Key Departures: Sharife Cooper (NBA); Justin Powell (–>Tennessee); JT Thor (NBA); Jamal Johnson (–>UAB)
New In Town: Walker Kessler (<–UNC); Wendell Green (<–E. Kentucky); Zep Jasper (<–Charleston); KD Johnson (<–Georgia); Jabari Smith (#6)
State of the Program:
Bruce Pearl has one of the longest leashes in the Country these days after taking Auburn to the Final Four in 2019, so he can withstand a sub-.500 season a time or two and not flinch. Last season’s fall from grace for the Tigers was marred by injuries, turnovers, and horrible shooting up and down the roster. This season Pearl and co. will look to get healthy and rebound, and back to help them do that are several key contributors including Allen Flannigan (JR), Jaylin Williams (JR), Devan Cambridge (JR) and Dylan Cardwell (SO) along with a massive group of transfers and a 5-star Freshman coming into the program. Flannigan and Williams were both leaders a season ago, especially when Cooper was out of the lineup, and figure to be top options for Pearl offensively. This returning core mixed with the veteran transfers coming in should allow the Tigers to bounce back in a major way and vie for another tournament berth.
Leading the incoming group is former 5-star C from UNC 7’1” Walker Kessler (SO) who comes onto campus looking to gain a larger role than he got a season ago with the Tar Heels. He is an average athlete that has a crafty offensive game inside and can stretch out to 3 as well, and at his size moves well enough to not be a liability on D. He should come in and start at the 5 for the Tigers. Wendell Green (SO) comes to campus off an impressive FR campaign where he was an All-OVC selection and will look to compete for the starting PG gig. Green is a pure lead guard that can attack and facilitate as well as get his own shot if he needs. His smooth handle and craftiness allows him to excel despite being undersized at 5’11”. He will likely be the starting PG next to a couple of returning G’s. Zep Jasper (SR) out of Charleston blossomed in his JR year last season as he earned all-conference honors and will come in looking to compete with Green for the starting PG gig. They are similar players, but Jasper has shown less of a willingness to be a facilitator and looks more for his shot, both from deep and at the rim. He will likely be better served as a sparkplug off the bench for the Tigers. KD Johnson (SO) had a tremendous FR season earning all-Freshman honors shooting nearly 39% from 3. He is an extremely physical G who not only strokes it from deep but will bully defenders in the paint and finish through contact. He will be a key piece off the bench and should provide a scoring spark. The last newcomer is 5-star PF 6’10” Jabari Smith (#6). Smith is the highest rated recruit in program history and comes in as a sure-fire star and lottery pick. He excels, frankly in all aspects on the offensive end as he can play with his back to the basket and score with creativity, can face up with a strong mid-range shot and handles to blow bye, and can stretch it out to the 3 point line with a pretty stroke. He has to start and will alongside Kessler give Auburn a massive interior.
This Auburn roster is very unique and very talented, providing Pearl with a great chance to have an immediate bounce back year. They will most likely play a gigantic lineup, with a front-court of 7’1” Kessler, 6’10” Smith, Jaylin Williams at the 3 who’s 6’8” and Flannigan at 6’6” at the 2. That size should allow them to dominate the paint, blocking shots, getting offensive rebounds and scoring most of their points in the paint. What puts them on the national radar for me is the fact their 2 big men can both stretch out to 3, so they can play that massive of a lineup but also have 3 point ability 1-5. That makes an offense extremely dangerous, as they don’t have to forfeit size for offensive ability. The two bigs inside should also allow the G’s on the perimeter to increase pressure and improve on their pathetic defensive numbers a season ago. It won’t be the same look as the Final Four group from ‘19, who played small and fast, but they still have a shot at being a top-10 offense and get back to the pressure defense with the shot blocking ability inside. I love this combination of returning scoring options to go with what should be a dominate interior combo in Kessler and Smith, plus the depth to have Cambridge, Cardwell, Jasper and Johnson off the bench gives Auburn elite potential. Look for Auburn to surprise some people in the Conference and make some noise in the Tournament come March.