By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
For the first time in four season under Johnny Jones, LSU basketball is trending in the wrong direction.
Seasons of 19, 20, and 22 wins looked to set the table for a memorable year four, with future No. 1 pick Ben Simmons leading the charge to the NCAA Tournament.
Only, that’s not what happened. At all.
LSU regressed back to year one standards: 19 wins, no postseason play, and questions over Jones’ long-term job security. Barring something unforeseen, Jones will be back in year five, but the rumor mill is swirling that he’ll have an NCAA Tournament-or-bust ultimatum to deal with, in addition to the exoduses of Simmons, Keith Hornsby, and others.
Can LSU be better in 2016-17? I’m not sure, but there are some reasons for optimism. The Tigers may not be dancing this time next year – and that may cost Jones his job – but it’s not all gloom and doom in Baton Rouge.
Here are a few reasons for hope in 2016-17 for LSU hoops.
1. Antonio Blakeney
Simmons is gone, and LSU isn’t expecting Tim Quarterman to return for his senior season – which is probably best for all parties concerned.
The only question left, then, as to which Tigers declare for the NBA Draft is Blakeney, whose hot conclusion to his freshman season has some fans concerned he’ll bolt after a single season. In the 10 games spanning Feb. 6 and March 11, Blakeney looked like a pro, averaging 19.9 points per game on .504/.415/.789 shooting, at one point hitting 28 free throws in a row.
As of today, based on conversations with people in and around the program, I fully expect Blakeney will be back in Baton Rouge in 2016-17. I’d put the odds of his return at around 90 percent. The 10 percent of doubt is based solely on one factor. A new NCAA rule allows underclassmen to declare for the NBA Draft, participate in the combine, and workout once for each team without losing their eligibility. As long as they don’t hire an agent (or violate any other related NCAA rules regarding eligibility) and remove their names from the draft 10 days after the combine, they can come back.
Blakeney (or any other aspiring pro, really) would be foolish not to at least go through the process. And it only takes one team falling in love with him in a workout and guaranteeing him a first round selection to send him packing.
Personally, I don’t think it happens. Scouts recognize the areas Blakeney needs to continue to improve on, and, more importantly for LSU, so does Blakeney. That’s why LSU is banking on building its team next year around the Florida native, who signed with LSU fully open to the idea of two (or three) seasons in college. He’ll spend this week in Florida for spring break, and LSU will probably have a better picture by week’s end on where he stands. For now, though, the plan is to bring Blakeney back for another year.
There are several things LSU can sell Blakeney on for next season. For one, he’ll be ‘the guy,’ the focal point of the team on both ends of the floor. That means he’ll even get to play some point guard, something folks at the next level want to see from him. He’s not shown much in the way of playmaking for others in his young career, and his ball-handling, while good, needs refining, but he’s the least-turnover prone guard in the SEC, coughing it up on just 7.7% of his possessions per KenPom.com, and he’s stellar in the pick-and-roll.
It’s also rare for two-guards to go one-and-done. It’s one of the few spots in the NBA that seems to warrant a couple of years in college. LSU needs only point to Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, whose superb senior campaign elevated him from second round pick to lottery lock. Hield made serious money by coming back. Blakeney can too.
Getting Blakeney back in 2016-17 is the first and foremost priority for LSU’s offseason. The staff loves him. He’s a relentless worker, during and after practice, and watched more film than anyone on the team as a freshman. His transformation from defensive liability in November to the team’s best all-around defender by February is evidence of his buy-in, and the offensive numbers – nearly 120 points produced per 100 possessions in SEC play, a top-10 rating – speak for themselves.
Most importantly, Blakeney is driven. LSU feels he can fill the leadership void that hurt the Tigers this year. Tone is, fittingly, a tone-setter, who walks what he talks. He’s got a goal – to play in the NBA – but unlike many others with that same objective, he has a plan.
LSU will hope that plan includes at least another year in Baton Rouge.
2. Juco Transfers
After two seasons ranking in the 300s in experience, LSU made it a priority in this class to bring in junior college players with some seasoning to their games.
LSU fans I’ve spoken two are skeptical of the Tigers’ two incoming junior college transfers, Branden Jenkins and Duop Reath, both of Lee College.
And understandably so. Past transfers have included John Odo and Josh Gray, who failed to match their gaudy junior college stats upon arrival to LSU.
But every indicator is that Jenkins and Reath are both the real deal, particularly Jenkins. He’s a 6-foot-4 combo guard with elite athleticism and an improving jumper. More pertinently, he’s a defensive monster, a Chicago-tough, lengthy defender with a tenacious attitude – or exactly what this year’s team was lacking. He’ll start immediately, perhaps even at point guard, and give the squad an instant injection of toughness, leadership, and maybe even some scoring.
The hope for Reath is that he’ll be like Arkansas’ Moses Kingsley, capable of stepping out to 16 or 17 feet and knocking down jumpers while dominating the glass and, critically, providing the rim protection LSU sorely lacked this season. Today, he’s less day one ready than Jenkins, but his potential is virtually unlimited.
And don’t rule out the addition of another junior college or graduate transfer. LSU has its ears to the ground, just in case a scholarship spot opens up, and they’d gladly welcome the right veteran, especially if he’s 6-foot-8 or taller.
3. The Vanishing Spotlight
Don’t underestimate the positives of Ben Simmons’ departure. Yes, he’s immensely talented. And yes, LSU, on paper, would be better off with him in 2016-17.
But sometimes, simply removing a distraction can do a program wonder. Simmons leaving means less attention cast toward LSU, and less scrutiny on the guys left behind. After the pressure cooker that was 2015-16, perhaps a lesser burden to bear will make a positive difference.
There’s also the idea that while Simmons was incredibly gifted, the pieces didn’t quite fit around him. Fielding a winning basketball team is less arithmetic and more chemistry. It’s not about having the most talented squad, but rather having players whose games complement each other.
That’s a maxim LSU will have to embrace next season. That team’s top-end talent will be inferior to its predecessor’s. But if it can gel and develop depth, it might just be enough to steady the ship and keep Jones’ time at LSU afloat.
4. Craig Victor
Victor was up and down in his first year at LSU, but it’s necessary to remember exactly that: it was his first year at LSU.
Okay, technically, Victor arrived in December 2014, but while the rosters listed him as a sophomore this past season, he was really a freshman in terms of collegiate minutes.
Victor has several things going for him that makes him a viable candidate to build an interior around. First, he’s a versatile offensive player, capable of banging bodies inside and stepping out to 15 or 16 feet and knocking down jumpers. He can even stretch out to the three-point line with a good summer. He’s an underrated passer, a hell of a screener, and a good communicator on both ends of the floor.
Second, he’s gritty and has some edge to him. He needs to deliver that edge on a more consistent basis next year, but that should come with experience.
Victor has some deficiencies, of course. He’s not incredibly long and, thus, struggles with length. He can get his shot blocked inside a little too often, and doesn’t provide much rim protection on the other end.
But two good things about those deficiencies: 1) They should keep him around for two more years. You can’t buy or recruit experience. 2) He can make up for them with continued development elsewhere. I really like Victor as an interior piece to build around.
5. Brandon Sampson
The Killer B with the least buzz, Sampson had the freshman season I expected him to have, more or less. He started hotter and finished cooler than I’d have imagined, but the overall affect was what I anticipated: the talent is obvious, but he needs seasoning.
Well, he got it this year. Sampson struggled more often than not in year one. He scored in double figures three times in LSU’s first five games, and then didn’t reach double figure scoring total in all of SEC play until March, managing just 21 points total in conference play. He shot just 32 percent from the field, 27 percent from 3, and had 6 DNPs.
And yet, among those struggles, it’s easy to see why LSU’s staff is excited about Sampson and his potential. He’s a legitimate 6-foot-5 and had a 44 and 1/2 inch vertical leap, as (generously) measured by LSU. His stroke is silky smooth, and his makes are as pretty as makes come.
Sampson needed a year to get stronger, catch up to the speed of the game, and gain confidence. This offseason is critical for him. One source in the program likened Sampson to Tim Quarterman, who struggled as a freshman before breaking out as a sophomore. The source even said Sampson is probably even a little ahead of where Quarterman was as a freshman.
If Sampson can enjoy that kind of year two breakout, you could see this as a lineup.
That lineup has the chance to be pretty good offensively, with Blakeney and Sampson as floor spacers, Jenkins as a slasher/creator, and Victor/Reath as ideal post partners. It also can be very good defensively, with the guards switching screens and Reath providing rim protection. Is it a tournament team? I’m not sure. But it’s got a chance.
In addition to Sampson, LSU will need one of Aaron Epps, Elbert Robinson, and Darcy Malone to develop inside as a third big. I like what Epps brings offensively, but he and Robinson are both in the same boat. Neither is physically ready to play 30 minutes in the SEC. Epps needs to add muscle, and Robinson needs to find his legs. If either one of those things happens in the next six months, LSU will be in good shape down low.
Not to mention, a fully healthy Jalyn Patterson, who missed time midseason with a knee injury, can start at the one or two, and may see more time at the former after being pushed off the ball for his first two seasons. There’s a lot to like about Patterson. He’s only 6-foot-1, but he’s long (6-foot-6 wing span), and has a high defensive ceiling. His numbers dipped in year two, but he was playing through a knee injury that seemed to affect his shot and movement, and at full health, he’ll likely revert back to his year one percentages, if not improve on them.
Plus, LSU wins with Patterson. In his two seasons, LSU is 19-6 (.760) when he plays 26+ minutes. When he doesn’t, LSU is just 22-19 (.537). He brings lots of winning ingredients to the table, some of which are hard to account for statistically but are easy to observe. He might end up being LSU’s best option at the point, with Blakeney, Jenkins, and Sampson rotating on the wings.
Honorable Mention: Underrated Freshmen
LSU’s 2016 recruiting class isn’t nearly as heralded as its 2013 and 2015 predecessors, but I like it as a long term foundation. All three true freshmen signed so far have play-now talent, but all project as three or four year players.
– Skylar Mays could be, as one high school coach told me, Louisiana’s best pure point guard since Randy Livingston. His passing and vision is second to none among 2016 prospects, and he is a dunk-in-traffic athlete. If he’s physically ready to defend and be defended by SEC guards, he can start.
— Courtside Films (@CourtsideFilms) March 8, 2016
– Wayde Sims reminds me of Jalen Jones from Texas A&M: a long, athletic forward somewhere between the 3 and the 4 with a great stroke. Sims’ biggest adjustment will be moving from the 5, where he’s been stuck in high school, to the 3 or the 4, as well as adapting to the SEC’s physicality. He and Skylar, teammates at U-High from eighth grade to 11th grade, have killer chemistry in the pick-and-roll, and Sims finishes around with rim with ease, either hand. (His left hand is so good, I thought he was left-handed the first few times I watched him play.)
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) March 10, 2016
– Kieran Hayward has all the tools to be Keith Hornsby-like scorer. The 6-foot-5 Aussie can fly, and he’s a heat-check shooter who can extend his range to 24+ feet. Again, the question with Hayward will be how he fares against the size and speed of the SEC. The transition from Down Under is never an easy one. But his ceiling is high.
— Kieran ⚡️Hayward (@KieranHayward0) March 20, 2016