LSU men’s 2020-21 basketball preview: The backcourt

No player on LSU’s team last season perhaps improved more than then-sophomore JAVONTE SMART.

Because if he hadn’t, the Tigers wouldn’t have come close to winning 21 games and basically having an at-large NCAA tournament bid in their pocket before the coronavirus pandemic cancelled the rest of the season in mid-March.

Smart had to transition from being a reserve shooting guard as a freshman two years ago into the starting point guard spot last year replacing All-SEC first team selection TREMONT WATERS.

Waters, who was drafted by the Boston Celtics and named the G-League 2019-20 Player of the Year, has played point guard all his life because of his diminutive stature at 5-10. He knows when he should be a playmaker and when to take his shot.

“(Playing) point guard a delicate balance,” said LSU coach WILL WADE, whose team opens the 2020-21 season starting Thursday in St. Louis with two games in three days before returning for Monday’s home opener vs. Southeastern Louisiana. “There’s give and take.”

At the start of last season, the 6-4 Smart was giving. Five games into the schedule with a 3-2 record, he had 25 assists and 26 turnovers and had made just 16 of 50 shots including 6 of 23 threes.

As LSU entered SEC play, Wade declared Smart had “a better feel for it now than he did two weeks ago, than he did two months ago and in another two weeks he’ll have a better feel than he does now.”

Wade was on the money. In conference games only, Smart led the league with 65 assists to 31 turnovers ratio including no turnovers in three of the last four SEC games. He finished the season averaging 12.2 points, 4.2 assists and 3.5 rebounds, scoring in double figures 22 times.

“The two years I’ve been here I think I’ve learned a lot,” Smart said. “Growing up, I’d always been a scorer, but I’ve been trying to get to a place where I’m a scorer and a facilitator getting my teammates the ball. I’ve made a big jump with that.”

The loss of All-SEC shooting guard Skylar Mays after a solid four-year career leaves juniors Smart and forward DARIUS DAYS and redshirt sophomore guard AUNDRE HYATT as the lone holdovers from LSU’s 2018-19 SEC championship team that advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing to Michigan State.

Senior CHARLES MANNING JR. and Hyatt are the other two returning guards. That duo started a combined five games, but it was Manning who averaged 7.9 points and 3.2 rebounds in 22.6 minutes in between identical fifth metatarsal fractures in both feet that kept him out of 12 games (11 in the SEC).

“When I got hurt the second time, it sparked something in my head to relax,” Manning told Tiger Rag assistant editor William Weathers in late April. “Just take the time off and get myself together. Get the stuff fixed off the court and then bring it back on the court.”

Hyatt came to LSU in 2018-19 as damaged goods, recovering from medial collateral left knee surgery and redshirting. Last season, he wore a knee brace, played just 10.9 minutes per game and struggled with his shooting (29.4 percent from the field including 24 percent from 3-point range).

Now, Hyatt has ditched the knee brace and looks more like the player who won 2018 Virginia high school player of the year.

“Aundre Hyatt is one of the guys who has made the biggest jumps,” Wade said. “He’s playing phenomenal, he’s in the best shape, he’s able to move.”

Wade signed three guards in his recruiting class and two of them figure to play early and often. He needed someone to fill Mays’ shooting guard slot as the Tigers’ primary scorer, a role he slowly developed.

Freshman signee CAM THOMAS knows exactly who he is – a 6-4, 210-pound volume scorer who can get points in a variety of ways.

Last year as a senior at prestigious Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, he averaged 31.5 points, six rebounds and 3.4 assists. He raised his scoring average from his junior season team-best 26.2 points.

“Everything just comes in the flow of the offense, I don’t go out hunting shots,” Thomas said. “Of course, if I’m feeling it I’m going to put ’em up, because any scorer does that. When they’re hot, they’re hot.”

Wade likes that Thomas accumulates points.

“The shooting will gather a lot of attention because he’s going to hit some crazy shots,” Wade said of Thomas. “It’s to the point as a coach and even with players on his team in practice that when Cam misses we’re almost disappointed because as soon as it leaves his hand you’re already think it’s in.

“But he’s also a 90 plus percent free throw shooter, he’s able to get in the paint, he’s able to drive. He able to score in a lot of ways.”

JALEN COOK, a 6-foot freshman signee, was a high-volume scorer at Louisiana Class 5A power Walker High. He finished with more than 3,200 career points, averaging 29.8 points as a senior and 29.5 points as a junior.

His defense has shined brightly in preseason practice.

“Jalen Cook may be the best on-ball defender I’ve seen since we had Briante’ Weber at VCU who’s the second all-time NCAA steals leader,” Wade said. “Cook is as good as I’ve seen at hounding the ball.”

Cook said he knew the Tigers already had a waiting list of scorers, so he realized being a lockdown defender is his ticket to playing time.

“I figure a lot of them (LSU scorers) don’t like to play `D’ that much,” Cook said. “I thought me being aggressive on the defensive end, picking up 94 feet, being a leader on the ball, would change the game in different ways.”

Freshman ERIC GAINES, a 6-2, 155-pound four-star signee from Lithonia (Ga.) High, proved himself in preseason practice despite his rail-thin physique.

“Everybody talks about his weight, but if you watch him play his weight doesn’t affect him one bit,” Wade said.  “Now, do we want him to put on some weight? Yeah. Is he going to need to put on some weight? Yeah.

“But he’s electric with the ball in his hands. He’s somebody who has really grown since he’s been here. He’s got a sense of how hard you’ve got to work, and the light is starting to come on. His natural talent is as good as just anybody we have on our team.”

Smart has been impressed with all three freshmen backcourt signees.

“Cam can score the ball at all three levels, he makes every shot even with a hand in his face and you can go to him whenever we need a basket,” Smart said. “Cook is a playmaker who can also make shots. Eric came in small, he weighs about a buck 45. But he’s improved and really showed me a lot.”

GEAUX FIGURE

5 Career starts for all returning backcourt players besides JAVONTE SMART

39 Days last season between CHARLES MANNING first breaking the 5th metatarsal bone in his right foot vs. Texas A&M and then breaking the 5th metatarsal in his left foot vs. South Carolina

41 Career double figures scoring performances in 65 career games for JAVONTE SMART

NEXT MAN UP

Freshman CAM THOMAS is a scoring machine who averaged 28.8 in the past two seasons at Oak Hill Academy to become the school’s all-time leading scorer.

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