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Basketball Roster Preview: Forwards & Bigs

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While the secret weapon from the end of last year will be counted on to start this year, Auburn brought in even more talent in the frontcourt this year.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

What a weird feeling it is to be writing this article.

First, COVID came in and took the postseason of 2020 away from us. Despite a rocky run in SEC play, this team looked like it was coming together. Isaac Okoro was healthy again, Austin J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty had fully settled into their roles replacing the best guard combo in Auburn history, and Jaylin Williams was in the midst of a breakout final month of the season. Then, in the matter of a few days, it was over. The large group of seniors that helped support the Final Four run wouldn’t get a chance to make March their own. Isaac Okoro, on his way to becoming an NBA draft pick in a few months time, never got to play on college basketball’s biggest stages.

Then, COVID delayed the season. What seemed like an impossibility in March became a reality as the entire sports calendar suffered a shift. But, it was all going to be okay. A few weeks was worth it to get it right.

What’s that? The NCAA is coming in to drop the hammer on Auburn? We’re self-imposing a postseason ban? Well… at least this is a rebuilding roster anyways. And hey, it looks like there’s a 50/50 shot the sport doesn’t field a postseason this year anyways. I can feel good about Auburn being proactive and protecting themselves (hopefully) from further punishment. And hey, we’re bringing in the best recruit we’ve ever signed, this can still be a fun year to ruin everyone’s lives.

YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME WITH THIS. BURN 2020 TO THE GROUND, AND THE NCAA WITH IT.

So now what? We’re less than 48 hours from beginning the season. We don’t know if Sharife Cooper is eligible, and with COVID cases rising nationwide, assuming any games more than a day or two in advance is a fool’s errand.

But, we’ll press on. This is still likely the most talented Auburn roster in my life time, or at least in the last 20 years. There’s immense upside at every position, even if it’s coupled with a crippling lack of experience. With no postseason to look to, this team and this fanbase and live every game like it’s the National Championship. No worrying about seeding, or resumes, or anything else. Just WINS.

Let’s see just what this roster has in store for us.


STARTERS

Jaylin Williams (6’8”, 230 lbs, So., #23) - Jaylin Williams was a mystery for most of last year. The big freshman was almost mythical, with sightings few and far between, but awe-inspiring all the same. Williams was relegated to the end of the bench, playing only mop-up duty well inot February. When Isaac Okoro went down with an ankle injury against Alabama, the team seemingly lost their identity, dropping the next game to bottom dweller Mizzou.

Enter Jaylin Williams in Stegman Coliseum. The big fella logged only one shot in 16 minutes played off the bench (a missed three), but he contributed a team high five defensive rebounds to go along with two steals and an assist in a losing effort. While Auburn was still figuring out what to do without Okoro, Williams immediately showed out as someone who should be playing major minutes.

The likely starter at power forward this season, Williams can both protect the rim and defend out in open space, and like Cambridge, possesses a skill set that should let him run the floor with ease. Williams graded out as Auburn’s best player not named Austin Wiley according to PER last season (21.1 to Wiley’s insane 30.2), and he also trailed only Wiley in terms of rebounding%. If you were to consult BPM (Box Plus/Minus, an estimate of the number of points a player would contribute in 100 possessions above a league-average player on a league-average team), Williams was the best on the team. If basketball has such a thing, Williams is a five-tool player, with under-rated passing skills and the ability to both block opposing shots and pickpocket ball handlers. While his three point stroke leaves something to be desired, Williams did post a team-best (by a large margin) 74% shooting from two.

Williams will likely be the starting power forward, but it’s not inconceivable that Bruce and Co. may run him as the center in some small-ball lineups. While larger bigs may be able to bully him in the paint, not many players are going to be able to guard him if he goes to the basket in transition. The sky is the limit for this kid - particularly in the #23 jersey.

Babatunde Akingbola (6’10”, 245 lbs, So., #13) - With another year in Auburn’s weight program, I’m not sure “Stretch” is all that stretched out anymore - he’s a beast.

Akingbola had a winding road to Auburn, as the Ogun State, Nigeria native came to the United States in high school to play basketball at McEachern. There, he joined up with some names Auburn fans certainly know - Isaac Okoro and Sharife Cooper, and was immediately a target of Auburn’s. While he lost most of his senior year to visa issues, he came to Auburn raw but incredibly gifted. While we only saw it in short stints of mop-up duty, Akingbola looked like a defensive nightmare for opponents to deal with.

With limited high school and college experience, I’m not sure what to expect out of Stretch, but, I think like Williams and Cambridge, we will be seeing a wildly athletic, high energy player who may work his way into foul trouble more often than anyone would like. I expect Stretch to be the starting big going into the season, but I think it’s far from a given.

JT Thor (6’10”, 205 lbs, Fr., #10) - JT Thor might be the biggest wildcard on this roster. Originally a five star talent in the 2021 class, Thor reclassified before the 2020-21 school year. Due to his reclassifying (and being a year younger coming into college than expected), Thor “fell” down to a four star and ranked the 51st player in the 2020 class, according to 247 Composite.

The fact remains, though, that this kid is a top end talent. Had he stayed in the 2021 class, he would almost assuredly be talked about in the same breath as Cooper and Jabari Smith.

The Alaska native isn’t your prototypical 6’10” big man, though, as almost every scouting report I’ve seen praises his ability to shoot the three and play as more of a small forward. With his high release point, guarding him on the perimeter is going to be a matchup problem for pretty much any defender. The knock on him has been his slender build getting him knocked around by more physical defenders, and it causes him to struggle around the basket. A year or two in the Auburn weight room should help him tremendously.

While I think it’s unlikely Thor unseats Williams or Akingbola out of the gate, he may be a dark horse for freshman of the year in the SEC. He remains largely an unknown for most Auburn fans, but I can see Thor getting significant minutes down the stretch run of this season.


BENCH PIECES

Chris Moore (6’6”, 240 lbs, Fr., #5) - Chris Moore is another intriguing piece in out of the five-man 2020 signing class. Another guy out of the Arkansas pipeline, Moore’s name made waves earlier this fall when Bruce hyped him up, saying he could pretty much play any position besides the point. He’s built like a tank - 6’6” and 240 pounds sounds a lot like everyone’s favorite Patriots quarterback - and just from watching his tape, he looks to have all sorts of finishing moves at the basket. I’m not sure what we’ll see out of him in 2020-21, but if he happens to carve out a role similar to Allen Flanigan last year (or Malik Dunbar in 2017-18), I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

Javon Franklin (6’7”, 220 lbs, Jr., #4) - Javon Franklin was the forgotten man of last year’s signing class. While Okoro went on to become a star, Flanigan, Cambridge, and Williams all worked their way into the rotation, and Stretch and Turbo had a few moments to shine on the end of the bench, most people didn’t even know Franklin was on the team. A JUCO signee, Franklin played high school ball with Allen Flanigan, and therefore for legendary Arkansas high school coach (and father of Wes Flanigan) Al Flanigan. Safe to say, the coaching staff knew what they were getting with Javon when he signed.

I don’t have much of a scouting report on Franklin as he played minimal minutes last year. He’s still buried at the power forward position with Williams, Thor, and likely Moore ahead of him.

Dylan Cardwell (6’11”, 250 lbs, Fr., #44) - Another product of the McEachern pipeline, Cardwell is a massive body as a freshman. While he may struggle to crack the rotation this year, Cardwell is not a name to be forgotten. He drew praise from the coaching staff for his speed and athleticism relative to his size, and while his game may need a little polish, I have little doubt that he is willing to be coached up.