…as three of the four main cogs from last year’s 21-10 Tiger basketball team are set to return. Add them to a bombshell recruiting class Wade put together, and assuming the COVID-19 panic doesn’t cause havoc to the basketball season as it’s doing to football this might just be a banner year.
LSU forward Trendon Watford is returning to the Tigers for his sophomore season, a source told 247Sports. The All-SEC freshman gave the Tigers good news on Monday, joining guard Javonte Smart and forward Darius Days in returning to Will Wade’s program for the 2020-21 season.
The Birmingham, Ala. native reportedly received an invite to the NBA Combine, which is planned for Oct. 16, but opted instead to return to school. The Tigers will be among the favorites to win the SEC after a Top 4 finish in the league last season.
Watford started 30 of 31 games, averaging 13.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game in 3.15 minutes per game. Watford finished as one of four freshmen in the Top 20 in the SEC in scoring, the top freshman rebounder and sixth overall in the league, and sixth in the SEC in field goal percentage, making 47.9 percent of his shots.
Charles Manning, who was just beginning to look like an emerging star on the wing last year before he got hit with a pair of foot injuries that knocked him out of SEC action, is likely a fourth starter to go with Watford, Smart and Days. There are a whole bunch of possibilities for the fifth starting job.
LSU is losing the graduated Skylar Mays, Emmitt Williams, who turned pro after playing his sophomore season this spring (Williams wasn’t really ready, but severe money problems forced his hand), and Marlon Taylor, who exhausted his eligibility. Those three aren’t the only players leaving, as little-used backups James Bishop and Courtese Cooper are transferring; Bishop to George Washington and Cooper to an undisclosed future location.
Aundre Hyatt, who had a rough freshman year – billed as a three-point threat, he had a lot of problems getting his shot to fall, and he didn’t have as much quickness on a surgically-repaired knee as Wade would have hoped – is also back to lend some experience. Hyatt could be the fifth starter, but he’s likely to be in a major fight to hold a place in the playing rotation with the monster recruiting class Wade brought in.
Of the recruits, the question which one would emerge as the fifth starter likely depends on the NCAA. LSU has three transfers coming in, all of whom were very highly recruited. But it’s when they would be eligible that decides the fate of LSU’s lineup. Josh LeBlanc, who gives Wade a long, athletic 6-7 combo forward who could team with Watford and Days for one of the quickest and most skilled frontcourts in all of college basketball (though at 6-9/6-7/6-6 it wouldn’t exactly be the tallest), is set to become eligible in December after transferring from Georgetown at mid-year. Wade said, after seeing LeBlanc practice with the team, that he’s one of the best players LSU has and would have made a major impact on the team’s defense had he played last season.
But if Shareef O’Neal, who announced he was transferring to LSU in March from UCLA, is eligible O’Neal would give the Tigers both athleticism and size. O’Neal has a reputation as an elite rebounder and his offensive game was thought to be highly developed during his high school career, but a heart condition wrecked his career at UCLA, forcing him to redshirt his freshman year and interrupting his confidence to an extent in the few games he played in the 2019-20 season. If he’s eligible and he’s back to the player he was coming out of high school, an O’Neal-Watford-Days-Manning-Smart starting five might be more than most opponents could compete with.
Bryant Penn-Johnson, who was the final addition to the LSU roster when superstar recruit Moussa Cisse opted for hometown Memphis over LSU a couple of weeks ago, would need a waiver from the NCAA to become eligible. Penn-Johnson is, like O’Neal, something of an unpolished diamond; highly-rated out of high school, his two years at the University of Washington have largely been scuppered by injuries. Still, he’s 7-0 with a 7-5 wingspan, and if Penn-Johnson could learn to defend without fouling and become a better rebounder he could well develop into the kind of player Kavel Bigby-Williams was for Wade. Whether it happens this year is doubtful; Penn-Johnson is likely slated for a bench role if he’s not forced to sit out the year.
But two more recruits could enter into the mix as potential starters on the LSU frontcourt.
Mwani Wilkinson, a 6-6 jumping jack with an outstanding outside stroke and a great defensive game, could well muscle his way into the lineup as the “3” in LSU’s matchup zone scheme. Wilkinson was one of the most improved players in the country from his junior year to his senior year, and he’s a high-character, super-sharp kid who’s expected to outwork the competition and play a major role this season whether in the lineup or off the bench.
Then there’s Josh Gray, a 6-11 post player with a reputation as a rim protector. Gray doesn’t have much of an offensive game, but he’s a rebounder and shot blocker who likely fills that role off the bench as he develops for the future.
All that said, what’s most likely is Wade will use Manning as his “3” and the fifth starter will play the “2” position. That’s because LSU’s biggest marquee recruit is a 6-3 guard who scores points in bunches named Cam Thomas. Wade thinks Thomas might even lead LSU in scoring, which is a strong statement considering that Watford averaged 13.7 points per game as a freshman and Smart (12.5) and Days (11.1) also scored in double figures as sophomores. But few players in college basketball can fill it up from outside like Thomas can, and almost nobody can score off the dribble the way he does. LSU has to replace 16 points per game from Skylar Mays having graduated; Thomas is a good bet to do just that.
Two other freshman guards won’t likely start but should very well be in the playing rotation. Eric Gaines, a rail-thin 6-3 combo guard with great quickness and a strong overall game, and Jalen Cook, an athletic 6-0 point guard with a proclivity for scoring not all that different from Thomas’, are a pair of players who will likely become a great backcourt for Wade down the line. He won’t need them for too much more than a few minutes a game spelling Smart, Thomas and Manning this season, but they still supply a wealth of talent at the guard spots. LSU should be deeper in the backcourt this season than they’ve been since Wade got to LSU, and that could well mean he finally can turn his players loose to play a full-court, up-tempo style seeking to wear opponents out like he did at VCU.
In any event, what we knew would be a fun season just solidified with Smart, Days and Watford all coming back. Let’s just hope there’s a season to enjoy.