EDITOR'S NOTE: Coming Friday, a look at the newcomers Auburn will add (signees Sharife Cooper, Justin Powell and Chris Moore) and could still add (such as top recruits Jalen Green and Greg Brown, as well as a host of transfers) before next season.
AUBURN — Bruce Pearl knew from the first day of practice that Auburn’s eight newcomers were going to be split into two separate camps.
Some of them would join seniors J’Von McCormick, Samir Doughty, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and Austin Wiley in the rotation and try to help the Tigers this year. The rest would be asked to wait their turn — play on the scout team this season and get ready to contribute next year.
Isaac Okoro (as a starter, second-leading scorer and second-team All-SEC selection), Allen Flanigan, Devan Cambridge and Jamal Johnson (as rotational players off the bench) fell into the former category. Tyrell Jones, Javon Franklin and Babatunde “Stretch” Akingbola fell into the latter category. Jaylin Williams finished somewhere in the middle, hardly playing through the Tigers’ first 25 games before joining the rotation for the final six.
Okoro likely won’t return for his sophomore season, opting to test the NBA draft waters and is a potential lottery pick. The rest of those players — Flanigan, Cambridge, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Franklin and Akingbola — should make up Auburn’s returning core.
The 2020-21 Tigers will be far more inexperienced than this season’s team that went 25-6 and finished second in the SEC. That team had to reinvent itself without leading scorers Bryce Brown, Jared Harper and Chuma Okeke but returned five seniors who played a role during the previous season’s Final Four run. Those five players, plus Okoro, combined to account for 78.4% of the team's minutes played 84.1% of the scoring this past season.
Next season’s team might not return a player who averaged more than five points or 14 minutes per game. And because of the coronavirus, none but Johnson (who played in the 2017-18 AAC Tournament with Memphis) will have any postseason experience.
But that group does bring a tantalizing amount of physical ability to the table.
Cambridge is a prime example. The 6-foot-6 wing led all freshmen not named Okoro averaging 4.2 points in 13.2 minutes per game. He flashed his impressive athleticism more than once during his freshman season with highlight-reel dunks and chase-down blocks. He just didn’t do it consistently — he was held scoreless in 13 of 31 games and shot 51.2% from the floor at home compared to just 17.2% on the road or in neutral-site games.
But the former three-star recruit out of Nashville, Tennessee, also put together two of the best scoring performances any Auburn player had all season. Cambridge erupted for 26 points in a Jan. 22 win over South Carolina, then 21 points in a Feb. 8 win over LSU.
Those performances are why Pearl has said more than once this season that, “someday, he could be our best player.”
Cambridge is in line to earn a lot more minutes as a sophomore. The same goes for Williams. The reason he appeared in only 14 of the Tigers’ first 25 games is not for lack of talent — he was a four-star recruit ranked in the top-120 nationally — but rather because he was behind seniors Purifoy, McLemore and Wiley in the frontcourt pecking order.
The 6-foot-7 Nahunta, Georgia, native’s opportunity didn’t arise until the middle of February after Okoro suffered a hamstring injury that cost him three games. Williams picked up some extra minutes and played well enough to stay in the rotation even when Okoro returned, totaling 21 points and 21 rebounds over 13.5 minutes per game over the final six games of the regular season.
The next step for those players, as well as Flanigan — who averaged only 3.2 points per game on 39.4% shooting but played solid defense in 13.2 minutes per game — is to make the leap from a secondary option to a more featured one, the same way players like Doughty (7.3 points to 16.7) and McCormick (4.1 to 11.6) did from the 2018-19 campaign to this past one.
Incremental improvements could also be expected from Johnson (who averaged only 3.5 points but led the team shooting 38.7% from the arc) and Franklin in their second seasons playing for the Tigers.
The path forward for players like Akingbola and Jones is less established. It has been a while since the Tigers were deep enough to sign a three- or four-star freshman and essentially sit them for a full season. The last example of that is Purifoy during the 2015-16 campaign, and that was only because he was never ruled eligible to play for academic reasons.
Purifoy went on to rank second on the team averaging 11.5 points per game as a redshirt freshman in 2016-17. Akingbola and Jones might not make the same kind of leap as sophomores, but both should have opportunities.
Akingbola, a 6-foot-10 Nigerian big man is currently the only center projected to be on Auburn’s roster next season, which puts him in line to earn significantly more playing time than the 2.3 minutes he averaged in 13 games this season.
There are a lot of people who will be excited to see that, including Pearl — the head coach described Akingbola as one of the team’s best interior defenders even before last season began. He communicates well, blocks shots, and in true Auburn fashion, has been working on his 3-point shot.
Jones’ potential role is less clear. He began his freshman season in the backcourt rotation but fell out after just a few games, leaving Doughty to serve as both starting shooting guard and backup point guard. Jones wound up appearing in only 11 games, and will have to contend with Cambridge, signees Sharife Cooper and Justin Powell, and possibly even five-star uncommitted target Jalen Green in the backcourt next season.
But Jones was also once a highly regarded recruit, ranking behind only Okoro in Auburn’s 2019 class. He scored what proved to be the team’s final points of the 2019-20 season with a 3-pointer in victory at Tennessee on March 7. That may be a sign of what’s to come, for him and the rest of the Tigers’ returning core.
Auburn didn’t show up in any of the way-too-early top 25 rankings published by USA Today, ESPN or NBC Sports over the past week, which is not entirely unexpected given that it could be losing all five of its starters and the first man off the bench.
But the foundation that is in place has potential, even if Okoro does, in fact, leave school early. And more reinforcements cold be on the way.