Two years ago, Darius Days was a 6-6, 225-pound LSU freshman forward wearing jersey No. 22 whose job was to come off the bench and provide 3-point shooting for the Tigers’ NCAA Sweet 16 team.
Last season, Days was a 6-6, 245-pound sophomore donning jersey No. 0 whose role as a starter was to grab rebounds and score in the low post.
Now, as a 6-7, 238-pound junior suited up in jersey No. 4, Days is ready to combine accurate 3-point shooting, relentless rebounding, crafty low post offense and hopefully vastly improved defense on a 2020-21 LSU team brimming with talent at every position.
But Darius, what’s with the new jersey number each year? Switching from 22 to 0 to 4, which sounds like a rejected song title of Chicago’s hit “25 or 6 to 4.”
“I wore 4 in high school, but I couldn’t get it my first two years because (now graduated LSU guard) Skylar (Mays) had it,” said Days, one of three returning starters who will be in the lineup Thursday and Saturday in St. Louis when the Tigers open the 2020-21 season against SIU-Edwardsville and St. Louis University respectively. “So, I took 22 as a freshman (because 2 + 2 =4) and then 0 as a sophomore which had been Naz Reid’s number. We were best friends, and we’d talked about me getting his number when he left (after playing one season).
“Since Skylar left, I now felt it was the right time to go back to my old number.”
Does the new old number mean a different Days?
“Me, I’m a dog,” said Days, who started 30 of 31 games last season and averaged 11.1 points and 6.8 rebounds. “I’m going to get the loose balls as usual, dive in the crowd, try to get extra possessions, not too much is changing on my end. I’m still going to be the same person and same player.”
Well, there are some minor tweaks. Some were suggested by the NBA when he went through the draft process last spring. Others he already knew after experiencing them last season, such as his penchant for staying in foul trouble.
On a 21-10 team that had one or two viable reserves, Days fouled out of six games and finished with four fouls five times.
Days averaged just 23.5 minutes per game. The Tigers were 12-6 when Days managed to play 24 or more minutes.
“Darius is in the best shape of his life, in as good of shape as he’s been since he’s been here,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “His major issues have been fouling and foul trouble. Him being in great shape will certainly help with that.”
Days concurred with Wade’s assessment but added being a step slow because of additional weight wasn’t the only reason he stayed in foul jail too many times.
“Last year, the problem I had was I wasn’t really mature,” Days said. “I felt personally I had to try to get every loose ball and every rebound.
“A lot of the fouls came from not rotating quick enough. This year, I need to be more poised. I need to be in the game at the end instead of having 3 or 4 fouls and sitting out for most of the game.”
Days was a bit of a late bloomer out of high school. He’s from Raleigh, Fla., a town of just under 400 occupants about a 25-minute drive southwest of Gainesville.
First, he quit playing football because he simply loves basketball more. He made that decision after his freshman year at Elliston (Fla.) High and the football coaches weren’t happy.
“I only played football because I was big, but my heart wasn’t in it,” Days said. “I had a couple of hard conversations with two of the (football) coaches at my high school because one coach got fired and a new one came in. They both told me,`You’re not going to get recruited to play basketball here, this is more of a football school than anything.’ ”
Also, because Days had traveled so much in AAU ball, he knew there was a big world beyond the city limits of tiny Raleigh.
He started playing on AAU teams when he was in the seventh grade and the exposure he received while playing all over the nation made him realize two things.
“Where I’m from, not too many people go to college or even go D1 (NCAA Division 1),” Days said. “I felt like I had to be first. I just thought more outside the box than other people from where I’m from.
“I was already in middle school and had traveled to multiple states. Many of the people in my town probably haven’t left the state of Florida. Most people in my town wouldn’t understand where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I still love my town, but I just wanted to be different.”
Greg and Tracy Days backed their son’s opportunity to transfer to IMG Academy in Bradenton, a training ground for Division 1 football and basketball prospects.
“I had a conversation with my parents and they were behind me 110 percent,” Days said. “They were saying, `Why be the best in just this area? Why be the best in the state or in the region? Just try to be the best in the nation or the world.’ I felt like it was best for me to go to IMG and do more and see more.”
Maybe it’s why when it came time to sign a college scholarship, Days wasn’t particularly upset that the nearby University of Florida program showed no interest.
“I had a good relationship with the coaching staff,” Days said. “When I was in high school, I’d go over there and shoot, play with some of their guys.
“They just didn’t come out and say, `I don’t want to recruit you.” They probably felt I wasn’t the best fit for their program. I don’t have any bad blood or problem with that. There’s respect there.
“But every time we play against them, it’s high energy from my end.”
Days’ list of finalists included LSU, North Carolina and Ohio State and Xavier.
North Carolina made a late run at Days after he averaged 18.6 points, 9 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game in the Under Armour Association in summer league play prior to his senior season. But by that time, LSU was well-entrenched with Days.
Wade had already started recruiting Days when he was previously coaching VCU before taking over the Tigers’ program in 2017-18 Also, former LSU assistant Greg Heiar, who recruited the state of Florida, developed such a relationship that Days said he chose to sign with LSU because “it felt like home.”
Days started three games and played in 35 as a freshman on LSU’s 2018-19 SEC regular season championship team that lost to Michigan State in an NCAA regional semifinal. His job was simple – injecting scoring energy hitting 3-pointers and grabbing a few rebounds.
He scored in double figures five times, including 10 key points (including 2 of 3 3’s) and 5 rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench in LSU’s 69-67 NCAA tournament second round win over Maryland.
Last season after the previous team’s frontline starters Reid and Kavell Bigsby-Williams moved on to the pros, Days became a starter who showed he had the tools to be an effective low-post force when he wasn’t getting in foul trouble.
“It wasn’t a big transition,” Days said. “I’ve been playing the `5’ (center) and the `4’ my entire life, even in high school. So, it wasn’t really an adjustment having to guard bigger, stronger guys.”
Unlike last season when Days was on a team that lacked height and depth, he is suddenly surrounded this year by four players 6-9 or taller. He has rebounding help and more large bodies with a defensive presence and understands what he needs to do to get to the next level after going through the NBA draft process before wisely returning to school.
“I learned a lot (from the feedback from NBA teams),” Days said. “Some teams told me to get in elite shape, some teams told me to get my shooting percentage up. I’ve worked hard on it in practice, taking the right shots and not taking ill-advised shots.
“I’ve always been in the gym but now I’m like a gym rat getting my shots up. Staying consistent with the same (shooting) form, the same release every time.”
Wade likes what he sees in Days 3.0.
“Darius is more consistent with his jump shot and his rebounding,” Wade said, “We’ve been messing around playing small ball with him at the 5 and we’ve got lineups with him at the 4.”
Days’ junior season mantra is about perfecting strengths.
“I feel like I’ve got to keep doing what I’ve been doing, but at a higher level,” he said. “Rebound, shoot and make hustle plays at an elite level.
“I’ve worked my tail off. It’s why I’m where I am today.”