Bruce Pearl finds “beauty” in the challenge of reorganizing Auburn’s roster for 2022-23

Bruce Pearl was unable to look recruits – guys like Jared Harper and Bryce Brown – in the eye and sell them to the idea of ​​competing for the championships and making it to the NBA.

That’s not where Auburn was on schedule in 2014 when Pearl was named head coach; at the time it was one of the worst conference jobs in college basketball. A lot has changed over time since then. Auburn is a player on the national scene, with a couple of SEC regular season titles, a SEC Tournament championship, three NCAA tournament appearances and a Final Four during Pearl’s tenure. The program also produced more choices than the NBA Draft in the first round, with two more on the horizon this summer.

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All of this has come in the last five seasons.

“This is the foundation we built,” said Pearl.

And now, after one of the most successful seasons in the program’s history and a disappointing post-season screening, Pearl will be looking to quickly rearrange Auburn’s roster for another run in 2022-23. The Tigers will lose three key roster rotation pieces this year, including both members of their All-America frontcourt: Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler, both of whom have been declared for the NBA Draft this week and are slated for round one. . Smith, the National Freshman of the Year and the second All-American acclaimed program, is the potential No. 1 overall in the draft. Kessler, the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, is currently projected as a mid-to-late first-round pick.

“When you lose two great players like Walker and Jabari, obviously it will be a challenge,” said Pearl. “But that’s the beauty of what we’re doing…. We are rebuilding ”.

In Auburn these days, it’s not so much a rebuild as a refill. This is where the program has positioned itself under Pearl, joining the mix of top-tier talent – both from the high school ranks and the transfer market – every year.

Along with Smith and Kessler, Auburn loses reserve winger Devan Cambridge, who entered the transfer portal after three seasons with the program, and former walk-on Preston Cook, who got a scholarship last season. . Cook is looking for an opportunity as a graduate transfer while Cambridge is moving to the state of Arizona for his senior season along with his brother, the Nevada transfer Desmond Cambridge.

“Devan has been very loyal to our schedule,” said Pearl. “Devan just found himself in a position where everyone was returning. And what would have changed for Devan? I just think he wanted a more meaningful role. So, I appreciate Devan. I appreciate the three years he has been here. And I understand his decision. I believe that if it is best for student-athletes, it is what is best. And I think this could very well – I hope he is happy with the fact that he gets a bigger role at his next stage. “

So where does the Auburn roster go for 2022-23?

The Tigers will return three starters in Zep Jasper (returned for the sixth season), KD Johnson (the second top scorer of the team) and Allen Flanigan, as well as sixth man Wendell Green Jr. (third top scorer and assists of the leading Tigers) and pieces of rotation Jaylin Williams and Dylan Cardwell. Auburn is also expected to return reserves Chris Moore – who was in and out of the rotation at times last year – and Stretch Akingbola.

This is a solid core to get around, especially if Flanigan can return to his 2020-21 form, with three veteran guards returning and Pearl excited to turn Williams into an offensive fixture.

“I expect Jaylin Williams to have a dominant role next year,” said Pearl. “And it’s ready. He picked one up for the team this year and competed with Jabari, but Jabari was the best player on the pitch every single night.

Along with those throwback pieces, Auburn also has two players signed to the 2022 class in four-star guard / forward Chance Westry and three-star point guard Tre Donaldson.

This puts Auburn on 10 scholarship players already signed up for next season. The NCAA limit is 13, but Auburn can choose to go with 12 as he continues to serve penalties imposed by the NCAA as part of his punishment stemming from the 2017 FBI investigation that ensnared the program. Part of these penalties included the reduction of two scholarships over a four-year probationary period; the Tigers have already operated 12 scholarships last season and therefore have an additional scholarship reduction to sail in the next three seasons.

As Pearl and her staff work to replenish the list, there are two areas they hope to address as they fill the remaining places for the scholarships.

The first target is the one that has already been ticked, but it isn’t Rather officially.

“The most important thing is on the front line,” said Pearl. “How can we complete Stretch, Dylan and Jaylin? This is number 1. How can we complete those three returning players? … We actually passed some good players who just didn’t feel completed … If you’re out there and are watching what happened to Walker and Jabari in a year, Auburn is a rather interesting situation. Because both Jabari and Walker have made a lot of progress this year. It’s definitely something that’s cool to be able to recruit for.

Pearl failed to delve into that aspect of the roster because the piece the Tigers joined the fold is not yet officially on board. Auburn recently received a pledge from Yohan Traore, a five-star prominent man, one of the top 15 nationwide recruits who would be the second highest-scoring signatory in the school’s history, behind only Smith. He committed to the program last week but has yet to sign, so Pearl is unable to comment on it publicly.

Traore fits the bill for what Auburn wants to add to the frontcourt. His long-term throw is like a four-way stretch, but he should immediately fit in the center to complement Williams as a big man who can attack the rim, stretch the floor when needed, and be a top level defender around the basket and on the exchanges.

Once Traore signs, that will bring Auburn’s scholarship tally to 11, with one – and possibly two – places to fill. Whether Auburn chooses to go with the full 13 scholarships or chooses to wrap up that specific penalty for next season, Pearl wants to use the remaining openings to improve the team’s perimeter shot.

Auburn has only pulled 31.9 percent from 3 points this season, which ranked 272nd among Division I teams and was the 10th worst clip among 68 teams to enter the NCAA tournament field. In the team’s second-round defeat to Miami, he only shot 5 of 26 (19.2%) from deep. Now the Tigers lose their best 3-point shooter to Smith, who at 6-foot-10 shot 42 percent from depth. Their best 3-point shooter is Jasper, who shot 36.6% with 2.2 attempts per game; Green shot 31.7 percent with 5.5 attempts per game, while Johnson shot 29 percent with 4.6 attempts.

“This is definitely a problem for us,” said Pearl. “If we had shot the ball better, we would have gone much further in the tournament. Overall, as a team, we defended well, I thought we played pretty well, I thought we shared well, but we shot like shit. So this is something that needs to improve. “

Auburn could meet this need through the transfer portal – which proved plentiful for the schedule last season – or through the 2022 recruiting class.

The Tigers are in the mix for former 2022 LSU five-star player Julian Phillips, an athletic 6-foot 8 forward who could fit as a winger in Pearl’s system. According to The Athletic, citing Synergy’s stats, Phillips shot 40.6 percent on 3 catch-and-shoot points at Link Academy last season. The program also has reportedly contacted Oregon state relocation Jarod Lucas (a 38% career shooter from deep inside) And Mark Sears move to Ohio (40.8% on 3 points last season)among others.

“Three or four of the past five years, with the exception of the COVID year, have been some of the best years in Auburn basketball history,” said Pearl. “I am very, very proud that we managed to do this and have been competitive over the past five years with very different rosters. And we are facing this challenge right now.

“But where there is that challenge, there is the opportunity. It’s an opportunity for returning players to grow, and it’s an opportunity for the new kids to come in and make an impact. “

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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