RETURN TO SENDER: LSU senior Darius Days ready to run it back for a fourth season

PHOTO BY Brandon Gallego

LSU forward Darius Days was intrigued by the question as soon as it was asked.

What advice would Darius Days, now a senior, give Darius Days the freshman if he could go back in time four seasons?

“There’s a lot now I’d tell my younger self,” said the 22-year-old Days, who again tested the NBA draft waters this past summer before deciding to return for one last season with the Tigers. “Sitting on the bench most of the time as a freshman was like a news flash to me. I wasn’t used to that. I really didn’t understand what was going on until my sophomore year.

“I guess my advice to the freshman me is don’t get too down. Just wait your turn and if you keep working everything will come back around.”

But would the freshman Darius take to heart the advice from the senior Darius?

“He probably wouldn’t listen to me,” Days said with a knowing laugh. “But everybody learns in their own way.”

Ever since fifth-year LSU coach Will Wade in his second signing class plucked the now 6-7, 245-pound Days out of the University of Florida’s backyard from Raleigh, Fla., his game has grown each season to the point where he’s the Tigers’ most valuable commodity.

Days’ 94-game LSU career averages of 9.1 points and 6.1 rebounds aren’t overwhelming. But since becoming a starter, his points and rebounds averages have increased each season.

A year ago when he averaged 11.6 points and 7.8 rebounds for a 19-10 team that finished third in the SEC and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, LSU won every game but one that Days scored in double figures.

“He does so many little things that contribute to winning that you don’t see,” Wade said of Days, “like keeping balls alive, being in the right place and covering up for other guys. He does unnoticed things that keep you in games that casual fans don’t realize.”

It seems a long time ago since Days’ freshman season when he came off the bench for the Tigers’ SEC championship team playing behind one-and-done fellow freshman Naz Reid. He was mostly an outside shooter who entered games to provide instant offense, as he did in LSU’s 2019 NCAA tourney second round win over Maryland when he scored 10 points and collected 5 rebounds.

As a sophomore, Days became a starter on a 22-10 squad that finished tied for second in the SEC before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season.

He started 30 of 31 games and averaged 11.1 points and 6.8 rebounds. But in hls eagerness to impress, he fouled out six times (two more the rest of LSU team combined) and his 3-point shooting accuracy dipped to 29.5 percent.

“I was so excited when I became a starter as a sophomore that I tried to do everything and anything,” Days said. “I was hand checking a lot on defense, going over backs a lot to grab rebounds. I didn’t understand what refs were looking for.

“It was a huge learning curve. Coach (Wade) sat me down and talked to me about different things I needed to work on going into my junior year.”

So, in the summer of 2020, after Days declared for the NBA draft and had teams evaluate him before he decided to return to LSU, he was advised to improve his outside shooting percentage as well as his shot selection.

He did. His 3-point percentage jumped almost 10 points to 39.4 last season. His scoring average improved slightly to 11.6.

But again, Days was not the first or second or even third scoring option.

When he was a freshman, Tremont Waters, Naz Reid and Skylar Mays carried the scoring load, then it was Mays, Trendon Watford and Emmitt Williams during Days’ sophomore year.

Then last season, one-and-done guard Cam Thomas, Watford and Javonte Smart got most of the shots.

Those three players and Days, all underclassmen, entered the NBA draft process.

Thomas, a freshman who led the SEC in scoring, was chosen in the first round by the Brooklyn Nets. Sophomore Watford and junior Smart were undrafted, though Watford signed a two-way contract with Portland Trail Blazers in which he will split time playing for Portland and its developmental G-League affiliate.

And Days?

“After I finished school (last May), I started working out in Orlando, shaping my body and my game,” Days said. “Then, the NBA G-League combine took place and I did pretty well. I worked out for Chicago and Minnesota, but I talked to a lot of teams like Miami, Sacramento, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and many others.

“They all basically told me the same things – put the ball on the floor more, be a better leader, take care of your body.

“Sometimes, even though I played a lot of minutes, I kinda still looked out of shape in some parts of the season last year. I feel like I need to be slimmer and play at a high level for a longer period of time.”

Before deciding to return to school, Days had a conversation with Reid, LSU’s star freshman forward on the Tigers’ 2019 SEC champions/NCAA Sweet 16 team. Reid declared for the NBA draft after his only college season and wasn’t drafted. But he signed as a free agent with Minnesota and has just started his third season with Timberwolves.

“Naz is like a big brother to me,” Days said. “He was like, `My journey took me one season, but your journey might take you four. Just stay the course and keep working.’

“It was probably in my best interest to come back so I can show people I can do more than shoot the ball and rebound.”

Days returned to an LSU team he didn’t recognize. He’s the only remaining player from the 2019 SEC title winners that lost to Michigan State in the regional semis. Even since last season, there are 11 new players on the Tigers’ roster, including three major college transfers with immediate eligibility.

Since Days has been at LSU, he’s had 38 different teammates, five different assistant coaches and one head coach.

And that head coach is ecstatic Days is back to become the Tigers’ undisputed team leader.

“The first step of leadership is handling your own business,” Wade said. “Darius has been a tremendous student, he shows up to everything on time, he’s early. He sets the standard for what we want to do and what we want to be about and the other guys understand that. He’s also able to interpret to the rest of the team what I say on some things.

“He’s going to have a career year, his best year. He’s done everything we’ve asked since he’s been here and we want to pay it off here in his senior year and make sure he has his best year as he moves forward.”

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Ron Higgins

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