By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Johnny Jones’ successes on the recruiting trails are indisputable. Some of that is evidenced by his ability to land five-stars: Ben Simmons, Jarell Martin, and Antonio Blakeney were all big gets who put LSU’s program in the national spotlight.
What gets less attention, and deserves more, is his ability to identify and/or develop the rest of his recruits. Jordan Mickey was a four-star, national top 40 player who Jones helped become a top 40 draft pick, the highest-paid second round rookie selection of all-time. Tim Quarterman, too, came in as a raw mold of clay and left a pro, no matter his collegiate inconsistencies. Keith Hornsby was a mid-major transfer who landed on an NBA roster after leaving LSU.
Sure, there have been misses. All programs have them. Criticize where you will — talent evaluation and development hasn’t been the problem for LSU.
Of late, though, there seems to be concern on the recruiting front from observers of the program. Last year’s class came in ranked No. 50 by 247Sports. I’m not a national recruiting expert, but having seen LSU’s crop of newcomers play, I think that’s more of an indictment on the evaluators than the players themselves.
Skylar Mays and Wayde Sims were, in my opinion, criminally underrated prospects. Mays cracked the top 100 of just a single service (Rivals.com), and Sims came in at No. 222 in the 247Composite rankings. Mays may not have the ceiling of some players ranked ahead of him, but his handles, IQ, and vision make him as college-ready as any 2016 point guard. He’s averaging 6.0 assists through LSU’s first two games. If he stays healthy and continues to develop, and if you’ll allow me to get way ahead of myself, don’t be shocked if he threatens Kenny Higgins’ career assist record. I think he’s that good, and I don’t think I’m alone in that regard.
Sims, meanwhile, was docked by scouts for being 6-foot-6 and not 6-foot-8, but like Mickey before him, he plays bigger than his size. He’s also one of those rare guys who was born to get buckets. Everything he puts up, from in the paint or beyond the arc, with his left hand or right, finds its way in. His three-point range has been a pleasant addition to his game, and his 3/4 tweener status would have been a disadvantage 10 years ago. Today, it’s called versatility, and it’s in demand at all levels of the game.
Kieran Hayward, in Jones’ opinion, would have been a top 100 player, had he been groomed stateside rather than in Australia. In my opinion, he’s a Brandon Sampson clone — long, athletic, and possession a smooth shot, lacking only in SEC experience. He didn’t help with the rankings because he didn’t have much of a ranking, but I think he can more than justify his evaluations.
And you’ve seen enough of Duop Reath already to know there aren’t many newcomers in the league up to his standard. He’s a legit All-SEC caliber big. You haven’t seen Branden Jenkins yet, but when you do, I expect you’ll come to a similar conclusion — he’s going to help this team, particularly defensively. Both were three-star signees, as good an indicator as any that the industry is lagging in JUCO evaluations.
Judging the 2016 class is for another day, though, after there’s been enough of a sample size to make definitive statements. Either way, if there were 49 better classes collected a year ago, I’d be stunned.
This is a group that is better than its ranking.
That’s because recruiting sites favor, with good reason, potential over production. They project ceilings, and pay less attention to floors. That translates into most accurate projections of NBA stardom, but is less accurate when looking for the kinds of players who win championships in college.
Don’t believe me? Check out the 2012 class rankings. UCLA ranked second that year; UNLV ranked sixth. Neither team made the NCAA Tournament last season. Meanwhile, national champions Villanova ranked 30th when they signed the senior class that would lead them to the title. Their next two classes ranked 32nd and 46th.
Far less than football, basketball recruiting is less about accumulating heaps of raw talent, and more about finding the right blend of high end stars and three-to-four year producers.
Jones has hit on the former so far at LSU. The latter is now his program’s focus, and its hope for the future.
That carries over to the 2017 class. LSU currently sits at No. 49 in the country with signees Galen Alexander and Brandon Rachal. Both are top-100 level players. Both are top three players in the state of Louisiana. Both had their pick of elite schools. Both chose LSU.
And, more importantly, both are the rare combination of 1) SEC ready and 2) three-to-four year talents. That’s the foundation of a competitive program, the requisite backbone.
The only thing missing now is the big name — literally and figuratively.
LSU missed on five-star Chalmette center Mitchell Robinson. Like Simmons, he is following his godfather, Western Kentucky assistant Shammond Williams, to a non-traditional program. Rick Stansbury, who recruited Robinson to a commitment as an assistant at Texas A&M, brought Williams and Robinson with him to be Hilltoppers. He signed with fellow four-star Louisianan Josh Anderson this week.
LSU would love to have landed Robinson, believe me. Now they will move on, and look to find a big to complete the class.
They’ve missed on a few others: Galin Smith (Alabama), Garrison Brooks (Mississppi State), Mayan Kiir (VCU), and Eden Ewing (Purdue).
Where they go next, I’m not sure. In addition to Jones, Robert Kirby is a proven recruiter, and Randy Livingston is a highly-regarded up-and-comer, though, so I expect LSU can find somebody, either on the JUCO level, a transfer, or a diamond-in-the-rough freshman, who they can add to the haul. I haven’t heard his name yet, but I’d be shocked if we don’t hear it soon.
Regardless, while adding a big to this group is a goal, it’s not mandatory. After all, all five bigs expected to be in LSU’s frontcourt rotation this season — Reath, Craig Victor, Sims, Aaron Epps, and Elbert Robinson — will be back next year. A young big waiting in the wings would be beneficial, but LSU can load up on size in 2018 and be just fine.
And that 2018 group looks promising. LSU’s already hosted Mississippi big man Javian Fleming. Emmitt Williams, a four-star from Florida, is also interested and knows Blakeney well from their AAU days.
Meanwhile, LSU only has a guaranteed two-man opening for next year’s class, with seniors Brian Bridgewater and Brandon Eddleston as the only two players certain to vacate scholarships. I’m sure Jones would make room for the right big, but there’s no reason he can’t wait another year — especially if Sims, Reath, and the rest of LSU’s frontcourt continues to exceed expectations.
Fans grew frustrated with the one (or two)-and-done classes LSU brought in recently. Now, they’re bringing in program-builders, guys who can play now and play later. They’re good enough to produce immediately and still fly under the NBA’s radar. Adding some lottery level talent to that foundation is the next step, but it’s a luxury, not a necessity. The foundation is what matters. Gone, quite soon, are the days of LSU ranking in the 200s and 300s nationally in experience. They’re on their way to veteran rosters, without sacrificing ability in the process.
Like the players Jones bringing in, this formula of building a program around program players isn’t flashy. But it can be sustainable and, most critically to Jones’ hopes, successful.