- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Tremont Waters, Skylar Mays, Daryl Edwards
Key Losses: Duop Reath, Aaron Epps, Brandon Sampson
Key Newcomers: Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams, Kavell Bigby-Williams (Oregon), Javonte Smart, Darius Days, Marlon Taylor (JUCO), Danya Kingsby (JUCO)
Outlook: Will Wade made enormous strides last season turning around the LSU basketball program after Johnny Jones set the Tigers on a collision course for the Gulf of Mexico. Jones consistently brought in top-level talent to the Bayou only to squander it with mediocre and sub-par performances culminating in a 10-21 (2-16) 2016-17 season. Most assumed the rebuilding process would be a slow, arduous undertaking, but Wade led the Tigers to a respectable 18-15 (8-10) mark with an NIT berth to boot. Now with the #5 class in the country coming in to join one of the best young point guards in the country, LSU has its eyes set on its first Tourney appearance since 2015.
Much of LSU’s success last season can be attributed to the brilliant playmaking of rising sophomore guard Tremont Waters, a.k.a. the poor man’s Trae Young. Waters had plenty of standout performances during his first year in Baton Rouge, like his 39-point game against Marquette early in the season, but the 5’11” PG was consistent throughout the entire year. Wade’s ball-screen heavy offense revolved around Waters, and the freshman was one of the best finishers in the pick-n-roll in the nation. Perhaps Waters biggest asset was his ability to start the break and finish / facilitate in transition. LSU ranked 11th in the country last season in points scored per possession in transition.
Waters’s vision plus the sharpshooting of his wing counterparts allowed him to carve up the defense off top-of-the-key screens, vaulting his assist rate to 3rd best in the SEC. A few of those shooters like Daryl Edwards return to the lineup, so Waters’s proficiency should continue into his sophomore year. Starting 2-guard Skylar Mays also returns, an all-around wing that can shoot, pass, and drive at a high level. Mays serves as a stereotypical glue-guy in Wade’s system and doubles as a decent perimeter defender. He and Edwards will need to stay sharp to hold off the immensely talented class coming in.
In the backcourt, Wade adds Javonte Smart, the #8 point guard in the class of 2018 per ESPN, JUCO point guard Danya Kingsby, the 26th-ranked JUCO prospect, and JUCO wing Marlon Taylor, the 17th-ranked JUCO recruit (yeah, he could also be a frontcourt guy, but there’s already plenty of those). Smart is a shifty lead guard with good size at 6’4” 190 lbs. He’s ready to start right now at the D1 level, and Wade may opt to use him in a dual-PG look with Waters at the “point” and Mays sliding to the 3 for an almost tri-PG lineup. Hailing from storied JUCO program College of Southern Idaho, Kingsby should fit right into a backup PG role, eating any time not occupied by the Waters / Smart combo. Taylor is probably one of the most overlooked newcomers in the Bayou due to his JUCO pedigree. Make no mistake, this guy can play – Taylor is an electric athlete and finisher that averaged 17ppg and 9.5rpg last season in JUCO.
While the backcourt talent is nice, the frontcourt holds the crown jewel of Wade’s recruiting class and the biggest reason why LSU figures to be a top 15-20 team all year. Last year, Duop Reath and Aaron Epps were serviceable big men, and even scored proficiently on offense. However, neither was really a force and both were sieves on the defensive end. Enter Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams, Darius Days, and Kavell Bigby-Williams. Yes, Wade brings in four power forward/centers, all of whom could contribute immediately in their first seasons in Baton Rouge.
Reid, a McDonald’s All-American and the #12 recruit in the nation per ESPN, is the highlight of Wade’s freshman class. The 6’10” forward, nicknamed the Big Jelly (yes, he’s already my favorite player), is a ridiculously talented prospect that has the unicorn-like combination of immense size, ball handling, shooting, and athleticism. His game is like a slightly less polished version of Marvin Bagley’s – just check out this clip from the McD’s AA game:
Not many big men, especially freshman, can do that.
Williams, the #20 recruit in the class of 2018 per ESPN, is an undersized power forward at only 6’6” (generously listed at 6'7" on the team website), but what he lacks in height, he makes up for with hard work and a near 7-foot wingspan. He’s not particularly skilled, serving more as a finisher/dunker than a creator/playmaker, but he holds tons of value on the defensive side, where he’ll be able to match up against several positions. Days, too, is an undersized PF with a 7-foot wingspan, but he’s a much better scorer than Williams. The top-50 recruit is not overly athletic, but he can do just about anything on offense – he has a nice-looking outside shot, is a good passer, and projects as a solid defender.
Finally, Bigby-Williams comes to LSU by way of Oregon. He wasn’t given much run up in Eugene, but the lanky 7-foot center is a killer shot blocker with his Chris Boucher-like arms. Expect him to be superb in a reserve role behind the incoming young guns.
Bottom Line: Really the only thing potentially holding LSU back this season is their questions on defense. Last year the Bayou Bengals ranked 329th in FG% defense at the rim and were often eviscerated on the defensive glass. Presumably, the additions of Reid, Williams, Days, and Bigby-Williams solve this issue and the subtractions of Reath and Epps could actually be a good thing on defense. With Waters coming back, a good crop of role players, and a loaded incoming class, LSU should be one of the best offensive teams in the country and could be one of the best overall squads as well.