Hot on the Trail

Johnny Jones is putting LSU basketball back on the map in the recruiting game, landing major prospects already in the Classes of 2013, 2014 and 2015. Jones explained to TSD's Ben Love how the Tigers are attracting some of the nation's - and world's - best to Baton Rouge.

Nothing is more important to the sustainability of a successful college athletics program than recruiting.

Coaches coach and systems provide structure, but ultimately players score points, defend and determine the outcome of a ballgame. The more talented the players, over a series of recruiting classes, the more winning will follow.

For more than a decade now, the LSU football and baseball teams have lived by that mantra in unison, more often than not bringing some of the nation's premier talent to the bayou while efforting – and typically succeeding – to keep the pelican state's best in Louisiana. The result: since 2003 the two programs have combined for three national titles and six Southeastern Conference championships.

LSU basketball all that while has toiled in relative obscurity on the recruiting trail, watching a number of in-state prospects fly the coop and never consistently hammering down ranked classes nationwide.

That is until Johnny Jones got to town.

Since the former Tiger player and assistant left his post at North Texas to return to his old stomping grounds in April 2012, LSU, which finished 19-12 in year one under Jones, has not only been able to plant some seeds in terms of recruiting but has already seen Baton Rouge blossom amid increasingly fertile conditions.

LSU's celebrated incoming Class of 2013, Jones' first in TigerTown, includes three freshmen ranked among the top 80 prospects in America by (five-star forward Jarell Martin, four-star power forward Jordan Mickey and four-star guard Tim Quarterman) as well as an immediate-impact junior college transfer at center (John Odo) and a 7-foot stretch shooter from Australia (Darcy Malone).

Jones' haul was good enough to earn LSU the ninth-best class in the country for 2013, the exact same ranking Les Miles' football class earned and one spot ahead of where Paul Mainieri's baseball class finished, according to Collegiate Baseball.

"The good part is that, although I was gone, I was still in the area and still recruiting here and still maintaining relationships that I've had over the years," explained Jones, a native of DeRidder, La. "We're fortunate that those relationships still exist because we've had to call on them, being coaches or families with kids, to really help us. People know what LSU means, and I think we've done a great job of talking about the product and the brand that exists here. I think that's special.

"The big thing is kids want to know that they can get there (the NBA) from here, and I think we've done a tremendous job at being able to present that as a reality."

Several current Tigers, like Martin and returning All-SEC power forward Johnny O'Bryant, have a chance at hearing their names called in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft. But, when Jones walks into a home and touts the program's ability to churn out pros, he's also dipping into the past.

"When you look back at the history of LSU and the tradition of it over the years, LSU has consistently had really good players in and around the program," Jones said. "We've just got to make sure that we do a great job of not only recruiting but with the stability of the program, getting quality guys in here that compete year in and year out and hopefully put us on another level."

It's turning recruiting classes like 2013 into more of the norm than the outlier that Jones is after, something he's proven in the past few weeks is no pipe dream.

Still several weeks before the early signing period begins, the LSU staff has already secured commitments from three 2014 prospects, each expected to ink a National Letter of Intent in November. Chief among the trio is Lakeview Centennial (Garland, Tex.) center Elbert Robinson, who at 7-foot, 335 pounds is drawing a lot of comparisons to another former Tiger, Shaq.

Joining Robinson, the nation's seventh-ranked center and a lefty, on the dotted line this fall will be 6-foot-9 power forward Aaron Epps from Tioga, La., and three-star point guard Jalyn Patterson of Montverde Academy (Fla.). A day after Patterson gave his commitment on Oct. 13, the final day of his official visit, his prep teammate sent an even bigger shockwave through the recruiting community.

LSU scored a huge commitment in 2015 F Ben Simmons
Ben Simmons – a 6-foot-10, 220-pound forward from Australia – became the most high-profile LSU basketball commitment of the Jones era (and quite possibly the last 25 years) when the nation's eighth-ranked overall prospect in the Class of 2015 pledged on Oct. 14. Aside from the Patterson connection, Simmons is also the godson of LSU assistant David Patrick, who played professional ball in Australia with Ben's father Dave, and now has a brother, Liam Tribe-Simmons, that serves as an assistant for Nicholls State.

Connections have been key for Jones and the LSU staff in this recruiting renaissance.

"I think relationships have been the big thing, being in the right place at the right time. That's helped us," Jones continued. "Success from last year's team also helped, and our players have really done a tremendous job in terms of selling the program when we get kids on campus and being hosts and spending time with them while they're here. Our guys have done a tremendous job of selling this program."

As Jones referenced his players are able to interact in a lot of ways with visiting recruits, not the least of which is through playing pick-up games following Saturday practices. Senior guard Andre Stringer, who himself was in those shoes, spoke to the power of moments like that for a high school kid.

"It's a lot more watching," said Stringer of practices for prospects, "but then you do get to play open gym with them when they play on Saturdays before a football game. It's pretty unreal. You kind of gauge your talent based off after you leave from that gym set. You've got younger guys who don't know what to expect, and they kind of gauge not only their talent but their work ethic off that open gym. So I think they leave kind of knowing more of what to expect."

Some of Jones' best pitch-men on fall weekends are equally ecstatic their work is paying off and, more importantly, that the program has a chance to ascend to new heights – to the kinds of places Jones has assured them LSU basketball has been before.

"It's awesome. I love it," said Quarterman, who played in the same Atlanta Celtics AAU program as 2014 commit Jalyn Patterson. "There's great competition coming in, so that means we'll still be getting better each and every day and the program will continue to rise. We're just getting this program back to where it used to be."

Fellow freshman Jarell Martin, a Baton Rouge native who opted to stay home for college, expressed pride in being able to help jump-start a movement at his hometown school.

"For me there's a great level of excitement knowing that we're bringing the legacy back to LSU," declared Martin. "We're starting something special up again."

When it comes to a veteran like O'Bryant, all that matters is extending the barometer, and expectation level, on how far the Tigers can go each March. To that end recent recruiting skins on the wall make the Cleveland, Miss., native optimistic about the program's direction.

"It's just heading up, man," O'Bryant acknowledged with a smile. "The potential under Coach Jones, where he's going and who he's getting in here is through the roof. I definitely think if he keeps that up, we're going to start talking national championship soon."

Jones is quick to admit that for all of LSU's successes in Louisiana, which he maintains is the priority each year, the Tigers are more actively attempting to reach a wider base. Consider that since 2013, the Bayou Bengals have signed or received commitments from three Louisianans, two Texans (although freshman Jordan Mickey has Louisiana roots), two Australian-born players, one Georgian, one Floridian and one JuCo player (who is from Nigeria).

To accomplish Jones' hands-on style of recruiting across that type of spectrum, the importance of assistant coaches is paramount. Jones relies most on Patrick, who was born in Bermuda but played prep ball in Louisiana and then at Syracuse (and is considered one of college basketball's most frequent recruiters of Australia), and first-year assistant Korey McCray, most recently on Ben Howland's staff at UCLA and former coach and CEO of the Atlanta Celtics.

"Both guys are very capable of developing and maintaining relationships," explained Jones. "They've done a great job in terms of being able to evaluate talent. I think that's really, really important to what we're trying to do."

So too is monitoring the high school level overseas, a must in the modern game, according to Jones. "Anytime you watch the (NBA) Draft now and the number of names that are being called to play basketball from all over the country and world, there are players," he said. "Hopefully we'll continue to have the ability to reach across the water and be attractive there because we are a national brand and we play in a tremendous conference. It's been good for us."

LSU's second-year head coach understands the bar has risen, and he knows he's the one who put it there, but Jones offers little when asked how his approach to recruiting is different, claiming he doesn't spend much time focusing elsewhere.

"I'm not sure because I can't say what other people do. I don't know," replied Jones. "I just know that we try to make sure that we're reaching out and trying to touch the masses as much as we possibly can. We're hopeful that by doing that and building relationships that it'll continue to help us."

Results will indeed be found and earned where they always are in basketball – on the floor. However, if the early returns and projections from talent acquisition mean anything, and they tend to in the eyes of prospective recruits, LSU will be replete with ballplayers and ready to contend in the coming years.

That's enough to cause Stringer, an old hand at LSU originally recruited by the previous regime, to wish his senior year hadn't arrived so soon.

"I definitely wish I had a couple more years," Stringer said. "It went by very fast, but those young guys, when they come and visit, you see the potential that they have and how good they look with our team. It's definitely about to be exciting around here."

It's been a while since LSU basketball recruiting has elicited that type of wide-eyed enthusiasm from anyone.

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