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Position Preview - Centers

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Auburn vs Kansas Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s talk centers.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 26 Auburn at LSU Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Oh dear god no, not that center.

NCAA Basketball: NC-Asheville at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

YES, much better.

#50 Austin Wiley - Senior, Birmingham, AL

Auburn brings back a veteran Austin Wiley for his senior season, which feels laughable when reading those words on my screen. The seven footer came to Auburn early and played the second half of the 2016-17 season as a high school senior. As a kid that year, Wiley still started all 18 conference games and averaged 8.8 points/4.8 rebounds per game. Wiley hit his peak in late January that year, when in a 3 game stretch (home vs Bama, at South Carolina and TCU) he averaged 18 points/9 rebounds.

Expectations were sky high for the Auburn legacy going into the 2017-18 season. Already one of the highest rated recruits Auburn had ever signed, he was going to get another year to develop with THE highest ranked recruit Auburn ever signed, Mustapha Heron. The team looked primed to finally climb out of the basement of the SEC, and led by Wiley and Heron, could they maybe make the tournament?

Today we learned that Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy were the two players connected to the Chuck Person investigation. This didn’t come as a shock to those who had followed the story and the Auburn basketball program. It was always going to be 2 of Auburn’s 3 NBA prospects, Danjel, Wiley, or Heron. It appears that Chuck Person paid $11,000 to Purifoy’s mother and $7,500 to Wiley’s mother.

On the morning of the exhibition against Berry, Auburn ruled Wiley and Purifoy ineligible indefinitely. As you all know by now, the two didn’t play at all in the 2017-18 campaign, despite the NCAA waiting ALL DAMN SEASON before ruling them officially ineligible, even though they ruled on a similar case for Collin Sexton and Alabama in early November. It was, to say the least infuriating.

After having his sophomore season stolen from him, Wiley was ready to come back and make a splash last season. However, leg injuries slowed him in the offseason, and lingered throughout the rest of the season. Wiley never truly got in a grove last season, and missed 9 games during conference play. After playing 22 minutes against Ole Miss as Auburn opened up conference play, Wiley never played more than 14 minutes in any game. He was never fully healthy in conference or post-season play, and added a dislocated thumb to his injury report to make matters worse. Wiley was effective when he played, but the eye test showed he was laboring. His final numbers show that in 13 minutes per game, Wiley averaged 6.9 points and 4 rebounds. His per 40 minutes stats, though, show him averaging 21.2 points/12.4 rebounds/3.9 blocks - all three numbers led the team. He also was a machine at getting to the line, averaging 9 FTA per 40 minutes. The next highest regular on the team was Jared Harper, with 5.5/40 min.

Interestingly enough, Wiley played probably his best career game against Duke last season, posting 17 points and 9 rebounds on 7-11 from the field. As Auburn struggled to get anything going inside, Bruce leaned on 3 point shooting from Jared and Bryce and paint points from Wiley to get the job done.

This is the kind of shot #50 needs to hit to be effective, as he lacks a true jump shot. He can use his size to body up defenders around the restricted area and create a clean look, but he was unable to do so when the injuries piled up later in the season. This highlight may not be the perfect example of what Wiley can do under the basket, but it has to be taken into account that the defender here is Zion Williamson. Not many guys in the country are going to be able to hold their ground against Wiley.

As Crow likes to mention on the Orange and True from time to time, peak Austin Wiley becomes a black hole for opposing defenses to deal with in the paint. As you can see in the previous highlight, Wiley is drawing the double team from Duke, with #5 RJ Barrett crashing in to help #20 Marques Bolden. A healthy Wiley is going to force teams to double him, and that’s going to leave shooters open outside for Auburn to take advantage of, like Bryce above. This season, I think you’ll see a lot of Danjel Purifoy being the guy taking advantage of open threes when defenders help on Austin.

One of the things I’ll be looking for this year out of Wiley is how well he runs. If last year’s leg injuries slowed him as much as I think, getting him back to running the court and catching oops from J’Von McCormick will be a big plus to this offense. Also, I really wanted to share that highlight.

If you notice, the previous three highlights took place over the span of less than two game minutes. Wiley took over the game at this point for Auburn, and took what was looking to be a blowout for Duke and re-energized Auburn for the stretch run.

Wiley’s defense is nothing to be ignored, either. Last season, Wiley reeled in 18% of all available rebounds and blocked 13% of all opponent two-point attempts while he was on the floor. That block number isn’t 13% of all 2-points attempts against him directly - that’s 13% of all attempts against any defender on the floor. And if the average rebound% is 10% (since there are 10 players on the floor at any given time), Austin almost doubling that is a pretty respectable number. In the scrimmage against Eckerd, Wiley was feeling good enough to attempt (and complete) blocks out at the arc. If you can’t tell, I’m EXTREMELY excited to see Wiley on the court this season. If he can simply perform at pre-injury levels from last year, he’ll be a dominant force on the court. Any growth on that is gravy.

#13 Babatunde “Stretch” Akingbola - Freshman, Ogun, Nigeria

Backing up Wiley at center is a new face. Stretch was a bit of a mystery during the last few years, with visa issues preventing him from returning to the United States for his senior year of high school. He had previously attended McEachern High School in Atlanta during his junior year, where he played with Issac Okoro and Shariffe Cooper. Can you imagine that? Put yourself in the shoes of a kid at North Cobb High School, maybe you’ve grown up being the best basketball player in any team you’ve played on, maybe you’ve got some DII or low-level DI offers. And then you go play McEachern, who’s throwing three highly coveted recruits who end up committed to a Final Four team at you. It’s just not fair, man.

The only bit of live basketball I’ve seen out of Stretch was at the scrimmage against Eckerd, but he looked more than ready to be an SEC role player. He added 2 rebounds and 2 blocks in 8 minutes of play to go with a bucket in the paint and free throw made. He’s probably going to look a bit unpolished being a freshman and not having played high school ball last season, but he has been drawing praise from his teammates about his energy and vocal leadership while on the court. At 6’10” 240 lbs, he adds another big body that Auburn desperately needed the last few years.

Other Options

With the graduation of Horace Spencer, Anfernee McLemore will be the only other player with experience at the 5 on the roster. In fact, McLemore has the most experience at the 5, having started there the majority of the last few years. At a slightly smaller 6’7” 220 lbs, though, he will be asked to split time with Danjel Purifoy at power forward this season. He’s a more natural fit at the 4, where he can not have to worry about playing offense down low as much and play more defense against perimeter shooters than he would at the 5. I think ultimately that’s a net positive for him, as he can use his size and leaping instincts to block more shots outside than he can against guys bigger than him in the paint.

Ultimately, I expect Wiley and Stretch to play most of the minutes at the five this season. If foul trouble or injuries crop up, McLemore would be the next man up there. The size and depth Auburn has at the position has improved drastically over the last two seasons, though. They’ve come a long way since having to play Horace and Chuma there at the end of the 2018 season.