Georgia State guard Malik Benlevi (2) makes his way through the Appalachian State defense Monday, January 23, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / AJC file)
Photo: Henry P. Taylor/Henry Taylor / AJC
Photo: Henry P. Taylor/Henry Taylor / AJC

Hunter: ‘We can’t win games without Malik Benlevi’

For a program that plays under the shadows of Turner Field and the Olympic torch, not to mention the handful of basketball programs across the state that shade its light, it comes as little surprise that the heartbeat of Georgia State’s basketball team is a player who has been counted out far too often. 

“We feel like in this program that we are always doubted, and Malik is the same way,” Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said of senior forward Malik Benlevi.

“He’s a kid that didn’t get a lot of offers from anybody else in the state, but now everybody in the state would love to have him.” 

Benlevi stands a stout 6-foot-6 and weighs 225 pounds, but somehow carries himself even larger on the court. The versatile forward ranks second on the team in scoring (12.7 per game) to teammate and Sun Belt Conference superstar D’Marcus Simonds (18.6), a junior guard who won 2018 Sun Belt Player of the Year honors and received a place on the Associated Press All-America team as an honorable mention. 

“Malik has been a cornerstone of our program ever since he has been here. D’Marcus is a great player, but we can’t win games without Malik Benlevi,” Hunter said. 

Next to Simonds’ shine, Benlevi does much of the dirty work for the Panthers (11-4, 2-0 Sun Belt), grabbing 5.3 boards per game. He averages more than a block and a steal per game on defense while often guarding the opponent’s best big man. That’s not to mention his 3-point shot, which he is converting at 42 percent this season. Benlevi is a two-way force even at an unfamiliar position. 

“It’s hard to balance because I’ve never really played the center spot. I have to do what’s best for my team, so if they need me to go down there and play it, I’ll play it and give it my all every game,” Benlevi said. 

Benlevi and Simonds, who have played together since their days in AAU ball, have each other’s backs on and off the court. The two room together and love competing in video games at home, but that bond pays off during games as well.

“Sometimes when you mess up, you know someone is going to be there, and Malik is that guy,” Simonds said of his roommate. “Late in the game, someone gets past you, Malik is there every time to take the charge.” 

That type of teamwork and hustle is what made Benlevi an obvious candidate to be a captain of Hunter’s team, so much so that Hunter named Benlevi a team captain during his sophomore season. Hunter cited maturity and high basketball IQ as reasons for his captaincy. Benlevi still carries the title, now in his senior season. 

“I try to come in there with a positive attitude every day. I’m the coach on the court when (Hunter’s) not on the court with us,” Benlevi said. 

Last season, the Panthers went on a run in the Sun Belt conference tournament, beating Troy, Georgia Southern and Texas-Arlington consecutively, rewarding a 24-11 season with an NCAA Tournament berth. Georgia State also made the NCAA Tournament in 2015, when it upset No. 3-seed Baylor. 

Another tournament run is in sight this year for the burgeoning Georgia State program after non-conference wins against SEC foes Georgia and Alabama. With Malik Benlevi leading the way, it might be time for Georgia State to claim its turn in the Georgia basketball spotlight.

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