Aaron Epps didn’t have much of a chance to make an impact for the LSU men’s basketball team as a freshman a year ago.
Just weeks into preseason practice, Epps developed a sports hernia that he played with the entire season, then suffered a hip flexor injury soon after the regular season began.
“It was tough because coach (Johnny) Jones didn’t want to overuse me,” Epps said. “He put me in here and there, whenever he felt like I could help out the team for a few minutes.”
It didn’t help that the 6-foot-9 Epps was playing behind All-Southeastern Conference forwards Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, who went on to be among the top 33 picks in the NBA draft last June.
This season, Epps looks like a new player and a new man — literally — after recently getting a closely cropped haircut to replace the box cut he had sported for about three years.
When a reporter inquired about the new ’do, Epps just grinned and said, “I knew that was coming.”
What fans didn’t see coming was his early-season play.
After all, he averaged just 1.3 points and 1.4 rebounds in 6.2 minutes of playing time per game as a freshman — numbers that were skewed because of his injuries and the presence of Martin and Mickey.
Blossoming as a sophomore, Epps is showing the potential LSU coaches saw in the former Tioga High standout who averaged a double-double his final two seasons — including 22.3 points, 11.2 rebounds and 6.7 blocks as a senior.
Epps has given LSU, which is 7-4 going into Tuesday night’s matchup with Wake Forest, quality minutes. The Tigers needed them because forward Craig Victor missed the first eight games as a transfer from Arizona.
Epps has really come on in the past six games. In that stretch, he has averaged 10.5 points and 4.5 rebounds while playing 19.5 minutes.
He came up with a career-high 14 points in a win over North Florida on Dec. 2, then had a career-best 11 rebounds to go with 10 points for his first collegiate double-double when the Tigers routed Gardner-Webb on Dec. 16.
“I’m staying confident and playing tough, just looking for ways to help the team win,” said Epps, who’s averaging 6.7 points and 3.5 rebounds for the season. “I’m just looking for smart shots. I don’t try to force anything and I always crash the glass and try to play hard.”
While he’s got the size and strength to go inside after getting up to about 215 pounds this season, Epps has displayed a silky-smooth mid-range jumper at times this season.
As a result, he’s hitting 56.9 percent from the field and 85.7 percent from the free-throw line.
“He’s a difficult matchup because he can come in and stretch the floor,” Jones said. “He can face up (to the basket) and make plays, and he can really run. So that helps us in terms of our depth.
“He’s not going to make mistakes, and he’s done a good job getting better on the defensive end. You can play him over the top, but at the same time he can guard on the perimeter. So he gives us an added dimension we’ve needed.”
Jones could have used that a year ago when he was forced to go with a short bench, which meant Martin and Mickey had to log way too many minutes.
Epps wanted to help, but the injuries wouldn’t let him while he tried to make the transition from high school to college ball. He wound up playing in just 14 games with two starts.
“Physically, I wasn’t able to learn all the type of stuff we run,” he said.
Now that he’s healthy, Epps has been a major contributor.
“He got beat up a lot last year with the two guys who left,” guard Tim Quarterman said. “That helped build some confidence in Aaron for this year because he knew he was going to get opportunities.
“He’s been aggressive and is shooting well. He’s getting to the rack and finishing. ... He’s a different player this year.”
Epps said the support he received from his teammates, especially Quarterman and Victor, has helped.
“It’s been good; they always keep me confident,” Epps said. “If I mess up, they tell me to not worry about it and just make up for it on the next play.”
“We talk about the small things, the intangibles,” Victor said. “He’s come a long way confidence-wise, so I try to help him with his communication, playing defense, boxing out, rebounding.”
Those are the things that combined to help Epps post his first double-double against Gardner-Webb.
“Rebounding, that’s what I’m focusing on,” he said. “The points will come if you do the dirty work early.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.