The gang’s all here! Three LSU basketball starters withdraw names from NBA underclassmen draft list

Darius Days is one of three LSU underclassmen who have withdrawn their names as NBA Draft candidates and will return to the Tigers for 2020-21 season. Photo by JONATHAN MAILHES

LSU sophomore forward Trendon Watford had the following message for Tigers basketball fans.

“We have some unfinished business in Baton Rouge. Let’s get to work.”

That’s how Watford concluded his Twitter post where he announced Monday his return to LSU for the 2020-21 season, joining teammates Javonte Smart and Darius Days who all met the deadline for removing their names from the NBA Draft.

“This has been something that’s been quite a bit different than what we’ve been through when the process has happened the last couple of seasons,” LSU basketball coach Will Wade said during an interview on WNXX-104.5-FM. “Not only how long it was, but how different it was with the interviews and the way the NBA teams were going about things.”

Wade acknowledged that if not for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic which prevented players from face-to-face meetings with teams and taking part workouts in their facilities, the Tigers wouldn’t have fared as well.

“If this was a normal year, I don’t think we have three guys back,” he said. “If some of these guys were getting in front of these teams in workouts and the interview process was different and not through Zoom. I don’t think we’d be sitting here with the same roster we have today.”

LSU was 21-10 overall and tied for second place in the Southeastern Conference at 12-6, a combination that would have witnessed Wade taking the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season.

Watford and Days, a pair of forwards, and Smart, a point guard, represent the team’s top three returning scorers, along with the return of the team’s top reserve and the nation’s sixth-rated recruiting class, which all contribute to heighten expectations this season.

“We have a really good team, we’re excited,” Wade said. “We’ve got to come together. We’ve got great individual talent. We’ve got to bring the team together, develop some chemistry, develop some leadership and keep things moving.

“I think we definitely have a very good team. We’re going to have a cohesive team; we’re going to have a cohesive coaching staff. I feel excited about this season. I think from top to bottom this is probably the best roster we’ve had since we’ve been here. Now the pressure’s on me to make sure that we use the roster properly and position our guys properly have to success in college.”

The 6-foot-9 Watford, who started in 30 of 31 games, earned a spot on last year’s All-SEC Freshman team, averaging 13.6 points and 7.2 rebounds. The Birmingham, Ala. native was second to senior guard Skylar Mays in scoring and led the Tigers in rebounding.

Watford also shot 48.9 percent from the field and registered seven double-doubles, scoring in double figures 25 times with a high of 26 against Vanderbilt.

Smart, who started in 30 of 31 games, scored 12.5 points in 34.2 minutes per game. He had a team-high 129 assists and shot 32.6 percent from 3-point range. The former Mr. Basketball award winner from Baton Rouge’s Scotlandville Magnet High scored in double figures 23 times, including four games of 20-plus points topped by three times of 21 points.

Days, a rugged 6-6, 240-pound native of Raleigh, Fla., was the third member of trio to start in 30 of 31 games last season.

He’s also a double-figure scorer at 11.1 points and pulled down 6.8 rebounds, having recorded eight double-doubles last season with season-highs of 20 points on two occasions and a high of 16 rebounds against Arkansas on Jan. 8.

“It was really an interactive process where everybody was talking,” Wade said “And there was open lines of communication to make sure we were getting the best information from the teams and we were passing it along to the players.”

The three returning starters will add experience, coupled with team’s lone senior in guard/forward Charles Manning Jr., to a roster that’s undergoing an overhaul with the arrival of seven new players.

LSU’s sixth-rated recruiting class includes three Division I transfers – Bryan Penn-Johnson of Washington (7-foot center), Shareef O’Neal of UCLA (6-9 forward) and Josh LeBlanc of Georgetown (6-7 forward) – who are all awaiting waivers from the NCAA in order to be eligible to play this season.

“We’re very confident on those two,” Wade said of Penn-Johnson and O’Neal. “We’ll have to see what happens with Josh.”

Guard Cam Thomas of prep powerhouse Oak Hill (Va.) Academy is part of LSU’s decorated class that also features a pair of point guard candidates in Louisiana’s Mr. Basketball (1999-2000) in Walker’s Jalen Cook and Eric Gaines of Lithonia, Ga.

One area that Wade and his staff have significantly improved this season is the front line. There’s the return of Watford, a pair of 7-foot centers in Penn-Johnson and incoming freshman Josh Gray of Brooklyn, N.Y. who are both signed and working out in Baton Rouge.

Days spearheads the Tigers’ depth that also includes incoming freshman Mwani Wilkinson of Las Vegas and potentially O’Neal and LeBlanc.

One member of LSU’s 2020 signing class, 6-7 forward Bradley Ezewiro of Oak Hill Academy, has reclassified to the Class of 2021 but remains committed to the Tigers and is expected to return for next year.

Wade, who staggered the return of his team for voluntary workouts over the course of last month, said he’s expects his team is still several weeks away from being able to practice and play five-on-five.

LSU is still scheduled to open its season Nov. 10 at home against UL-Monroe, but Wade indicated that after a conference call last week with SEC coaches that could change depending on the effects of COVID-19.

He’s not certain what the season will look like, but in a worst-case scenario could take shape once students have departed campus for the Thanksgiving holidays.

“We’ll be able to create a bubble and start,” he said. “We have to see what happens with the virus and where things go. I feel comfortable we’ll have some form of a season. Whether that’s conference-only games, Power 5 playing other Power 5 teams only.  I’m not sure how it’s going to look. If we have to go to a bubble and play some non-conference games, maybe in Houston or Dallas. I know they’re exploring a lot of different areas.”

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