Bruce Pearl used to be unable to look recruits – guys like Jared Harper and Bryce Brown – in the eye and sell them the idea of fighting for championships and making it to the NBA.
That just wasn’t where Auburn was as a program in 2014, when Pearl was named head coach. It was one of the worst big conference jobs in college basketball at the time. A lot has changed since then. Auburn is a player on the national stage, with two SEC regular-season titles, one SEC tournament championship, three NCAA tournament appearances and one Final Four run during Pearl’s tenure. The program has also produced several first-round NBA draft picks, with two more on the horizon this summer.
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All of this has happened in the last five seasons.
“That’s the foundation we laid,” Pearl said.
And now, after one of the most successful seasons in program history and a disappointing postseason, Pearl will look to quickly retool Auburn’s roster for another run in 2022-23. The Tigers will lose three key rotation figures from this year’s roster, 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 prospective first-round picks. Smith, the National Freshman of the Year and the program’s second consensus All-American, is the potential #1 overall pick in the draft. Kessler, Naismith’s Defensive Player of the Year, is currently predicted to be mid to late in the first round.
“Of course, when you lose two great players like Walker and Jabari, it becomes a challenge,” Pearl said. “But that’s the beauty of what we do…. We’re reconstructing.”
At Auburn these days, it’s less of a rebuild and more of a reload. There, the program has positioned itself under Pearl, pushing its way into the mix for top-flight talent each year – both from the ranks of high school and from the transfer market.
Along with Smith and Kessler, Auburn loses backup wing Devan Cambridge, who joined the transfer portal after three seasons with the program, and former walk-on Preston Cook, who received a scholarship last season. Cook is looking for a graduate transfer opportunity while Cambridge is moving to Arizona state for his senior season alongside his brother, Nevada transfer Desmond Cambridge.
“Devan was very loyal to our program,” Pearl said. “Devan was in a position where everyone would come back. And what would change for Devan? I just think he wanted a bigger role. Well, I guess Devan. I estimate the three years he was here. And I understand his decision. I believe if it’s best for the student-athletes, it’s for the best. And I think that could very well be – I hope it will be good for him that he gets a bigger role in his next station.”
So where does Auburn’s roster go for 2022-23?
The Tigers will bring back three starters in Zep Jasper (back for a sixth season), KD Johnson (the team’s second-top scorer) and Allen Flanigan, as well as sixth-man Wendell Green Jr. (the Tigers’ third-top scorer and assist leader) and rotational pieces Jaylin Williams and Dylan Cardwell. Auburn will also return reserves Chris Moore – who was in the rotation for a while last year – and Stretch Akingbola.
That’s a solid core to work around, especially if Flanigan can return to his 2020-21 form when three experienced guards return and Pearl looks forward to making Williams a fixture on offense.
“I expect Jaylin Williams to be a dominant role next year,” Pearl said. “And he’s ready. He took one for the team this year and competed with Jabari, but Jabari was the best player on the floor every night.”
Alongside these returnes, Auburn also signed two players in the 2022 class in four-star guard/forward Chance Westry and three-star point guard Tre Donaldson.
That brings Auburn to 10 scholarship players already signed for next season. The NCAA limit is 13, but Auburn may opt for 12 as it continues to issue sanctions imposed by the NCAA as part of its punishment due to the 2017 FBI investigation that bogged down the program. Some of these sanctions included a reduction in two scholarships over the course of a four-year trial period; The Tigers already worked under 12 scholarships last season, so they will have to deal with another scholarship cut over the next three seasons.
As Pearl and his staff work to populate the list, there are two areas that they hope to address as they fill in the remaining grant slots.
The first goal is one that’s already done, but not yet pretty much officially.
“The biggest thing is at the front,” Pearl said. “How can we complement Stretch, Dylan and Jaylin? That’s #1. How can we complement these three returning players? …We actually passed on some pretty good players that we just didn’t feel like complementing… If you’re out there and you’re looking at what happened to Walker and Jabari in a year, Auburn is a pretty attractive situation. Because both Jabari and Walker have made great strides this year. That is certainly something to recruit for.”
Pearl hasn’t been able to dig deeper into that aspect of the roster as the piece the Tigers have isn’t officially on board just yet. Auburn recently received an acceptance letter from Yohan Traore, a top 15 national-level recruit who would be the second-highest signee in school history, behind Smith. He committed to the program last week but has yet to sign, so Pearl cannot publicly comment on him.
Traore fits the bill for what Auburn wants to add to the forecourt. His long-term projection is as a stretch four, but he should slot right up center to complement Williams as a big man who can attack the rim, stretch the ground when needed, and be a top-flight defender around the basket and on switches.
Once Traore signs, Auburn’s grant tally will rise to 11, with one — and possibly two — spots to be filled. Regardless of whether Auburn decides to go for the full 13 scholarships or complete that particular sanction for the upcoming season, Pearl would like to use the remaining opening(s) to improve the team’s perimeter shooting.
Auburn shot just 31.9 percent from 3-point range this season, which ranked 272nd among Division I teams and the 10th-worst clip among the 68 teams that made it onto the NCAA tournament field. In the team’s second-round loss to Miami, they shot just 5 of 26 (19.2 percent) from deep. Now the Tigers are losing their best 3-point shooter in Smith, who shot 42 percent from deep at 6-foot-10. Their most successful 3-pointer shooter is Jasper, which scored 36.6 percent on 2.2 attempts per game; Green shot 31.7 percent on 5.5 attempts per game while Johnson shot 29 percent on 4.6 attempts.
“That’s definitely a problem for us,” Pearl said. “If we had hit the ball better, we would have gone much further in the tournament. Overall we defended well as a team, I thought we played pretty well, I thought we shared but we shot like shit. So this is something that needs improvement.”
Auburn could meet that need through the transfer portal — which has proven generous to the program over the last offseason — or through the 2022 recruit class.
The Tigers are in the mix for former 2022 LSU five-star signee Julian Phillips, an athletic 6ft 8 forward who could fit as a winger in Pearl’s system. According to The Athletic, citing Synergy stats, Phillips shot 40.6 percent catching and shooting 3-pointers at Link Academy last season. The program also has Reportedly contacted Jarod Lucas (a career 38 percent deep shooter) of Oregon State and Ohio transfer Mark Sears (40.8 percent on 3-pointers last season)among other.
“Three or four of the last five years, excluding the COVID year, have been some of the best years in Auburn basketball history,” Pearl said. “I’m very, very proud that we’ve done it and been competitive with very different squads over the last five years. And this is the challenge we are facing right now.
“But where there is challenge, there is opportunity. It’s an opportunity for the returning players to grow and it’s an opportunity for the new guys to come in and make an impact.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.