By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
LSU hoops, a week into practice, welcomed a host of local reporters for media day on Wednesday, followed by an hour of open practice.
We’ll have plenty of coverage from the day over the coming weeks, but in the meantime, here’s a transcript of what head coach Johnny Jones said.
JOHNNY JONES: Great to see all of you here. Certainly looking forward to another exciting season, this group to have an opportunity. Looking back at last season, a lot of great things accomplished, continuing to build a top three finish, finishing in the top of the conference, top two or so in scoring, field goal percentage.
Any time, I think, you have a team that has become a nation of players that we had last year and losing three starters and finishing with the number 1 player taken in the NBA draft, we know that we have some areas that we’re certainly going to have to grow, and we’re going to do that by committee.
With this team early on, the chemistry, the excitement from these guys gives us reason to really be excited, and I know they’re looking forward to building on a lot of successes from last year. With the challenging schedule that we’ll be faced with early on, it will give us an opportunity to find out where we are.
We’ve had great play from our guards, obviously, having to fill the spot from Tim Quarterman leaving last year as a point guard. Skylar Mays has done a tremendous job early on, along with Jalyn Patterson, there at the point.
I think one of the big surprises with Duop Reath from junior college, from Lee, he’s done a great job of filling in and filling something that we feel like we missed from last year, a rim protector, a guy that can play in the paint, excellent rebounder, defending the paint, and also can stretch the defense offensively in terms of the way he plays. Excellent athlete. Really runs the floor.
So we’ll have a different look than we’ve had a year ago. We’ve had some growth in Aaron Epps. I think he’s done an excellent job of working out really during the summer, really have improved as well in Craig Victor. We feel he’s going to have an opportunity to step up out of the shadows somewhat that he played in last year and being more of a dominant force for us from the start.
But a lot of new guys, including Wayde Sims. I think he’s done a good job of transitioning from high school and looking forward to him being out onto the floor. We’ve moved him from the post area, playing inside, more on the perimeter now. And Kieran Hayward, we think he’s shown us a great bright spot with his ability to really stretch the floor and shoot and the athleticism that he really provides and brings to our team.
So with that being said, we can’t wait to get started, and it will be here before we know it on, obviously, November 12th, when our season gets started against Wofford.
Q. Hey, Johnny. Chemistry gets tossed around a lot in sports. Do you feel like there’s a different chemistry and maybe a better chemistry with this group after last year?
JOHNNY JONES: I think that’s one of the good things that we can point to. I think a lot of the guys that are returning from last year’s team maybe felt like talent-wise, that we were really deep and really good in some areas, but I think they understand the growth of this team.
The guys that have an extra year under their belt understand the importance in the things that we have to work on, and I think that’s across the board.
One of the areas we feel like we really have to improve on is on the defensive side of the floor, and we feel that chemistry will play a big part of that in terms of our team. You can’t be selfish now on the defensive end of the floor. You have to play as a team, and that’s a commitment that we have to make as a group, and I think, along with the commitment and with the right chemistry, we can be a better defensive basketball team.
So I think that’s maybe a term to get tossed around a lot, but when you’re locked into it and you buy into it, I think it’s the difference in whether your team has success or not.
Q. Coach, having seen Duop the last couple days of practice, he looks very impressive, especially handling the ball. You talked about what he can bring defensively, but what kind of offensive options is he going to provide this team?
JOHNNY JONES: Well, he’s the best post perimeter shooter that we’ve had. I thought Johnny O’Bryant was capable of stretching the defense a little bit. He actually has a little bit better range than Johnny displayed when he was here.
Duop can really run the floor. He’s excellent in terms of being able to get the ball off the glass and push it somewhat like Ben did last year, and can really run the floor with post guys and get out in front.
So I think he’s going to be an excellent addition for us on the offensive end of the floor, but that’s something we look forward to that it’s going to be a little bit more difficult for teams on the defensive end to cheat and play off of our post guys with the offensive abilities that he has.
Q. Coach, you missed out on the NCAA Tournament last year and you have a challenging schedule to start out, including going to play a tournament against teams like Louisville and Wichita State. What does that do for a team that’s coming off maybe a disappointing season, not making it to Tournament play.
JOHNNY JONES: First off, our guys throughout the year felt like as a whole that a lot of bright things happened. They have a lot of bright spots. I think the one thing that we’re all disappointed in, we fell short of getting our name called on Selection Sunday.
But at the end of the day, there are a lot of positive things that happened when you talk about creating a team that had the third largest increase of attendance last year, that you point to a top three finishing team that was picked fourth or fifth or whatever in the league. So there are a lot to point to, and that’s what these guys said, that last year is behind them.
Our goal is always to try to get to the Tournament. This year will be no exception, and this group is looking forward to putting their best foot forward, and that’s what they work towards daily, to be one of those teams. We’re hopeful that our conference will continue to get better, hopeful that a lot of moves that the conference office have made and some people they put in position to help promote men’s basketball will help us as well.
So we’re hopeful, if we can finish in the top of the league, like we did last year, our name will be called, and these guys’ hard work will not go in vain.
Q. Johnny, last year there was a lot of excitement obviously with the roster and everyone that was playing on it, but it also created maybe not friction, but some guesswork as far as what kind of team do you want it to be? Do you feel like this year you maybe have a better identity on who’s going to be doing what, when they’re going to be doing it, those kinds of things, and maybe not figuring it out on the fly in games.
JOHNNY JONES: I felt we certainly had a good roster fit and some really good names out there and an excellent player in Ben. Unfortunately, one of the things that Ben wasn’t equipped with was a guy that had the expertise in terms of stopping people from getting injured on our team. Unfortunately, Keith Hornsby went down and forced us into a bit of a different rotation in someone who I thought was a leader on our team, on both ends, defensively and offensively, what he was able to provide. So that hurt us.
Now with this year’s team, we’ll be different. We’ll look for different scoring opportunities. The perimeter, I think, Brandon Sampson, a young man who has worked extremely hard over the summer, showed some bright signs last year, he and Antonio Blakeney continue their growth. We’ll certainly get great scoring from our perimeter areas. Skylar Mays, who’s a pure point, and if we can keep Jalyn Patterson healthy, that alone will help strengthen us there on the perimeter.
We’ll have to again work by committee and see what our post guys will be able to provide and bring to this team, especially right off the bat. You’re talking about Craig Victor, and Duop Reath and the growth of Epps, and we’re hopeful Robinson can stay injury free and continue to make some positive strides as well.
Q. As a followup, do you think it will be more of the five scoring?
JOHNNY JONES: I think we certainly have good balance. I thought we had good balanced scoring last year obviously throughout. Ben obviously was our dominant guy there in the paint in scoring, but when we had Keith, I thought Keith was really solid. When Keith went down, I thought Blakeney playing in the shadows last year — last 10, 11 games of the year, he averaged about 18, 20 points a game. So he was able to — he was playing a certain role early on, and he stepped out of the shadows. We’re hoping he gets off to a great start this year and we will have a good, balanced scoring attack.
Our key is going to be guys understanding how to play together, hitting open guys, sharing the basketball. Hopefully our assists will be up. Our field goal percentage will continue to climb. Being a balanced scoring team certainly will help against our opponents because I think it makes us much tougher to scout against when you play that way.
Q. Coach, you mentioned Skylar Mays pushing Jalyn at the point guard position. What have you seen out of Sky the first week of practice to make you think he can be the leader at the point for this team?
JOHNNY JONES: I’ll tell you what I saw more so than even when we started practice, just this off-season, how hard he worked during the summer, time and energy he put in. As soon as school started as well. He puts a lot of time in the gym. He’s put a lot of time into his body. He has great basketball IQ, understands how to play, and as he continued to develop and understand exactly what we’re looking for, as we implement our offense and defensive schemes, he’s going to continue to get better because he does a great job of picking things up.
So we’re really thrilled with Skylar and know that he’s going to be a great bright spot on this team.
Q. Looks like from up on the balcony, Craig Victor has kind of slimmed down a little bit, that he worked a little harder on that this year.
JOHNNY JONES: He’s going to be a little disappointed in that because he worked hard to beef up and get bigger. He has. He’s gotten faster. He’s a little leaner than he was last year, but he’s stronger, and he’s really worked on his upper body and put a lot of time and energy in in doing that. He’s worked on his jumper as well, a spot we thought he did a good job last year. We probably didn’t take advantage of him enough with being in the game.
We thought that he shot the ball well for us last year and made some good plays. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t start playing until after Christmas. Starting to shake off the rust from the long layoff. I think starting at the beginning of the season is certainly going to be beneficial for him and us this year.
Q. Johnny, you talked about the attendance last year. Of course, people want to see Ben play. Now that he’s gone and the way last season ended, do you think you’re going to have to win fans back to come to watch y’all play?
JOHNNY JONES: I can tell you, when I first got here, where attendance was and the way that it has grown each year, we’re excited about that, and we’re glad that Ben was here. We recruited him, and that’s one of our jobs to make sure that we put the best group of guys and team out there on the floor to create an excitement for our fan base.
We’ll still be LSU at the end of the day when we’re out there taking the floor, and we’ve got to make sure we’re playing the right way to create the excitement for our fans to come and cheer on. I think, if we’re doing things the right way with this basketball team, those folks will come out and support this basketball team. We’re excited about that.
That’s one thing about our fans that I’ve known for many, many years. If you’re playing the right way and are aware of certain things, they’re more concerned about the letters on the front of that jersey, LSU, than the names across the back.
Q. Johnny, can you compare Jalyn and Skylar, what they both bring to the point guard position. And then when Brandon gets healthy, I think he can play a little point. What can he offer there as well?
JOHNNY JONES: Branden Jenkins, who hadn’t been able to play because of injury, he brings a great deal of speed. Probably one of the most tenacious on ball defenders that we’ve had since I’ve been here. He’s extremely fast, lengthy. He has a desire to defend. He can certainly score, get to the basket really well.
Jalyn Patterson, as we know, can really stretch the defense. He can knock down shots. But he’s a crafty ball handler as well. He can get inside the defense and make plays, and really a good passer. His numbers are very low in terms of turnovers, so the way he plays. He can certainly get the ball and create opportunities for others on the floor.
Skylar has a little bit more, because of his size and his strength, he’s a little bit more deceptive in terms of the way that he plays, the way that he moves on the floor, his passing ability. One of the things he wasn’t counting on to do as much in high school was shoot the basketball. He’s worked really hard during the off-season to improve his shot. He’s really done a great job of making plays for us and forcing our perimeter guys to have to defend, and they can’t play off of him.
So all those guys bring something a little bit different to the team. But the most experienced guy, because of the number of games he’s played at this level, would be Jalyn Patterson.
Q. Coach, maybe a little bit lost on this. What do you guys expect from Brandon Sampson this year? How has he developed since last year?
JOHNNY JONES: The good thing about Brandon, he’s got a sidekick over there in Antonio Blakeney, and he’s not a guy that people can just focus and concentrate on and just trying to stop him from scoring because of the explosiveness that Blakeney brings.
But Sampson in his own right should be able to help Antonio because of his ability to score and really stretch the defense, and he’s excellent in terms of ball in the open floor. If we can get him out on the open floor and allow him to attack the basket, with his athleticism, it brings a certainly added dimension to our team.
The area that I want them to get better at and more buy in — and they are very capable because of the size, strength, length they have — is on the defensive end of the floor. Both have shown signs of being able to do that. And Brandon Sampson, I thought especially over in Australia last year, he may have been our best perimeter defender early on. As the season progressed, he kind of tapered off a little bit, but we know what he’s capable of doing. It’s just getting him locked in and doing that throughout.
Q. Back to Craig for a second, how important is that blue collar element that he tends to bring? How much does that mean to this team in particular?
JOHNNY JONES: We thought, coming in last year, that Craig had the ability to be a leader, and he showed that early on, and this year, I think — again, not playing the schedule yet, looking around, he’s got a year under this belt, and he’s been with this basketball team. So we feel that he’ll play a very pivotal role for us there in the paint area.
He’s really a tone setter for this basketball team, what he’s capable of doing on the defensive end of the floor and on the offensive end.
Got to get him to improve on the rebounding. Last year, he may have averaged six rebounds a game. That’s a bit low for what we would think because of his temperament. As hard as he works, we think that he should be closer to a double figure rebound, and we look forward to him hopefully impacting our team that way.
Q. Thanksgiving in the Bahamas, nice score. How did you work that?
JOHNNY JONES: We didn’t. We were actually looking for a great competition, and we found both. We found a great place to play and found some tough competition at the same time. It will be a great challenge for us, and we’re hopeful, we’re excited that we’ll have a lot of fans following and traveling with us as well.
Q. I never thought I’d see it happen in football, but are you going to open basketball practice now for the rest of the season for everybody all the time?
JOHNNY JONES: Well, the only person I think that you have to possibly have a beef with in terms of basketball practice is Kent Lowe. I’ve never closed basketball practice. He just didn’t make you aware that it was open to you guys as much. I didn’t have anything to do with that. We’ve always welcomed you guys coming in and watching us early on. You can obviously do your job, and we’ve always welcomed that.
But we understand how tight your schedule is at times, and if you don’t want to stay and work long hours, you leave early, and we’ll stay here and get ours in from 3:00 to 5:30 or so. But you’re more than welcome to come watch us a bit until you start writing bad stories, and then we’ll close the door (laughter).
Q. Johnny, you talked a little bit about Epps’ growth. What do you see from him, especially on offense? Do you see him continue to spread?
JOHNNY JONES: I’ll tell you if you watched our games last year against Kentucky, Ben Simmons went to the bench with 15 minutes to go in the first half, and Epps really kind of changed the game. He picked and popped the guards coming off, hit two big threes for us. Another game I think we were playing here at home, he’s coming down the middle, game tied, Ben is looking for him, and he can certainly run the floor and raise up and get to the rim and finish.
It’s just a matter of him being more confident. Last year was tough to get him a lot of minutes because the guy he was playing behind happened to be the number 1 player taken in the draft. So there are a lot of minutes taken from him in that area. I think his confidence is high now because he knows that there are minutes available to him, and his hard work certainly during the off-season will pay off.
And I think you will see the versatility that Aaron Epps will bring to this team. Very capable shooter from outside and certainly can finish at the rim on the break. Again, one of the areas he’ll continue to improve and get better is on the defensive side of the basketball.
Q. Johnny, I know you get a little tired talking about last year, but how much was it a missed opportunity to improve the status, the image, everything else in the program?
JOHNNY JONES: I can tell you this. I thought our — we got more exposure than anybody in the country. I don’t think there’s a day went by that LSU wasn’t talked about prior when Ben Simmons lined up committing to us and being a part of our program weekly. I don’t care where you look, at a magazine or whatever, the Internet, we’re always there. We wouldn’t trade that in for anything.
We thought we took advantage of a lot of great opportunities with the exposure that we got, the type of schedule that we played. We were 8-1 here at home. It’s very difficult to get any better outside of going 9-0 on your home schedule. So we had a lot of positive things happen.
Again, the one box we didn’t check last year is getting to the NCAA Tournament, but I don’t think that’s the end all. I think, when you talk about disappointment, we were, but there are a lot of bright spots with this basketball team last year and culminating with Ben being selected the number 1 player taken in the Draft last year, and we can certainly build off of that.
It’s only one team winds up winning the National Championship, and that was Villanova last year. Everyone else has room obviously to improve and get better, and we happen to be one of those teams.
Q. Coach, Elbert being in his third year now, it seems like we hear, okay, he’s making progress, and it doesn’t translate. Just for fans, a guy that’s 7’1″, what can he do to finally kind of get on track here?
JOHNNY JONES: He can really man the paint for us. I thought at times last year he was able to get in front of the rim, where we like to play him at. He’s a guy you almost have to double-team to stop him when he gets both feet set in the paint around the basket because he can score from that area.
Our biggest deal is trying to keep him healthy. If we can do that — at the end of his freshman year, we shut him down, had our strength and conditioning coach take him, make sure he can lift and get his muscle mass and things ready to prepare to carry a 7’1″, 300-pound plus guy. This year he got off to a good start, and unfortunately, he had a setback with another injury.
When you’re that size, it’s important that you’re able to take care of your body, and we’re hopeful that we can manage him this year in a sense that keep him healthy and get some positive minutes out of him. If we can get him anywhere from 12 to 15 minutes a game, it would be huge for us with him because that would mean he’s able to provide a lot for us and put a lot of pressure on the opposing team.
Q. Big picture question here. Ben Simmons, I agree, was exciting. He was healthy for the program. But did it also create a spotlight? You talked about guys playing in the shadows already here today. Do you feel like now maybe, not that he’s gone and it’s disappointing or anything, but just that these guys are anxious that show that they’re a team as well, that they can play as well?
JOHNNY JONES: I think, when you talk about last year’s team, you talk about guys who played in his shadow, I thought it was healthy for them to play in the environment that they did last year because of, one, what we got from other teams. Every team that we played last year, we took their best shot. We didn’t go into any games. And we did that with a lot of guys who didn’t have a great deal of experience.
So from that and the pressure and everything they played under last year, they should have an opportunity to improve and play extremely well this year because of what they went through a year ago.
When we went on the road last year, we outdrew anybody else in our conference when they’re playing in somebody else’s building. That meant we took a lot of teams’ best shot in front of some tremendous crowds, and that I think this team had an opportunity to grow from and the experience, and we should be able to build from that.
Q. I think from the first day you got here, you talked about not just being a team one year, you wanted to build a program and get off the roller coaster. With that in mind, how important do you feel the season might be to move that forward?
JOHNNY JONES: I think the good thing is we felt like we’ve improved in a lot of areas each year. We talked about not just trying to have a winning season, but a winning program. We felt like we’ve done that. We’ve gone from two 9-9 seasons to two 11-7 seasons. Again, top three. When you talk about where the program was two years prior to getting here, 14 teams in the league, they’re in 14th place. We’re in 3rd place last year. We feel like that’s the right direction that we’re headed.
Again, this year’s team, we’re hopeful to continue to improve on that. So we’re not blind, by any sense, of where these guys would like to be, but we love expectations, and we like improvement, and we like the edge that you have to play with night in and night out.
So our guys are certainly not sitting around and resting and excited about what transpired. You went 8-1 last year, finished 11-7. We’re not comfortable with that. Each year we want to strive to get better and compete for championships, and we feel like we’re getting closer to doing that.
Q. Johnny, you talked about experience. I think over the past four years that you’ve been here, you guys have averaged somewhere around like 270 in the country in experience. This year I wouldn’t say that you’re vastly experienced, but you have some juniors at least. Does this feel like an older team to you? And did you recruit specifically to try to get a little bit older?
JOHNNY JONES: Well, we tried to recruit in areas that we felt that was going to certainly help us. We couldn’t go out and get high school guys to fill in what we were losing last year.
I think, when we brought in Branden Jenkins and Duop Reath, we felt that that was two guys that were pivotal for us in terms of what we needed, a point guard with experience, another post guy, from what we were losing from last year’s team.
And to be able to put those guys together with the balance of this team, some exciting things could happen for them. One, it’s going to give us balanced scoring. I thought those two guys, the way that they played at the junior college, the energy that they played with, what they brought on the defensive end of the floor, was something that this team missed last year. So the addition of those guys certainly we felt was going to improve this year’s team.