ESPN Doesn’t Appear To Think A Whole Lot Of Johnny Jones, And He Needs To Win Big Next Year

File these under “Yikes.”

First, from a list made of “10 bold predictions for the 2015-16 season“…

  • Ben Simmons won’t live up to the hype: Simmons is a great prep player. He’s the No. 1 high school player in America for a reason. The 6-foot-9 forward could be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft. He has the tools to be an immediate threat at this level. Just one problem: He has a coach who doesn’t have a knack for developing talent. Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey didn’t make the strides that most anticipated when the two NBA prospects returned for the 2014-15 season. Simmons will have the ball in his hands a lot next season. But will Johnny Jones and his staff mold him into the superstar that he’s expected to be? There are no guarantees of that.

And then, from ESPN’s “Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2015-16,” LSU ranks No. 18 – which is a nice bit of recognition but the writeup to go with the ranking doesn’t exactly entice LSU’s sports information department to publicize it

LSU basketball fans, assuming they exist, began November with a glorious vision: That, when the class of 2015’s top overall prospect — uber-star Ben Simmons — arrived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he would join two fellow first-rounders and form a bona fide national title contender. Instead, both Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey will take their talents to the NBA, and what could have been an obscenely loaded team will instead have to settle for being merely fascinating. By all accounts, Simmons is the real deal, not only a preternaturally skilled future pro but a great, unselfish passer to boot. And he’ll be joined by fellow McDonald’s All American Antonio Blakeney, the No. 2-ranked shooting guard, and No. 14-ranked player, in the ESPN 100. What else will LSU have? There is rising senior Keith Hornsby, who had a solid 2014-15 as the Tigers’ lone perimeter threat — and could, in an ideal configuration, pair with Blakeney to spread the floor and keep defenses honest against Simmons. Unfortunately, given the Tigers’ lack of execution in key moments all season, and the occasionally baffling (and baffled) work of coach Johnny Jones, it’s a major stretch to use the words “LSU” and “ideal configuration” in the same sentence. Simmons is not to be missed. Beyond that, who knows?

It’s not good when your head basketball coach gets called “baffling (and baffled)” by the national sports media. Especially when you’re in the process of trying to hire a lead assistant coach and sign two players in the late signing period.

Jones has without question improved LSU’s basketball program since he took the job. But that’s currently a curse as well as a blessing – because he’s now assembled enough talent for next year’s team to create some expectations nationally surrounding their potential. While that part is definitely a blessing and Jones clearly has his program on the map, he was introduced to the national eye in last month’s NCAA Tournament second round when LSU melted down and blew a 16-point lead in losing to NC State in a fashion which didn’t make Jones look like a good floor coach.

Now you’ve got ESPN saying Jones can’t develop players and predicting he’ll ruin Ben Simmons.


Then there was The Big Lead, which also put out its early-bird Top 25. LSU got a mention as a team just missing the list, with a write-up looking a bit like ESPN’s…

LSU (22-11, 1st round). The good news is that the Tigers have the best recruit in the country in 6-foot-9 forward Ben Simmons, and they’ve also locked down one of the most explosive guards in the country, Antonio Blakeney. Simmons is a 1-and-done talent who will be good enough to get the Tigers to the dance. Coach Johnny Jones leaves something to be desired.

Of course, as we all know, opinions are like certain parts of the human anatomy – everybody has one.

But here’s what’s worrisome: Even without Mickey, who is making a colossal mistake going pro this year, and Martin, who is not, Jones is going to have a very talented team. If he’s able to reel in McDonald’s All-American guard Malik Newman of Calloway High School in Jackson and 6-9 shotblocker Ray Kasongo of the College of Southern Idaho, his apparent A-list recruits to fill out the LSU roster, there should be no weaknesses on that club. But next year becomes a do-or-die for Jones. He has to win big next year with Simmons and Blakeney, plus returning players Hornsby, Tim Quarterman and Josh Gray – because all five are likely gone after next year and so will Newman in all likelihood if he does come to LSU. Two years from now, Jones’ team will have Jalyn Patterson and Craig Victor as its two best players unless Quarterman sticks around for his senior year, plus the hoped-for development (that ESPN says Jones isn’t capable of producing) of Elbert Robinson, Darcy Malone, Brian Bridgewater and Aaron Epps.

Barring a fresh round of superstar recruits coming in, that’s a team which will not be a favorite to make the NCAA Tournament.

And if the narrative crystallizes that “Johnny Jones can’t coach,” it’s going to affect recruiting. If he doesn’t have a big year next year and then his talent begins dropping off, a reputation as a poor coach is going to be a killer of his attempts to re-energize the program.

Not to mention fan support will fall off if the people ESPN doesn’t think exist buy into that same narrative.

In the here and now, Jones still has a perfectly good chance to make some good things happen. Even if Newman and Kasongo don’t make it to LSU, Jones could swoop in and grab 6-3 guard Chad Lott of Byrd High School in Shreveport and 6-6- Melvin Frazier of Higgins High School on the West Bank in New Orleans. Neither one of them would be likely to make a big impact as freshmen but they’re very solid players who would be in the program a while, and two years from now they might actually give Jones more to work with than Simmons and Blakeney will (given that both are probably gone after a year). And if he’s able to shed some of the dopey things his team did this year – the awful free throw shooting, particularly late in games, the inexplicable turnovers, the spotty rebounding, the weak interior defense – and ride the basketball IQ of Simmons and Blakeney and the experience of Quarterman, Hornsby, Gray and Patterson to better basketball, maybe next year he’ll make the kind of run that answers the critics.

He does that, and he should be able to put another good recruiting class together next year and keep a competitive program going.

But if he doesn’t, those lousy reviews might just represent a tipping point in his tenure at LSU.



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