With a healthy mix of transfer firepower, Bruce Pearl has Auburn basketball back on the map for the 2021-22 season.
Riley’s Ranking: 17th
I thought we left the word “unprecedented” behind in 2020 until I saw Bruce Pearl’s 2021 roster. After years of pioneering small-ball at the collegiate level, the head coach has constructed a team that is surprisingly … big. A loaded frontcourt stands in stark contrast to his typical reliance on players 6-8 or shorter. But Pearl shouldn’t have to tweak too much to succeed with this group.
Five-star freshman Jabari Smith and North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler highlight the stable of big men. The 6-10 Smith comes to Auburn as its highest-rated recruit ever and possesses everything a coach wants in a modern big. Masterful mid-post moves and a pretty 3-point stroke punctuate his well-rounded skillset. Also, Smith shows good defensive instincts and a burgeoning ability as a passer.
Then, there’s the breakout candidate Kessler. The 7-footer finished his freshman season at UNC with several stellar performances — a 16-point, 12-rebound, 8-block performance versus Notre Dame stood out as his magnum opus. On defense, he uses both his agility and his length (7-6 wingspan) to blow up plays at the rim. In particular, Kessler thrives in drop coverage, forcing opponents into tough shots.
This will prove especially useful versus bigger teams, such as SEC bellwethers Kentucky and Tennessee.
In addition, Kessler will supply a seismic boost on the boards. Last season, Auburn simply could not clean the glass on defense. Opponents rebounded 31 percent of their misses against the Tigers, a mark that placed 307th nationally (KenPom). Kessler’s defensive-rebounding rate would have placed top-15 in the ACC had he registered enough minutes to qualify.
On offense, Pearl will utilize both Smith and Kessler in creative ways, allowing them plenty of freedom to roam on the perimeter. The two towers will help the Auburn basketball offense stay near the top of the SEC in adjusted efficiency.
Junior Jaylin Williams adds depth to the stacked unit. A beastly interior defender with decent shooting range, the 6-7 forward is a luxury to bring off the pine. Lastly, gigantic sophomore Dylan Cardwell could be in line for an uptick in minutes after showing bright spots as a frosh.
Moving to the wing, Pearl will tote his typical bag of sharpshooting, versatile players. Sophomore KD Johnson left the Little Caesar himself for greener pastures (and better pizza options) in Auburn. The off-guard checks in at a dense 190 pounds, and functionally uses his strength to finish through contact.
With his combination of power and athleticism, he bounds to the bucket, often getting to the line along the way. In SEC play, he drew 7.2 fouls per 40 minutes, which ranked 2nd in the conference.
Johnson will unite with junior Allen Flanigan to form one of the SEC’s best one-two punches on the perimeter. Like his running mate, Flanigan exhibits muscle in attacking the basket, scoring most of his points off of dribble-drives. The third-year wing will likely miss the entire non-con schedule with a partially torn Achilles, but if he makes a quick recovery, he will build upon a terrific sophomore season. Fellow junior Devan Cambridge will also log minutes at the 3, seeking to leave his sophomore slump in the past.
In the backcourt, Pearl brought in a couple of transfers to replace the outrageously fun Sharife Cooper. Two mid-major studs will duke it out for the starting point guard spot: Zep Jasper (College of Charleston) and Wendell Green (Eastern Kentucky).
Down the stretch of last season, Jasper flashed tremendous offensive potential. In his last seven contests at Charleston, he averaged 22.8 points and hit 44.8 percent of his 3s. Too bad FloSports, the Bermuda Triangle of Networks, broadcasted those games — if you found a way to access them, I hope you made it back to safety.
Green, on the other hand, will make Auburn basketball fans feel a strange sense of familiarity. At 5-11 with blazing speed, he fits the same billing as Cooper and Auburn great Jared Harper. While it would be unfair to heap those types of expectations on him, he commands the offense in a similar fashion to his predecessors. His passes soar perfectly into the hands of open teammates. Live-dribble kick-outs, no-look wrap-arounds, outlet passes in transition — he delivers them all with zip and precision. But far from a one-trick pony, Green already shoots off the bounce with confidence:
Both stand to benefit from the Auburn basketball guard-friendly system, but Green likely emerges as the top floor general.
Regarding the style of play, Pearl probably doesn’t change much even with his formidable frontcourt. On defense, they’ll continue to press teams into a frenzy, feasting on run-outs off of turnovers. This is where both Green and Johnson will manufacture chaos. The two guards play with impeccable anticipation, especially Johnson, who led the SEC in steal rate a season ago.
However, when opponents do score on Auburn, it shifts away from pace, preferring to operate out of its halfcourt sets. This unique style of blitzing foes on defense while bleeding them on offense makes for a harrowing matchup. And when high-level talent gets added to the scheme, well, good luck trying to counter. (As a fan of a team that got Auburn’d and still hasn’t recovered, I can personally attest to this). If the new players quickly gel and one guard provides stability, this ranking will end up too low. The Tigers possess a top-10 ceiling.
Projected starters: G – Wendell Green Jr. (So.); G – KD Johnson (So.); G/F – Allen Flanigan (Jr.); F – Jabari Smith (Fr.); F/C – Walker Kessler (So.)
Projected bench: G – Zep Jasper (Sr.); F – Jaylin Williams (Jr.); G – Devan Cambridge (Jr.); C – Dylan Cardwell (So.)
Strengths: Frontcourt; offensive rebounding; drawing fouls
Weaknesses: Two lead guards transferring up; inconsistent shooting for Auburn’s standards
Best player: Realistically could be Johnson, Flanigan, Smith or Kessler
Breakout player: Kessler