By Trey Mongrue
LSU men’s basketball received some fantastic news last week.
Having been verbally committed to play for the Tigers for quite some time, Australia-native and top-rated high school recruit Ben Simmons took advantage of the early signing period by inking his name to an LSU scholarship.
“We are thrilled to have Ben Simmons and his wonderful family officially join the LSU basketball family,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “His talent level, hard work and passion for the game will allow him to make an immediate impact on the program.”
Standing at 6-foot-10, Simmons has the size to defend almost anyone on the court, but the ball skills of a point guard that will surely cause matchup problems for opposing teams. He is so highly thought of that many believe that Simmons would be the first pick in the 2015 NBA Draft if he were allowed to enter it.
His signing is yet another positive for an LSU team that is still in the midst of a renaissance of sorts.
Of course, Simmons won’t be coming to Baton Rouge until the 2015-16 season. In the meantime, the Tigers in tow for this season show much potential in their own right.
Coming off of the program’s first 20-win season since 2009, sophomores Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin are back to anchor the squad. But between graduations, transfers – both in and out – and a new freshman class, there has been a lot of roster turnover from last season.
If Saturday’s season-opening 93-82 win over Gardner-Webb is any indication, scoring won’t be a problem for the Tigers. However, there is still much to improve on if they plan on finally fulfilling the goal of a NCAA Tournament berth.
“We have a new basketball team, a lot of new pieces out there and they have to learn how to play together,” said Jones. “As we continue to play games, we are hopeful that we continue to improve.”
Go Big or Go Home
Size in the paint has been a problem for LSU in past years. Last season, the 6-foot-8 Mickey registered the most minutes of any Tiger at center – partly out of necessity and partly because Johnny O’Bryant III had the power forward spot locked down.
That’s not to say Mickey didn’t make a mark as the center, averaging 12.7 points while shooting 53 percent from the field and totaling 106 blocks en route to an SEC All-Freshman Team selection. But one of the main reasons why Mickey did not enter last June’s NBA Draft was because undersized centers don’t often get picked high, if at all.
Now, with freshman 7-footer Elbert Robinson now in the mix, it allows Mickey to play more minutes at his much more natural power forward position where he can take advantage of the mid-range jump shot that he worked on all offseason.
“I’ve been trying to be more versatile and step out to extend my game,” explained Mickey. “I’ve made some great strides with my shooting. My jump shot is much more consistent now.”
Ideally, Jones would like to see the bulk of Mickey’s minutes be at power forward this season – not only for Mickey’s sake, but also because it allows Martin to stay out on the wing.
However, Robinson’s conditioning is still not to the point to where he can provide more than 25 minutes of playing time. Also, there are questions as to whether or not guys like John Odo, Darcy Malone and Brian Bridgewater can come off the bench and maintain the necessary level of play.
Because of that, Mickey will still see some big minutes guarding bigger players, but he feels he is up to it when the situation calls for it.
“I feel comfortable pretty much anywhere on the floor,” he said. “I believe versatility makes you a better player and that’s something that I’ve prided myself on.”
The Need for Speed
While Mickey and the rest of the LSU bigs work in the paint, the Tigers also find themselves breaking in a new starting backcourt following the departures of Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey making way for a pair of transfers, point guard Josh Gray and shooting guard Keith Hornsby.
“We have such a respect for each other’s game,” said Hornsby of his relationship with Gray. “Since we’ve been playing together in practice, we have seen signs of brilliance.”
What makes this backcourt pairing so exciting is that they both love to run in transition, which is something that Jones has implemented in spurts at LSU since he took over in 2012.
“We are a fast-paced team,” said Jones. “We are going to play at a quicker pace when we have the opportunity to.”
That was shown in LSU’s lone exhibition game against Morehouse, a 71-47 win, where Gray and Hornsby combined for eight fast break points.
“That’s something we’re good at,” said Hornsby, who sat out last year after transferring from UNC-Asheville after his sophomore season. “Given the personnel that we have, it’s something that we want to do.”
“We run a lot because I think we’re well conditioned,” added Gray. “That’s our identity, a lot of up and down play, a lot of ball screens. We want to open up the game.”
Coming to LSU will be change of pace in more ways than one for Gray.
Running the point for Odessa Junior College last season, Gray was more of a scorer than passer, averaging almost 35 points a game. Now on a team with much more talent around him, he is working on his passing game more than anything.
“I put up a lot of numbers in JUCO,” said Gray. “People expect me to do that here but I really don’t have to. I just need run the team and get our guys going.”
Sixth Man: Aaron Epps?
While the starting lineup is pretty much locked, there is still the matter of finding someone who can provide a spark off of the bench similar to what Shavon Coleman provided in the past for the Tigers.
That role may soon go to Aaron Epps, because according to Jones, the freshman forward can do a little bit of everything.
“He’s a good rebounder especially on the defensive end and a good shooter,” Jones said of the 6-foot-9 Epps. “Once he gets used to playing, he potentially provides a lot of things for us other than scoring.”
Having missed the exhibition due to a stomach bug, Epps made his first appearance for LSU in the season opener. He scored just two points – a tip-in to end the first half, but also contributed with four rebounds, an assist, a steal and a team-high three blocks in 18 minutes of play.
It was not a bad debut by any means.
“I just want to work hard everyday and help out the team,” he said. “Coach Jones preaches to me to use my length to bother guards on the defensive end and my outside shot to help out on offense.”
Last season was supposed to be the year that LSU ended its NCAA Tournament drought. Obviously, that didn’t happen because of multiple injuries and a tougher than expected Southeastern Conference. The Tigers were expected to finish fourth in the conference this season despite a tough schedule that includes a home-and-home with seventh-ranked Florida and a home game against top-ranked Kentucky. So far, the stock for LSU under Jones has been rising with each passing year. Depth is certainly an issue that needs to a fix, but this year finally feels like the one where LSU hears its name called on Selection Sunday. It should be a good thing too because Simmons comes in the following season. It could be something special if he joins a team with postseason experience.