Brandon Sampson’s departure for the NBA might have surprised LSU fans on Tuesday, but this is something the program won’t be stunned by.
Sampson has long had an eye for the next level and believes he can follow in the footsteps of Tim Quarterman and Antonio Blakeney, both of whom left LSU early, went undrafted, but ultimately signed NBA contracts.
His departure frees up another scholarship for LSU – the Tigers now have three open spots heading into the late stages of the 2018 signing period. Will Wade and his staff are already in the mix for a number of D1 transfers who would have to sit next season and have been linked to several junior college bigs with immediate eligibility, but neither of those types of players will help offset Sampson’s departure directly.
Here are some thoughts on what the Tigers could do at the 3 spot next season:
Rachal is the only natural 3 returning for LSU in 2018-19, but, if he manages to avoid the suspensions he suffered twice this season – once before the Tennessee game and once at the end of the season for two NIT contests – he’s a really good option heading into his sophomore season for three reasons: he defends, he rebounds, and he’s improving offensively.
His raw numbers won’t blow anybody away – 4.4 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.0 steal per game – but his advanced metrics hint at a player who makes winning plays and can be an asset on a winning team.
The most indicative number of Rachal’s impact is net rating: how much better LSU is when he’s on the floor than when he’s off the floor. He led the returning Tigers in net rating in all games (+9.6 points per 100 possessions), in games against Top 100 foes (+19.6 points per 100 possessions), and in SEC games (+21.6 points per 100 possessions).
Any player who gives you a 21.6 point-per-100-possession advantage (that’s about 15 points per game, at LSU’s tempo) is getting it done.
Defense is Rachal’s hallmark. He’s a high IQ defender with good size, strength, and quickness, capable of guarding positions 1-4. He doesn’t get beat off the dribble much and is always in the right position, it seems. He has sticky, active hands – if he gets a fingertip on it, he can control it, an underrated and vital skill.
When he committed to LSU in the fall of 2016, a coach on the former staff told me Rachal was ready then, as a high school senior, to be an SEC-level defender, and he proved that this year. LSU’s defense was 17.2 points per 100 possessions better when Rachal played in SEC contests this season than when he sat, when it gave up an atrocious 112.5 points per 100.
LSU’s Defense in SEC Games: 2017-18
[table] Brandon Rachal In/Out, LSU Defensive Rating (Points per 100 possessions)
That 95.4 figure? It would’ve been the best in the SEC, extrapolated over an entire season.
That 112.5 figure? It would’ve been 13th in the SEC, extrapolated over an entire season.
“He’s finally come to grips with what his role is,” Wade said late in the season. “It may not be exactly what he wants it to be. He’s understanding what we need him to do. He’s really a help for us defensive with his IQ, his toughness. He gives us a rebounding presence we don’t have.”
Rachal was forced to play out of position at the 4 this year because of LSU’s rebounding deficiencies – the Tigers finished 12th in the SEC in rebounding margin – but more than held his own.
He lacks the offensive skillset of Sampson – he took just five threes all season and made one – but grew on that end of the floor as the season went on. In his last four games, he scored 7.5 points per game and grabbed 7.25 rebounds, shooting 70 percent from the floor and grabbing 2.75 steals per game, too.
His inability to score kept him off the court for stretches of the year, but he figured out how to score with putbacks and cuts. According to Synergy, he scored most of his points in the half court this season on cuts (36) and putbacks (21). He took a team-high 54.4 percent of his shots at the room, according to Hoop-Math. Of those 33, 18 were assisted, and 9 were putbacks.
“Offensively, he’s found his way,” Wade said after he scored 10 points in the SEC Tournament against Mississippi State. “He’s cutting a lot harder. He’s staying around the rim, playing around the rim, doing what he needs to do around the basket, which makes the other team have to guard him and account for him. When you do that, we can keep him out there for a lot more extended periods of time.”
Still, he won’t be hovering around the rim in 2018. With Emmitt Williams, Naz Reid, Kavell-Bigby Williams, and perhaps another junior college big in the fold, Rachal’s only time at the 4, if he gets any, will be when LSU goes really small.
He’ll be a 3 next year, and he’ll have to develop as a driver – at least a little bit. He showed early in the season he could put it on the deck and finish at the rim some.
His jumper remains a work in progress. His free throw shooting, usually a projectible indicator of a player’s ability to shoot in the future, was poor, just above 50 percent in his freshman season. It was the same in the Nike EBYL for his AAU team, EP Elite, where he did make a more respectable 30 percent of his three-pointers, hitting 9-of-32.
If Rachal develops a three-point shot that opponents have to at least consider guarding, he’ll be a perfect fit at the 3. Even if he doesn’t, but becomes a dangerous cutter and maintains his defensive excellence, he’ll be fine, particularly surrounded by gifted offensive players like Tremont Waters, Naz Reid, Skylar Mays, Javonte Smart, and Daryl Edwards. Next year’s unit will need a wing stopper with some edge, grit, and personality. Rachal has the tools to develop into exactly that.
LSU returns a backcourt in Skylar Mays and Tremont Waters that was largely effective in 2017-18. They blended well in Wade’s dual point guard system, combining for 27 points and 9 assists a game with a nearly 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio.
Both should return as starters next year. Waters will be a focal point of the offense and an SEC Player of the Year candidate. Mays is the team’s best student-athlete and hardest worker – you don’t send those guys to the bench.
With Sampson gone, playing three guards is a likely approach that could carry over from this season. Daryl Edwards emerged as the most frequent starter at the nominal 3 spot, which was a rotating door much of the season. Edwards grasped the spot late in the year with his accurate shooting and, most importantly, his willingness to defend. Wade consistently called him LSU’s toughest player, and he usually matched up with the opposition’s best perimeter scorer.
Compared to Sampson, Edwards was a more effective player for LSU in conference play. His net rating in the SEC was +7.3 points per 100; Sampson’s, -5.8. In other words, LSU was 13.1 points better with Edwards than with Sampson.
Wade expects even more from Edwards in 2018-19.
“Typically, a kid like Daryl, typically a junior college kid gets a lot better after his first year,” Wade said after the season. “It usually takes a JUCO kid a year to get everything under his wings. Typically those guys get better.”
Then there’s incoming freshman Javonte Smart, a combo guard with really good size. Two years ago at the FIBA U-17 World Championships, he measured at 6-foot-4 and 1/2 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan. Even in the unlikely event that he hasn’t grown an inch since then, he’s got plenty of size to guard 3s on defense while playing in a combo role on offense.
Wade hinted at playing three guards together after the season. He even mentioned playing four.
“If you can put three guys out there that can play off an on-ball screen, that’s pretty hard offense to stop. We certainly have three guys out there who can play off an on-ball screen,” he said. “You can play four guards. Look at some of the teams that are still left (in the NCAA Tournament). They’re playing four guards around one big. You can play two bigs. We’ll just have a lot more versatility with our roster, which is good.”
The day he signed, an LSU source told me Reid could play the 3, and that’s a possibility next season.
Reid’s game is versatile enough to play inside or out. He knocked down 33 percent of his 3s on the EYBL circuit a year ago – that’s only slightly worse than what Mays, Waters, and Sampson all shot in 2017-18.
He’s not the only big who could pop out to the perimeter. Darius Days, a four-star forward coming into LSU this summer, hit 38 percent of his 3s on the EYBL circuit. He’s more of a 4 than a 3 right now, but his long-term future could absolutely be as a 3 man.
Losing Sampson wasn’t ideal for LSU. They don’t have another 6-foot-5 wing with a 40-plus inch vertical and a nice stroke from deep waiting in the wings. But they do have alternative options that Wade can work into a new system.
They also have time to hit the recruiting trail and three scholarships burning a hole in their pockets. The solution at the 3 spot may be, like Waters this time a year ago, soon to emerge on the radar.
Reading the tea leaves, LSU was planning to sign a JUCO big and a D1 transfer guard/wing with its two scholarships before Sampson left. If those two truths hold, LSU could now use this third spot for an eligible transfer at the wing, either from the JUCO or graduate transfer ranks.
My gut tells me a grad transfer is unlikely. LSU tried with two this year, and neither Jeremy Combs nor Randy Onwuasor panned out fully, though Onwuasor played vital minutes and had some nice games.
JUCO recruiting is difficult to wade through, but there are some guys who fit the bill out there. Panola’s Marlon Taylor is a 6-foot-6 explosive wing with a 40-plus inch vertical who shot 44 percent from 3 last season and can play the 3 or the 4.
LSU could also try to grab a late unsigned 2018 prospect. 247Sports.com ($) has a good rundown of some options. It worked with Waters. It could work again.