Shortly after the LSU men’s basketball season ended with a loss to SMU in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament in the spring, it was almost a certainty junior forward Johnny O’Bryant III would enter the NBA draft.
At that point, the only question was if another key contributor in the Tigers’ 20-win season — freshmen forward Jordan Mickey — would follow O’Bryant.
Freshman forward Jarell Martin had already made it known he would be back for another season, leaving Mickey, an All-Southeastern Conference coaches’ second-team pick, to make a decision that allowed coach Johnny Jones to finally exhale a month after the season ended.
While Martin is obviously an important piece for this year’s team, which began preseason practice Wednesday, losing both Mickey and O’Bryant would have been a major blow to an LSU frontcourt that now includes 7-foot-1 freshman center Elbert Robinson III.
“It was a tough decision,” Mickey said on the eve of the Tigers’ first practice. “I’m not going to say I was leaning more toward going, but it was a tough decision having that opportunity in front of you … having it that close, your dream.”
Eventually, after listening to an NBA advisory committee and conferring with his family, the 6-8 Mickey informed Jones of his decision on April 22 — five days before the deadline to declare for the draft.
Many draft experts believed Mickey would benefit from at least one more year of college ball, which would allow him to get stronger and add bulk to his lean frame. He weighed 220 as a freshman but is listed at 235 this season.
“I just felt it would be better for me to come back for another year and try to improve,” Mickey said Tuesday.
That decision could well make those draft projections of him being a second-round pick last summer turn into a first-round call in 2015 if he improves on a freshman season in which he averaged 12.7 points and 7.9 rebounds and an SEC-leading 3.1 blocked shots per game.
Mickey started all 34 games and chalked up nine double-doubles, third-most in the conference, scoring in double digits 26 times. He poured in 25 points in a win over Louisiana-Monroe and also topped 20 points against Arkansas (22) and Rhode Island (21).
Perhaps more impressive was his shot-blocking prowess. He had 16 games with at least four blocks and finished with 106 — joining Shaquille O’Neal as the players in LSU history to reach triple digits in a season — earning him a spot on the All-SEC Defensive team.
His return gives the Tigers a strong presence on offense and defense and the possibility of having an imposing frontline with he, Martin and Robinson, not to mention freshman forward Aaron Epps. Martin is 6-10, and Epps stands 6-9.
“It’s huge for us,” Jones said of having Mickey and Martin back. “I can’t imagine having to fill that void of having to replace those two guys and Johnny from last year’s team. Having those two guys here certainly helps us.”
Mickey, who turned 20 on July 9, said he worked on all aspects of his game — particularly offense — in pickup games with teammates and in camps.
“I definitely tried to improve my game,” he said. “I worked on my shooting, my ball-handling, being able to take bigger guys to the perimeter and posting up. I worked on my post game more and tried to become a better all-around player.”
Something that should also aid Mickey in his development is the opportunity to work with three members of LSU’s staff that have NBA coaching, scouting and playing experience: Eric Musselman, David Patrick and Ronald Dupree, a former LSU standout.
Mickey has already picked up some key pointers from Musselman, a two-time NBA head coach who he said has brought extra energy to their preseason workouts and practices.
“You can definitely see in terms of how he talks about space and not going too far on your screens, stuff like that,” Mickey said. “You can definitely see where he’s bringing his terminology from the NBA.”
So the next-best thing that possibly being in the NBA this season is getting hands-on pro training while still in college.
“I’m definitely excited about this team and playing another year with my guys,” Mickey said. “It could be a big year for us. We have aspirations of making it to the (NCAA) tournament and going deep in the tournament.”
LSU will stage its free “Bayou Madness” for the men’s and women’s basketball teams Friday night at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The event begins with a pep rally outside the south side of the Maravich Center at 6:45 p.m., with events, including scrimmages, 3-point and dunk contests and fan contests, inside scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m.
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.