CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Thanks to the not-so-unexpected departure of junior Johnny O’Bryant III to the NBA draft this past spring, two of the jewels of LSU’s freshman class from last year are having to grow up in a hurry.
How well they handle things will likely determine if the Tigers can take that next step in the progression coach Johnny Jones is seeking heading into his third season — which would put his team in the NCAA tournament after making it to the NIT in March.
Jones is confident, however, that sophomore forwards Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin, who both considered making the jump to the NBA before announcing they would be returning to school, can do just that.
They actually have no choice.
Mickey and Martin are the two most experienced members of an LSU squad that has five new faces and the main reasons the Tigers were tabbed to finish fourth in the Southeastern Conference race on Wednesday.
The 6-foot-8 Mickey was named to the first team on the preseason All-SEC squad that was announced Wednesday, while he and Martin, who stands 6-10 to form two-thirds of a formidable frontcourt, both received at least one vote in the player of the year balloting.
“They’re certainly going to have the opportunity to take it to the next level,” Jones said. “Johnny O’Bryant wound up getting drafted and was a first-team all-conference pick, but these guys have to make sure they fill that void and do it by committee.
“They’re not sitting back and taking orders any more,” he added. “Now, they have to give the orders as the leaders of this basketball team … and that’s a transition they’re going to have to make.”
As a result, Jones said, more will be expected of Mickey and Martin when the season gets underway Nov. 15 against Gardner Webb.
At the same time, Jones noted the two sophomores should be up to the challenge after following O’Bryant and watching him up close for a year.
“They had an opportunity to somewhat lean on Johnny, and we were able to feed off Johnny,” Jones said. “This year, defenses are certainly going to be designed to stop those two guys. So now, it’s going to their opportunity to deliver for our basketball team and create opportunities for others.”
Jones and his staff know how important that is with talented newcomers like guards Josh Gray, Keith Hornsby and Jalyn Patterson, forward Aaron Epps and 7-1 center Elbert Robinson III joining the group.
“I’ll tell you,” a smiling Jones said, “it was a lot of fun last year having Johnny and knowing night in and night out that he was going to give you ‘X’ amount of points and ‘X’ amount of rebounds.
“It’s the unknown that’s going to be the challenge this year, especially with guys not having had an opportunity to play at this level or are not proven yet. The excitement is the ability of those guys that we’re excited about and the people they’ll have the opportunity to play around.”
Mickey and Martin certainly believe they’ll be up to the task at hand. But at the same time, it could be easier considering the size that Jones has to work with — a luxury he didn’t have in his first two seasons.
For example, Mickey and Martin have the potential to form a solid 1-2 punch inside. But it could be even better with the addition of Robinson, Epps (6-9), Darcy Malone (7-0) and John Odo (6-10).
“It’s been good for us because we feel as though can look at some different lineups depending on the opponent we’re going to play,” Jones said. “Our lineup can really be big — and long and athletic.
“At the end of the day, we’re glad that we’re going to have several bodies that we can put out there that will have an opportunity to compete at a certain level.”
Competition is another thing.
“It’s been definitely competitive so far in practice,” Mickey said. “Guys have been battling every day and are going at each other pretty good. That’s a good thing to have.
“It gets physical at times. … Guys get knocked over and get bumped up, but it’s fine, that’s what we have trainers for. Guys just get up and keep going, so it’s definitely been fun.”
Especially, Martin said, with all the size that starts with Mickey and himself.
“It’s real nice this year with all the ‘bigs’ we have down low,” he said. “We can play from inside out and add that to our style of play now. We’ve got big guys that can play strong and physical and can create some things for the team.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter: @MicklesAdvocate.