Nearly two weeks into what might be the most important pre-season camp of his coaching career, LSU’s Trent Johnson hasn’t seen a whole lot to distinguish the players on the roster that will make up his fourth Tigers’ team.
And that’s great news as far as he’s concerned.
Johnson’s team began its second full week of work Monday with a scrimmage against Rice looming on the immediate horizon.
With a more veteran team than Johnson has had since he inherited a senior-laden crew in 2008-09 along with a talented trio of freshmen, there’s plenty of reason for optimism.
And Johnson reflects that optimism.
“We’ve been competing at a high level,” he said Tuesday. “It’s been physical to a very, very good degree. At times I don’t know how much we’re accomplishing but I do like their intensity.
“There has not been any one individual stand out either offensively or defensively, which is a good thing.”
Good because Johnson has said he sees his team being best if there are several options to lean on at both ends of the floor.
There’s more depth for Johnson to pick from and more versatility than he’s had the last two years when LSU has finished last in the SEC both years.
And a big spark has come from freshmen Johnny O’Bryant, John Isaac and Anthony Hickey – a trio Johnson called a “breath of fresh air.”
“It speaks volumes of this team in general that the upperclassmen are being receptive and not going back at them,” Johnson said. “They’re not caught up in petty jealousies and they’re thinking about this as being a team and what can make us really, really good.”
Johnson fielded questions about several individual players.
--- Isaac: “He plays extremely hard. It’s very rare from my standpoint where I sit and look in this day and age when you have an incoming freshman at this level who isn’t intimidated and doesn’t shy away from contact.”
--- O’Bryant: “He shows flashes where you go ‘Wow!’ For him, it’s constantly understanding how hard he has to play, how hard he has to run and how hard he has to compete – that he can’t take a possession off. Once he gets there, he has a chance to be special. Until then he’s in a grind, he’s in a battle every day.”
--- On what sophomore Ralston Turner needs to do to improve: “Becoming a better defender, making others better off the pass, being able to create his own shot off the dribble. He’s got his work in front of him.
"He understands that and he’s working hard at getting that done. … He has a great understanding of what he needs to work on and what he needs to do. He’s going to have a great opportunity for us to go to him often offensively.”
Johnson also said practice has become a daily battle for the expanded crew of big men this season, including O'Bryant, 7-foot junior Justin Hamilton and 7-2 junior Andrew Del Piero.
Asked how often things get heated and physical in the paint, Johnson was quick to answer.
“Every day, which is a good thing,” Johnson said. “It’s not something that we as coaches promote of try to challenge them. It’s them understanding that look if you guys don’t go at each other in the right way and force you out of your comfort zone, what good is it going to do you because there’s going be people you’re going to play here pretty soon that they don’t care. That has to come from within. The sooner that get that on a consistent basis, the better we’re going to be.”
That same theory applies to Johnson’s approach to conditioning.
He said every drill is designed to improve his players’ stamina and fitness as well as enhance their basketball skills.
“There’s nothing we do in practice that doesn’t apply in games,” Johnson said. “I’m not big on guys lining up and running for punishment. … They’ve got to do something when they’re tired.”
Following the session with the media, Johnson held a scrimmage open to the Sixth Man Club in the practice facility
Hickey paced the Tigers with 13 points in the 20-minute scrimmage, while Andre Stringer scored 11 and Ralston added 9.
Johnson and Turner will appear at SEC Media Day on Thursday in Hoover, Ala.
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