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

LSU sophomore forward Trendon Watford could be a 2021 NBA first-round draft pick if he improves his outside shooting. PHOTO by Jonathan Mailhes

LSU had one player last season taller than 6-6. It had one or two dependable bench players. It had the worst three-point field goal defense in the SEC.

Yet it somehow won 21 games before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the 2019-20 season down after the first night of the SEC tournament.

How did the Tigers do that?

Because LSU was second in the league in rebounding, offensive rebounding and first in field goal percentage based on one reason.

The Tigers’ best offense was throwing up a shot off the rim or backboard and letting forwards EMMITT WILLIAMS, DARIUS DAYS and TRENDON WATFORD collect offensive rebounds for more offensive possessions.

Therefore, it wasn’t how well or poor LSU shot, but rather how many extra possessions the Tigers had. The 6-6 Williams, the 6-7 Days and 6-9 Watford liked to say they had a “dog” mentality of fighting for every rebound.

Williams left after the season to enter the NBA draft as underclassmen as did Days and Watford, but the latter pair of Tigers withdrew and have returned for their junior and sophomore seasons respectively.

They are bigger, wiser and just as feisty “dogs,” but this season they are accompanied by some oversized pups ready to throw their weight around.

The Tigers added three major college transfers and a freshman signee measuring 7-feet, 6-10, 6-7 and 6-11.

“Two years ago (when LSU won the SEC championship and advanced to the Sweet 16), I feel like that was a special team,” said Days, who’ll be the starting lineup this week when the Tigers open the season with two games in three days at St. Louis. “We had all the right pieces.

“That was a special year and team. I feel like we can be better than them if we put our minds to it and take care of business.”

The experience of Days and Watford is something LSU didn’t have in the frontcourt two seasons ago.

Days (11.1 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game last season) made it a point in the off-season to hire a personal trainer. The results of his trimmed physique has been noticeable in preseason practice.

“Darius is slimmed down, making shots and playing more defense,” LSU junior point guard Javonte Smart said.

Watford, despite some defensive deficiencies which is expected of a freshman, earned All-SEC freshman team honors last season when he averaged 13.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 31.5 minutes a game.

“We’ve got to put him in better positions to be a playmaker,” Wade said. “He’s been making plays in practice. He went to work on his shooting and he’s shooting it a lot better. He’s worked on his body, he just looks stronger and bigger (6-9, 245). He looks like a grown man.”

The new face as a frontline starter is 7-foot sophomore center BRYAN-PENN JOHNSON, a transfer from the University of Washington. He played in seven games last season, averaging 1.6 points and 0.7 rebounds, but number you need to know about Johnson is he has a 7-foot 7 wingspan.

“We just need him to be a goalie for us at the basket, anchor the defense back there and make sure we’re not giving up easy stuff at the rim,” Wade said.

Another big body who is 6-10 forward SHAREEF O’NEAL, a sophomore transfer from UCLA, who’s the son of former LSU star and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal.

“He’s skilled, he can get on the offensive glass,” said Wade of O’Neal, who played in 13 games last season as a redshirt freshman with the Bruins and averaged 2.2 points and 2.9 rebounds

It was thought 6-11 freshman JOSH GRAY might be a bit of a project because he averaged just 9.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots for Putnam (Conn.) Science Academy last season.

“He has been a surprise,” Wade said of Gray. “He plays so hard, he’s very physical and he gets his hands on just about every ball around the basket.”

A frontcourt freshman who has impressed in preseason is 6-5 small forward MWANI WILKERSON of Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gordon High.

“Mwani is a very good defender, strong player, he plays above the rim,” Wade said. “He has a real good understanding of how to play, how to move, where to be. He’s not going to make a lot of mistakes. He’s come from a good high school program and a very good AAU program. He has been coached, taught and trained extremely well.”

Wade also has to find a place for 6-7 junior Georgetown transfer JOSH LEBLANC SR., a former Baton Rouge high school standout at Madison Prep. He played 39 games with the Hoyas in a season and a half with 22 starts, averaging 8.8 points and 6.6 rebounds a game.

“He plays hard, has a knack for the ball,” Wade said.

GEAUX FIGURE

3 Jersey number changes in three years for Darius Days. He was No. 22 as a freshman, No. 0 as a sophomore and will now wear the graduated Skylar Mays No. 4 this season as a junior.

8 Father-son combos who’ve played for LSU, the latest being Shareef O’ Neal joining his father Shaquille O’Neal

999 Wins for LSU’s basketball program lifetime since it began in 1908-09

NEXT MAN UP

University of Washington transfer Bryan Penn Johnson, a 7-foot sophomore center, is the ultimate defensive roadblock with 7 foot-7 wingspan.

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