Bruce Pearl finds ‘beauty’ in challenge of retooling Auburn’s roster for 2022-23

Bruce Pearl used to not be able to look recruits — guys like Jared Harper and Bryce Brown — in the eye and sell them on the idea of ​​competing for championships and making it to the NBA.

That’s just not where Auburn was as a program in 2014 when Pearl was named head coach; it was one of the worst major conference jobs in college basketball at the time. Much has changed in the time since. Auburn is a player on the national stage, with a pair of SEC regular-season titles, an SEC Tournament championship, three NCAA Tournament appearances and a Final Four run during Pearl’s tenure. The program has also produced multiple first-round NBA Draft picks, with two more on the horizon this summer.

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All of that has come in the last five seasons.

“That’s the foundation we built,” Pearl said.

And now, after one of the most successful seasons in program history and following a disappointing postseason showing, Pearl will try to quickly retool Auburn’s roster for another run in 2022-23. The Tigers will lose three key rotational pieces from this year’s roster, including both members of their All-America frontcourt: Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler, both of whom declared for the NBA Draft this week and are projected first-round picks. Smith, the National Freshman of the Year and the program’s second-ever consensus All-American, is the potential No. 1 overall pick 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, it’s obviously going to be challenging,” Pearl said. “But that’s the beauty of what we’re doing…. We’re rebuilding.”

At Auburn these days, it isn’t so much of a rebuild as it is a reload. That’s where the program has positioned itself under Pearl, thrusting itself into the mix for top-tier talent — both from the high school ranks and the transfer market — annually.

Along with Smith and Kessler, Auburn loses backup wing Devan Cambridge, who entered the transfer portal after three seasons with the program, and former walk-on Preston Cook, who earned a scholarship this past season. Cook is seeking an opportunity as a grad transfer, while Cambridge is transferring to Arizona State for his senior season along with his brother, Nevada transfer Desmond Cambridge.

“Devan was very loyal to our program,” Pearl said. “Devan just found himself in a position where everybody was coming back. And what was going to change for Devan? I just think he wanted a more significant role. So, I appreciate Devan. I appreciate the three years that he was here. And I understand his decision. I believe if it’s best for the student-athletes, it’s what’s best. And I think this very well could — I hope it turns out well for him that he gets a bigger role at his next stop.”

So, where does that leave Auburn’s roster for 2022-23?

The Tigers will return three starters in Zep Jasper (back for a sixth season), KD Johnson (the team’s second-leading scorer) and Allen Flanigan, as well as sixth man Wendell Green Jr. (the Tigers’ third-leading scorer and assist leader) and rotational pieces Jaylin Williams and Dylan Cardwell. Auburn is also set to return reserves Chris Moore — who was in and out of the rotation at times last year — and Stretch Akingbola.

That’s a solid core to work around, especially if Flanigan can return to his 2020-21 form, with three veteran guards returning and Pearl excited about developing Williams into a fixture of the offense.

“I expect Jaylin Williams to have a dominant role next year,” Pearl said. “And he is ready. He took one for the team this year, and he competed with Jabari, but Jabari was the best player on the floor every single night.”

Along with those returning 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.

That puts Auburn at 10 scholarship players already signed for next season. The NCAA limit is 13, but Auburn may opt to go with 12 as it continues to serve out sanctions handed down by the NCAA as part of its punishment stemming from the 2017 FBI investigation that ensnared the program. Part of those sanctions included a reduction of two scholarships over the course of a four-year probationary period; the Tigers already operated under 12 scholarships last season and thus have one more scholarship reduction to navigate over the next three seasons.

As Pearl and his staff work to replenish the roster, there are two areas they hope to address as they fill out those remaining scholarship spots.

The first goal is one that has already been checked off, though not quite officially.

“The biggest thing is on the frontline,” Pearl said. “How can we complement Stretch, Dylan and Jaylin? That’s No. 1. How can we complement those three returning players?… We’ve actually passed on some pretty good players that we just didn’t feel like complemented them… If you’re out there and you’re looking at what happened to Walker and Jabari in a year, Auburn’s a pretty attractive situation. Because both Jabari and Walker made a lot of progress this year. That’s certainly something that’s good to be able to recruit to.”

Pearl couldn’t get deeper into that aspect of the roster because the piece the Tigers have joining the fold isn’t officially onboard yet. Auburn recently picked up a commitment from five-star big man Yohan Traore, a top-15 recruit nationally who would be the second-highest rated signee in school history, behind only Smith. He committed to the program last week but has yet to sign, so Pearl is unable to publicly comment on him.

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

Once Traore signs, that will put Auburn’s scholarship count at 11, with one — and possibly two — spots to fill. Whether Auburn opts to go with the full 13 scholarships or chooses to wrap up that specific sanction for the upcoming season, Pearl wants 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 was the 10th-worst clip among the 68 teams to make the NCAA Tournament field. In the team’s second-round loss to Miami, it shot just 5-of-26 (19.2 percent) from deep. Now the Tigers lose their best 3-point shooter in Smith, who at 6-foot-10 shot 42 percent from deep. Their top-returning 3-pointer shooter is Jasper, who shot 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 an issue for us,” Pearl said. “If we shot the ball better, we would’ve gone much further in the tournament. Overall, as a team, we defended well, I thought we played pretty well, I thought we shared OK, but we shot it like shit. So, that’s something that’s got to improve.”

Auburn could address that need through the transfer portal — which proved bountiful to the program last offseason — or through the 2022 recruiting class.

The Tigers are in the mix for 2022 five-star LSU former signed Julian Phillips, an athletic 6-foot-8 forward who could fit as a wing in Pearl’s system. According to The Athletic, quoting Synergy stats, Phillips shot 40.6 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers at Link Academy last season. The program has also reportedly reached out to Oregon State transfer Jarod Lucas (a career 38 percent shooter from deep) and Ohio transfer Mark Sears (40.8 percent on 3-pointers last season)among others.

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

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

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

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