LSU’s offensive strategy last season was pretty simple: Get the ball to Tremont Waters, and let him create something.
It wasn’t a bad strategy. In fact, the “Tre’ and Pray” method, as head coach Will Wade liked to call it, proved to be pretty effective.
Waters himself emerged as a force to be reckoned with last season, amassing 15.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals per game. That stat line along with some late-game heroics throughout the season thrust him into the national spotlight and earned him a spot on the Freshman All-Southeastern Conference team in 2018.
It also kept the Tigers afloat. Despite struggling on defense and finishing last in the league in rebounding, LSU finished with an 8-10 conference record and earned a spot in the National Invitational Tournament thanks to an offense that finished third in the SEC in scoring with 77.5 points per game.
Waters even earned the opportunity to check things out on the professional side of the game, working out with NBA teams as he tried to figure out if entering the 2018 NBA Draft was the right choice for him.
“The whole process was fun,” Waters says. “It was very intriguing to be around coaches that coach like (Atlanta Hawks point guard) Dennis Schröder… and a bunch of small guards that people say I play like.
“Just to be able to be around them and get feedback from them about what I need to do and what I need to improve on and stuff like that, it just gave me a different mindset. Ever since I came back to school I’ve been more focused. I’ve been leading the team more, talking about my experience and focusing on what we have to do to win.”
Wade has seen the improvement as well. In his first press conference prior to the season, Wade says Waters was playing basketball at a “much higher level” than last year, and at media day, he gave some examples of what he’s seen.
“Last year, for example, in our plays, a lot of times he throws that little cross-court hook pass. He hooks it. Last year it kind of floated, and it would get there, but the shot would maybe be halfway contested because — now he’s just whipping it, and it’s right there and the shot is uncontested. It’s an easier pass for him, and it’s an easier shot for our offensive player.”
This season fans won’t see a “Tre’ and Pray” offense. Wade went out and got one of the best recruiting classes in the country to surround Waters, so the Tigers’ offense will look much different this year.
And so will Waters’ role on the team.
For starters, he won’t be the only person Wade feels comfortable allowing to bring the ball up the floor and running the offense.
Waters will likely remain the go-to point guard, but Wade feels comfortable with fellow guards Skylar Mays and Ja’vonte Smart and even freshman forward Naz Reid with the ball in their hands in transition.
And with Reid, Kavell Bigby-Williams, Emmitt Williams and Darius Days now filling in the frontcourt, Waters will have solid options to feed the ball to throughout the floor. He also won’t have to crash the boards nearly as aggressively.
With all the talent now around him, Waters says it feels like a weight has been lifted off his shoulders.
But with new talent comes new responsibilities, as Wade says he’s going to adjust how he makes an impact on the Tigers this season.
“Last year it was him, but we didn’t have any other guys necessarily come with him,” Wade says. “We had a couple guys in a couple games, but we didn’t have it consistently. You can’t do it by yourself. You have to bring other guys with you because you’re going to eventually need those guys. Having him understand that process that he can’t do it alone, I think that’s been very, very helpful. He understands that.”
If you ask Waters’ teammates if he makes them better, they will unanimously give you a resounding yes.
Smart spent most of the offseason playing against him during drills.
That was a tall task for the freshman, who has significant a size advantage on Waters. But Waters’ height of 5-foot-11 hasn’t held him back yet, and Smart got a chance to see just how good he is while squaring up against him.
“His change of pace is crazy,” Smart says. “He changes speed so quick. I had to ask him how he does it. He just walked me through it. We work out with each other. It’s just great going against him every day.
In the last few weeks, the two transitioned from playing against each other to working as a tandem, and Smart says Waters’ instincts for the game are incredible.
But it’s not just his skill that impresses his teammates.
Junior college transfer guard Marlon Taylor spoke highly of Waters’ leadership ability and his character.
He says the fact that Waters opted to forgo an opportunity to play professional basketball – either in the NBA or elsewhere – and return to LSU for his sophomore says a lot about his loyalty to the program.
“It means a lot,” Taylor says. “All the freshman are taking after him and watching him and picking up on the things that he does. I believe in him. After this year, it’s straight to the top.”
Waters seems to have taken his leadership role to heart. From working with incoming freshman on the court, in the weight room and beyond, to communicating Wade’s wishes with vocal leadership on defense, Waters has transformed into captain LSU’s young squad of freak athletes needs.
Mays, who has also developed into a leader on this team as one of its few upperclassmen, says Waters came back from the offseason a different kind of player.
“Tre’s definitely become a better leader,” Mays says. “Last summer he struggled through a lot of things mentally. You can just see how he’s grown as a young man and as a leader for us. We’re excited for the season he’s going to have.”
Mays says Waters’ actions have changed the team for the positive this season. He pointed to an instance in which Waters mentioned he wanted to mentor the freshmen in an interesting and unexpected way.
“He told me he wanted to show them the (UT-Martin) game,” Mays says. “If you remember, he didn’t have too good of a game. He wants to show them how he struggled and how hard it is to win at this level.
“That’s huge,” Mays says. “That shows the big jump in the type of leader he’s becoming. I think he’ll just continue to get better from here.”
Waters did, indeed, struggle in that game, shooting 2 for 10 from the field and 1 for 7 from the 3-point line in an 84-60 victory against the Skyhawks.
Waters says he just wants an opportunity to show the younger players that one bad game isn’t the end of the world. It takes time to adjust to the college level of play, and bad games are just part of improving.
He hasn’t had the chance to do it yet, but now he wants to wait until the season is right around the corner.
“I was going to wait until right before our first game against Southeastern so they wouldn’t have that burden on their shoulders of ‘oh, I have so many expectations to live up to,’” Waters says. “I wanted to wait until right before the game so they can be calm and relaxed before they go in.”
He hasn’t just been working the backcourt, either. Waters has also taken a mentorship with his new bigs like Reid and Emmitt Williams.
“If I don’t understand something, he’ll break it down,” Williams says. “IT might be the simplest thing, but he’ll break it down from step to step to make sure everybody understands what’s going on.”
Reid also had high praise for Waters, saying he’s never played with a point guard like him.
As LSU’s resident freshman phenom with 2019 NBA Draft hopes and expectations, Reid will likely be a regular target of Waters’ throughout the season.
“He’s a great point guard,” Reid says. “I’m sorry, I just can’t get over the fact that he’s so quick, you can’t trap him at all. It’s hard to trap him. He can pass the ball, and he shoot the ball. He’s an amazing point guard.”
As well as Tremont Waters played last season, he seems primed and ready to take the next step in his game, and he’s going to do so in an LSU uniform.
If his coaches and teammates are to be believed, he’s matured both on and off the court, and he has set himself up for a special season.
It’s not often athletes under the 6-foot benchmark get a chance to play basketball in the NBA. Currently, there are only four players in the league to fit that description.
But with improved game, newfound focus and an ability to lead the talented new athletes that Wade has put around him, Waters has the opportunity to do something special.