There has been a good bit of negativity over the future of Will Wade and his otherwise-resurgent basketball program, arising mostly from Wade’s month-long suspension at the end of the regular season after he was named in a series of Yahoo! Sports stories featuring leaked transcripts of FBI wiretaps in the Christian Dawkins/Merle Code/Adidas trial. Those wiretaps called into question some of Wade’s recruiting practices, but the players involved in Wade’s discussions – guard JaVonte Smart and forward Naz Reid – have both denied being offered anything improper to sign with LSU.
While Wade’s current employment status appears to be more or less back to normal, it wouldn’t quite be accurate to say LSU’s program is none the worse for the controversy surrounding the wiretaps. LSU was working on three highly-rated players to close out its spring signing class, and lost two of them – star shooting guard Lester Quinones to Memphis and 6-10 power forward Khadim Sy to Ole Miss.
But the key piece to that class, the one Wade couldn’t live without, was Birmingham, AL Mountain Brook forward Trendon Watford. And this afternoon the 6-9, 230-pound five-star recruit picked the Tigers over Memphis, Indiana and Alabama.
“We are very excited to welcome Trendon Watford to our LSU Basketball family,” said Wade in LSU’s release announcing Watford’s signing. “He is a versatile forward who has a unique ability to make plays for the team and himself. He’s proven that his game translates to winning at every level. We look forward to playing a role in his continued development.”
Getting Watford – along with retrieving a number of the 2018-19 Tigers who have been flirting with the NBA Draft, the first of which to return was Smart, who announced he was pulling out of the draft yesterday – is the most important piece to the puzzle for Wade as he seeks to put LSU back into the NCAA Tournament mix after missing his team’s Sweet 16 run this year due to the suspension.
Watford led Mountain Brook to three straight Class 7A state titles and averaged 23.7 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.1 steals and 2.5 blocks per game during his senior season. For that effort, he won the second of his back-to-back Mr. Basketball awards, and Watford then played in five all-star games including the prestigious McDonald’s All-American game and the Jordan Brand Classic. He had 10 points, seven rebounds and six assists in the McDonald’s game and finished with 18 points and seven boards in the Jordan Brand contest.
Watford, in discussing his commitment, told AL.com that Reid’s having turned pro was a key factor in choosing LSU.
“It’s the trust,” he said of why he picked LSU, “the trust I have with those coaches and them helping me reach my potential.”
Watford said he’s confident LSU coach Will Wade will be at the school after being suspended and reinstated him after published reports said he was caught on a wiretap talking about paying a recruit as part of the ongoing federal corruption trial and scandal in college basketball.
“When he got reinstated, he was still talking to me throughout the whole time and his athletic director was behind him,” Watford said. “So, you know, I feel like he’ll be there.”
Watford said he’ll report to Baton Rouge in June.
“I feel like I’ll fit in great,” he said. “You now, Naz Reid isn’t there anymore, and I feel like I can replace him. Just pick up where they left off last year.”
Watford doesn’t quite have Reid’s size – he gives up an inch and about 25 pounds to Reid – but he’s a little quicker and perhaps has a bit more body control, and he definitely looks like a more polished player than Reid at the same stage of his career. Watford is currently rated the No. 17 overall player in the 2019 recruiting class nationally by 247 Sports, which compares to Reid’s No. 18 ranking last year. But both players are ultra-talented posts who can handle the ball extremely well and bring outstanding shooting range to terrorize defenses.
Here are a couple of highlight reels on Watford to show what the Tigers are getting. First, from Mountain Brook’s upset win over IMG Academy in December…
So you’ll know, the two IMG bigs Watford was going against are both very highly-rated. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who is the son of former one-time LSU player Lester Earl and is a Villanova signee, is actually rated above Watford at No. 15. And Armando Bacot, who’s headed to North Carolina, is rated the No. 26 player in the country. Watford, without much help inside, outplayed both in dropping in 38 points to lead the win.
Another highlight video shows a bit more of Watford’s game…
And here was Watford in action in practice and game duty at the McDonald’s All-American game…
What happens now is going to be interesting, because with Watford’s commitment LSU isn’t finished with recruiting for this winter’s team – but the pickings are getting pretty slim with respect to impact recruits who can crack the playing rotation in 2019-20.
Assuming that Emmitt Williams, Skylar Mays and Marlon Taylor join Smart in pulling out of the NBA Draft, which has always been the likely proposition, here’s what LSU’s roster looks like so far.
- 6-8, 220-pound forward Courtese Cooper, a sophomore who redshirted last year after transferring from Triton Junior College;
- 6-9, 230-pound forward Trendon Watford, a true freshman;
- 6-6, 225-pound forward Emmitt Williams, a sophomore who averaged 7.0 ppg and 5.4 rpg last year;
- 6-6, 225-pound forward Darius Days, a sophomore who averaged 5.3 ppg and 4.0 rpg (and shot 38% from the 3-point line) last year;
- 6-6, 220-pound guard-forward Marlon Taylor, a senior who averaged 6.7 ppg and 3.6 rpg last year;
- 6-5, 225-pound guard-forward Andre Hyatt, a redshirt freshman who sat out last season rehabbing a knee;
- 6-6, 190-pound guard Charles Manning, a JC All-American transfer from Florida Southwestern State College;
- 6-4, 200-pound guard Skylar Mays, a senior who averaged 13.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg and 2.0 assists per game last year;
- 6-4, 200-pound guard JaVonte Smart, a sophomore who averaged 11.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg and 2.3 assists per game last year;
- 6-4, 195-pound guard Marshall Graves, a senior who averaged 2.5 ppg and shot 36.4% from the 3-point line last year;
- 6-3, 205-pound guard Will Reese, a junior walkon; and
- 6-2, 175-pound guard James Bishop, a true freshman.
Bishop is rated the No. 150 player in the country. He’s an underrated talent who brings a great outside shot to the table, as does Hyatt, who was a 3-star recruit last year but was slated to be a Top 150 recruit in 2019 before reclassifying and coming to LSU a year early to rehab that knee.
That’s a good-looking lineup, but it doesn’t show off a lot of size. Watford could well end up playing the “5” for LSU, with either Williams or Days playing the “4” along with a perimeter of more or less returning starters in Taylor, Mays and Smart – with Manning (rated the No. 4 JC transfer recruit in the country by JUCORecruiting.com) and Hyatt joining either Williams or Days as the top players in the rotation off the bench (and Cooper and Bishop also expecting regular playing time).
But with a lineup like that, if you’re LSU you’re going to do something Wade did a ton of at VCU – namely, press relentlessly and do everything you can to turn every game into a 40 Minutes Of Hell track meet. At VCU, that style of play was called “Havoc,” left over from Shaka Smart’s time there while Wade was an assistant, and it produced a couple of conference titles for Wade in Richmond.
When LSU pressed this past year, they were fairly devastating. A fairly obvious example was the press Wade’s team used to come back from a 15-point deficit at Missouri with just over two minutes left in the game. But with only an 8-man playing rotation the press wasn’t something Wade could turn to for long stretches of games for fear of wearing his players out, and particularly since he only had a four-man perimeter rotation with Taylor, Smart, Mays and Tremont Waters. He’s losing Waters, but he has the other three back plus he’s adding Hyatt, Manning and Bishop, and that means he’ll have six guards he can rotate into action – seven if he wants to add Graves into the mix.
It’s worth noting that Wade might have had a six-man guard rotation last year but for Daryl Edwards’ bum ankle and Danya Kingsby’s undisclosed medical issue. Both have since transferred; had they been able to play as Wade expected, LSU might well have played a more up-tempo game than they did. The point is, you’re likely to see it this year.
But there are still two scholarships remaining – perhaps three if Graves were to return to walkon status for his senior season and make room for another signee (which at this point doesn’t seem likely).
What’s likely is both scholarships will go to post players, and it’s a good bet one of them will be a JC or graduate transfer who can contribute immediately and give LSU an enforcer in the paint in games where they’ve got to play a half-court style, while the other will probably be a bit more developmental player who might even redshirt.
Who to look for in those slots? Well, the graduate transfer/JC market is quite a bit picked over at this point. But there are a couple of names circulating who could be candidates to join Watford as a spring LSU signee.
Khalid Thomas is a 6-9, 210-pound forward from the College of Southern Idaho rated as the No. 12 JC recruit in the country. Thomas, who averaged 14.5 ppg and 6.5 rpg as a freshman in 2017-18, saw his numbers dip to 8.6 ppg and 4.7 rpg this past year as a foot injury limited him to only 16 games. Last week he was released from his letter of intent to Texas Tech, owing to the Red Raiders taking a pair of highly-sought-after graduate transfers. LSU had offered Thomas back in the fall, and will likely be involved in his recruitment. But so will Oregon, and Thomas – who is originally from Idaho – took a visit to Eugene last weekend.
Eric Hamilton is a bigger body than Thomas at 6-10, 250, and he has a connection to LSU assistant coach Greg Heiar from Hamilton’s first two years of college when both were at Wichita State. Hamilton transferred to UNC-Greensboro and played as a spot starter on a 29-7 team. He averaged 6.1 ppg and 4.4 rpg, shooting .591 from the floor in about 16 minutes per game of action – not exactly the stuff of legend, but if you’re looking for a somewhat-productive banger to give you five fouls and some defense inside, Hamilton could be serviceable.
Kelvin Jones is a 6-11, 230-pound center from Idaho State who’s graduating this spring and leaving due to a coaching change there. Jones averaged 9.9 ppg and 5.6 rpg for the Vandals, shooting .553 from the floor and adding 1.5 blocks per game in 20 minutes per contest of action on an 11-19 team. He was highly productive but for a major hole in his game – Jones averaged 3.9 fouls per contest, which was the most in the country. Jones spent two years at UTEP, redshirting his first year, then transferred to Odessa JC before playing as a junior at ISU this past year. If Wade and his staff could do something about those fouls, Jones might be worth taking as an interior enforcer off the bench. Whether LSU is involved with Jones at this point isn’t known.
Sebit Reath, a 6-10 sophomore at Lee Junior College in the Houston area, is the younger brother of former Tiger Duop Reath. Sebit is a bit more of a project than Duop was, and he might not be a great fit for the up-tempo style Wade clearly wants to play. But Reath was productive this past year, averaging 12.6 ppg and 9.9 rpg and shooting an impressive 43% from the 3-point line as a sophomore. And if nothing else, he’s got an impressive vertical leap.
Of course, the too-good-to-be-true scenario for LSU would be for 6-11, 249-pound five-star recruit N’Faly Dante from Sunrise Christian High School in Wichita, Kansas to opt for reclassification to the 2019 class and choosing the Tigers. Dante is currently rated as the No. 10 player in the country for 2020 by 247 Sports, and the top-rated center in that class according to ESPN, but he’s rumored to be seriously considering finishing high school this summer and signing with a college. If he does that the three programs most often considered as his favorites are LSU, Kentucky and Tennessee. Before Wade’s suspension the word was LSU had the inside track – now it’s Kentucky catching a little more buzz. But with Wade back and Watford coming, it’s perhaps worth another look at Dante, a native of Mali whose game is awfully reminiscent of a young Shaquille O’Neal. Dante was in action over the weekend at the Nike EYBL event in Indianapolis, and he absolutely slaughtered the competition. If Wade were to land him, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Dante and Watford would give LSU a better post tandem than Bigby-Williams and Reid did this past year.
LSU also needs to get somebody they can develop over the longer term, because constantly retooling the post with one-year players will have the program on a knife edge every year. Along those lines, here are a couple of players who are potential takes as developmental post players.
First Rodney Howard is a 6-10, 230-pounder from Roswell, Georgia who played this past season at Legacy Early College Charter School in Greenville, South Carolina. He’s currently rated the No. 235 player in the country by 247 Sports, but he’s known to have a lot of upside – Howard’s only been playing basketball for three years. He had signed with Ole Miss in November, but with Sy committing there Howard asked for and received his release, and he’s now on the market. LSU has a connection with Howard in that Legacy Charter assistant coach Jeff Merritt was a manager on the Clemson basketball team with Wade and is the brother of LSU Coordinator of Basketball Operations Brian Merritt. Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Georgia are the others in the hunt for Howard.
And another player who just reclassified from 2020 to 2019, Ginikachukwu “John” Ojiako, is a very intriguing developmental prospect. The 6-10, 210-pound Nigerian starred on a loaded Admiral Farragut High School team in St. Petersburg, Florida this year, showing off some nice athleticism and a pretty good low post game. 247 Sports doesn’t even have him ranked for 2020 at this point, so he’s definitely a sleeper prospect, but Virginia Tech just offered Ojiako for 2019 and LSU is apparently on his trail as well.