By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
The cliche in football is if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one.
For Will Wade’s system, the four-man is, like the quarterback in football, a critical position to the functionality of the offense. And Wade doesn’t have just one or two to choose from: he has four or five.
Whether that’s good – ample depth usually is – or not – lacking a standout starter usually isn’t – remains to be seen, but the preseason battle to play in a premium position remains wide open heading into the campaign.
“The four position is critical,” Wade says. “Next to the point guard, it is probably the most critical position we have. We have to require that guy to make a lot of decisions.”
The first man to get a crack could be senior Aaron Epps. The Ball, La. native bounced between the 3 and 4 spots under Johnny Jones, but Wade plans to keep him at the 4. His shooting (49 percent from the field, 44 percent from 3 in 2017-18) and his offensive rebounding (11.6 offensive rebounding percentage, 7th in the SEC) are strengths the staff hopes to highlight.
“Epps is definitely the best shooter of the group,” Wade says. “You get disappointed when he misses because when it leaves his hands you think it is going in. He shoots the ball really well and is a very good offensive rebounder…He is a 6-10 kid who can shoot 40 plus percent from three this year. That is a pretty good weapon to have.”
Despite being one of LSU’s most dangerous threats from beyond the arc last season, Epps was never a focal point of the attack. Wade has already installed a number of sets to get his sharpshooting senior open looks this year.
“Coach wants me to shoot a lot more this year,” Epps says. “There were no plays for me last year. I would just get shots in the flow of the game. This year, coach wants me to make open shots and crash the glass. I have to find ways to make my teammates better. Coach likes to get out there and run more on offense.”
Another returning option at the spot is sophomore Wayde Sims, like Epps, a sweet-shooting, undersized player at the spot. At 6-foot-6, Sims is four inches shorter than Epps, but also shoots over 40 percent from beyond the arc and has a knack for grabbing rebounds over bigger opponents.
“Sims really knows how to play,” Wade says. “He is a good shooter, but he knows how to play, he knows how to move, he knows how to make things happen when he is out there. It is kind of an overused term, but the ball always finds him. He has a way of being around the ball.”
Graduate transfer Jeremy Combs underwent ankle surgery in August after arriving in Baton Rouge from North Texas, where he played three seasons under current LSU assistant Tony Benford. That bad ankle limited Combs to just 13 games a year ago, but he still averaged 10 points and 6 rebounds per game in those contests. On a good ankle the year prior, Combs averaged a double-double per game (14 points, 10 rebounds) and brings a grittiness to the post LSU will need to make use of.
“I’m just going to be a good leader and play whatever role coach gives me,” Combs says. “I’m a 4 man. I’m pretty versatile. I play inside, and I can play outside a little bit. I’m active. I run hard. I rebound.”
Other options could be freshmen Galen Alexander, a combo forward who can play inside or out, and Brandon Rachal, a 6-foot-5 guard who can slide down when LSU goes small.
“The way I look at it, it’s more minutes, and more opportunities to be on the floor,” Rachal says. “With our offense, it’s really a 4-out, 1-in offense. Sometimes we’ll go small and go 5-out. The 2, 3 and 4 are really interchangeable. The 4 doesn’t really post up.”
“It’s a lot of ball screens, popping, shooting a lot of 3-balls,” adds Alexander. “That’s what our four does. A lot of times it’s the five-man screening and rolling to the basket, and the four-man replaces and pops.”
Injuries have limited how much work each player could get in the preseason. Combs had not been cleared for full-contact work as of late October, Epps nursed an ankle injury around the same time, and Alexander was still working back to full health from a knee injury suffered during his senior season. Wade hasn’t settled on one player to put next to five-man Duop Reath, which means all will be candidates to get work during the season.
“The four is a critical spot,” Wade says. “It is really a wing that when we play a four-guard type that we play. We need someone who is versatile. If they have a bigger guy on him, then we will play him on the perimeter. He plays on the perimeter about 80 percent of the time and he can drive inside … It has to be someone who is versatile and can be a really good offensive rebounder. We are still working each of them have their strengths, each of them have their weaknesses. We are still working.”