what he wanted to hear.
“I brought all the ways he could get better and how he could get to the NBA, and why the NBA didn’t think he was effective,” Velasquez says. “We’ve had a couple guards get drafted, and Malachi really bought in to wanting to get better, wanting to get to the NBA, and wanted to hear what he was not so good at. I thought that was really powerful. Building a relationship, letting him know he was going to get coached.”
Flynn did his homework before he made his final decision.
“After having two years under my belt already, I felt like I knew what I wanted out of a school,” he says. “I wanted the same opportunity I had at Washington State with the ball in my hands a lot, but at the same time, I wanted a place where the culture was established and that wins. And I knew from my research that [SDSU] had two senior guards graduating.”
The match of player and program turned out to be perfect. SDSU’s sports information department says that in Flynn’s lone season, he became the most decorated player in school history. He was one of only three Aztecs, along with Kawhi Leonard (2011) and Michael Cage (1984), to earn consensus All-America honors. He was also a finalist for the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year, the Naismith National Player of the Year and the Lute Olson National Player of the Year awards and was voted Mountain West Player of the Year, as well as first-team All-Mountain West in both the coaches’ and media polls. The media voted him MWC Newcomer of the Year, and he was also chosen the league’s defensive player of the year.
Flynn led the MWC in assists, steals and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.9:1) and was third in scoring and free-throw percentage. He was fifth in field-goal percentage and 3-pointers made. Clearly Flynn knows how to stuff a stat sheet. That’s the way he’s always played.
“I played on a lot of good teams, in AAU and high school,” Flynn says. “I remember on my AAU teams, my older brother would ask me if I’m not scoring what was I doing. Why do coaches want to put me on the floor? At first, I didn’t know. But then I learned I needed to bring other things to the game. To put people in the right positions. To handle pressure and be a leader.”
Dutcher thinks Flynn can take all that to the NBA.
“His assist-to-turnover ratio is what it’s going to be,” Dutcher says. “In the NBA, you’ve got to play with others and know where the open man is. And Malachi knows where everybody is. He gets on the right team, and they’re going to put him out there in space with other players. He’s going to look good himself, but he’s going to make other players look better.
“The game at the NBA level is poetry — the way they share the ball and get you chasing around. Malachi knows how to make the game look like poetry. You’re too slow chasing, he’s going to knock the shot down. If you over run, he’s gonna get the next pass to someone who’s going to knock it down.”
Velasquez has an apt NBA comparison for Flynn — Toronto’s Fred VanVleet.
“People ask if Malachi can defend at the next level,” Velasquez says. “If you look at his body, his metrics, his weight, he’s the same as Fred Van Vleet was coming out of college. Now VanVleet’s known as a lockdown NBA defender.
“Fred’s worked out in our practice facility with Kawhi Leonard when he was with the Raptors. I’ve seen him up close. He and Malachi aren’t crazy blessed with length or athletically, but to succeed like VanVleet has you have to be intelligent and have an incredible basketball IQ. That’s Malachi.”
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