Tra Holder was one of the best guards in the Pac-12 on many nights last season. But on the nights when he wasn't, he wondered why.
Why would he score 20 points against UNLV and only two points against Purdue three days later?
Why would he start the Pac-12 tournament on fire with 21 points against Stanford, and shoot 0-of-7 from the field one night later against Oregon?
Why the inconsistency?
"I think that it's because my mental aspect was bad," Holder said.
Yes, his mental aspect.
A phrase, when Googled, that takes you to several sports-performance-related articles. Holder's mental aspect took him right to Graham Betchart.
Betchart is a basketball mental skills coach, which may get an eye roll from some, but first, consider a portion of his client list: Andrew Wiggins, Aaron Gordon, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine and Ben Simmons.
Betchart's latest (and best) testimonial comes from Holder, who is averaging 21.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.8 steals—all career highs—and is on pace to become an All-American after three seasons of being a good player on a bad team.
Holder has found the consistency he was searching for, and he's turned into one of the most confident players in college basketball. He is Trae Young after dark, the older and west coast version of Oklahoma's guard who is drawing comparisons to Stephen Curry.
Holder is not quite as brash—he'll fire from NBA three-point range, just not half-court logos—but similar to Young, he has the off-the-dribble wizardry and variety of floaters that leave defenses helpless.
"People might think we're taking crazy shots in a game," Holder said, "but that's something that we work on in practice."
Holder was pretty much given free reign to do his thing as soon as coach Bobby Hurley set foot on campus three years ago. He came to Arizona State to play for Herb Sendek, but his system constrained Holder, who struggled as a freshman, averaging just 7.0 points in 27.0 minutes.
Hurley was the perfect coach to unleash Holder's potential, bringing a ball-screen-heavy attack that preached pace and letting it fly.
"He was able to go out there and do what he was recruited to do and not being taken out of the game, or miss a shot and look over at the bench," fellow senior guard Kodi Justice said. "He was just out there playing his game, being who he is and being a leader. Hurley coming in gave him the freedom to play his game."
It also helped that Holder's jump shot improved, so defenses would have to play him for the drive and the jumper.
He had the game of a volume scorer and the green light from Hurley, yet he didn't always play that way. That's where Betchart came in.
ASU assistant coach Rashon Burno learned about Betchart when he was an assistant at Florida and recruiting current Michigan State sophomore Joshua Langford. On his recruiting visit, Langford asked Burno and Billy Donovan how they were going to teach him to "play present."
That got the expected response: Wait, what?
"How are you going to train my mind?" Langford asked the coaches.
He then told them about Betchart, who he had been working with since he was 14.
Burno immediately got in touch with Betchart and developed a relationship. Then this past offseason, he connected him with Holder. "I've got a really good basketball player, who basically just needs to get his mind right," Burno told him. "He's got it all."
"He was kind of stopping himself a little bit," Betchart said. "The word 'unlock' is what I use a lot. I help players unlock themselves. Honestly, I've never had a player tell me the person guarding them was too good. I've never even heard that sentence in my life. It's never the opponent; it's always themselves. What Rashon saw was Tra's got it, but he's kind of blocking himself."
Betchart and Holder started trading some phone calls and texts, and every day when Holder got to the gym to work out, he could not start until he listened to four-to-five-minute lessons from Betchart on an app called Lucid.
The lessons focus on helping players to stay in the moment, not letting past performance influence how they think or play. "I was too hard on myself," Holder said.
He also did what many players do, choosing to shoot or not based off how he was feeling that particular game. It's obvious the lessons from Betchart are taking hold, because his usage rates are higher than they've ever been. He's taking 25.9 percent of ASU's shots when he's on the floor, up from 21.5 percent last season, per KenPom.com.
"There's times where he'd miss a couple shots here and there, and he'd get down," Justice said. "I wouldn't say he checked out, but he had a hard time getting out of it. Now you see this look in his eye when he misses a couple shots; he's in attack mode and trying to make a play on defense or something. It's changed over the years for sure. He's mature now. He doesn't let shots that he misses affect his entire game. He'll try to figure out other ways to change the game. His body language has definitely changed."
Letting things go has had the desired effect. Holder has been extremely consistent, scoring in double figures in every game but one. In that game against St. John's, he still attempted 12 shots. Two days later, he scored 29 points and had seven assists in a win at Kansas.
Holder also developed confidence from changing his offseason routine. As in, he adopted one.
"I had to learn how to do the same thing over and over," Holder said. "Even though I had a good day of working out, I can't slack and say I'm going to take tomorrow off because I did well yesterday. I try to stay consistent."
Holder tried to make 400-500 jump shots every workout, and some days he'd work out multiple times. That's helped him with the consistency of his jumper. He's already made 40 threes on 43.5 percent after making 46 last season when he shot 36.8 percent from deep.
"Freshman year people would always go under the ball screen and play so far back and disrespect his jumper, and he's put so much work into it, where people have to play him for his shot," Justice said. "It allows him to get to the rim. When people try to go under, he's shooting it every time."
The final piece of reconstructing his mind and body was changing his diet. Holder ditched some of his favorites like fried chicken, red meat and ice cream.
"We were just at dinner, and I was drinking a soda, and I was like, 'Man, I'm full,'" Justice said. "He was like, 'Yeah, there's a lot of carbs and a lot of calories in that.' He said it's like eating bread.
"We can't even eat together, honestly, because he'll want a salad and salmon. I'm like, I need some steak and potato or pasta."
In some ways, Holder has become much more like Hurley. The 46-year-old coach is still a workout warrior. He runs every morning, and this summer he took his team on a five-mile hike in 115-degree heat. "He ran the whole way," Holder said. "He's in crazy shape."
Hurley will also sometimes jump in and scrimmage with the Sun Devils. "He's still got the vision," Holder said. "I guess that never leaves him."
It's a fun vibe around the program, especially now that they're winning. It has helped that Hurley improved the pieces around Holder, particularly on the inside where they've added freshman Romello White, junior college transfer De'Quon Lake and Ohio State transfer Mickey Mitchell, a sophomore.
The team is still built around Holder and fellow senior guards Shannon Evans II and Justice, a core that has experienced a lot of losing and has an appreciation for this year's success.
"I think it just makes it that much better because you don't want anyone to take it from you, because you know what the other side feels like and how hard it is and what the struggle is like," Holder said. "You cherish it more than a team who always wins and is used to it. Since I haven't ever won, it makes it that much more special to me."
Holder's goal this season was to get to the NCAA tournament, which seems like a given. Nobody had a more impressive nonconference slate than the Sun Devils, who were the nation's last unbeaten team and have wins over San Diego State, Kansas State, Xavier (thanks to a 40-point performance from Holder), St. John's, Kansas and Vanderbilt.
That success should help put Holder on the NBA's radar. He's a bit undersized at 6'1", but he could be a second-round gem, this year's version of Frank Mason.
"I think he's an NBA guard," Hurley said. "What you like to see from a player is a guy that's improving every year, even from his junior to senior year, the jump he's made is substantial. Every indication is to me he's going to continue to do that."
Holder is putting up similar numbers to what Mason did as a Kansas senior when he won National Player of the Year, and if Trae Young ever comes back to this universe and the Sun Devils stay on track, Holder could be in contention.
Of course, none of that should matter to Holder right now.
As Betchart texted him the other day: "Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. Play present."