Key Returners: Anfernee McLemore, Samir Doughty, J’Von McCormick
Key Losses: Jared Harper (pro), Chuma Okeke (pro), Bryce Brown, Malik Dunbar, Horace Spencer
Key Newcomers: Isaac Okoro, Jamal Johnson (Memphis), Tyrell Jones, Jaylin Williams, Javon Franklin (JUCO), Devan Cambridge, Babatunde Akingbola, Allen Flanigan
Outlook: After nearly four months of performing like a top 15ish team but having few marquee wins to show for it, Auburn dropped a brick onto the gas pedal, ripping off 12 straight wins from February 27th until a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of eventual national champion Virginia in the Final Four. The Tigers finally played to the potential many saw in them last preseason and even through most of the regular season, riding the sizzling perimeter shooting of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown and an in-your-shorts defense to the sport’s brightest stage. Unfortunately, that success opened the door for Harper and Chuma Okeke to turn pro, and what might have been a top 10 team nationally (if Okeke was healthy) now has a few more questions to answer.
Replacing Harper and Brown will be nearly impossible; they might have been the best duo of pull-up shooters from distance in the entire country. In fact, out of 212 players with at least 3 pull-up possessions per game and 10 games played, Harper and Brown ranked 4th and 8th, respectively, in points per possession:
The Tigers had a deadly transition attack keyed by their defense (more to come on that), but they also always had a half court comfort zone knowing Harper or Brown could get themselves a quality look late in the shot clock. A large portion of that responsibility will fall to the likely starting backcourt of seniors J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty and heralded freshman Isaac Okoro. The two veterans gained valuable experience during the tournament run last year, and McCormick in particular made some huge plays – Auburn likely would not have escaped Round 1 without his contributions. All three of those guys will have a chance to run some pick-and-roll, another area where Harper and Brown proved brilliant.
Tremendous floor spacing also helped Pearl unlock the country’s sixth-best offense (per KenPom). Pearl has always been pro three-pointer, but he really embraced allowing his bigs to step out and fire away, particularly Okeke, Anfernee McLemore, and Danjel Purifoy. The latter two return, and though neither is an elite shooter, they both can provide more room for McCormick pick-and-rolls and Okoro drives, especially if Pearl opts to deploy them together in a smaller, quicker lineup.
If he does not, that means more minutes for the immense Austin Wiley, a paint force who changes how Auburn plays when he’s on the court. He’s less mobile than most other players on the roster, meaning the offense is more of a four-out look with him camped in the post. He also makes the defense less switchy and harassing, but he did swat 13.3% of opposing shots when on the court, which would have been a top 10 rate nationally had he played more minutes. Auburn’s speed and versatility all over the court is what’s made them so dangerous the last two years, but Wiley at least allows them to throw a curveball at opponents with a more brutish presence.
And what about the defense, which ranked second in the country in forced turnover rate? Bruce Pearl’s “event”-driven pressure thrived on the blocks and steals generated by the Tigers’ athleticism, and the loss of Chuma Okeke, Malik Dunbar, and Horace Spencer may hurt more in that department than most are anticipating. The rest of Auburn’s defense had some serious holes: they struggled to keep opponents off the offensive glass, and if you were strong with the ball, you were likely to draw a foul or get a quality shot. Thus, finding a way to generate similar pressure will be crucial. Doughty and McLemore are particularly impactful defenders, JUCO transfer Javon Franklin is another undersized but bouncy shot-blocker, and Okoro projects as one of the best freshman defenders in the country given his physical tools and competitive fire. Pearl’s worst defenses, historically, have struggled to force turnovers, so any of the other newcomers - Memphis transfer Jamal Johnson, freshman guard Tyrell Jones, freshman forward Jaylin Williams, Franklin, late reclass wing Devan Cambridge - can earn some quick PT if they show potential on D.
It’s worth noting that the ’18-19 defense saw a significant stylistic shift: although Auburn still employed a full court press at times, the goal once in the half court changed from “speed you up, force a quick shot” to “suffocate you slowly.” This shift is seen most glaringly in opponents’ average possession length (APL):
Forcing opponents to execute for so long against sustained ball pressure led to more extreme outcomes: those that could handle it often scored, but those that could not frequently turned it over or missed long, contested shots, which subsequently initiated Auburn’s devastating transition attack. Given the success of last season’s approach and this year’s roster makeup, I’d expect the 2018-19 trend to continue.
Bottom Line: Auburn loses its three best players and two perfect-fit role players from Bruce Pearl’s best team, and the fact that two of them left early puts the Tigers on their heels. They even have to replace this delightful fellow. Still, though, there’s plenty of talent on the roster, and Pearl’s system should still help take care of business against lesser competition. Do they have enough offense to beat great teams? And can they force enough turnovers to sustain the rest of the defense? Those two questions will swing the season, which has a relatively high variance of possible outcomes.