After rapid roster reload, Bruce Pearl intrigued by Auburn’s new frontcourt versatility

Bruce Pearl was not trying to fool himself; he understood the reality he faced at season’s end.

Jabari Smith’s departure for the NBA always felt like an inevitability. He was the most purely talented player to come through Auburn and, as Pearl told it, the best player on the court every single night — one of the many reasons he’s the potential No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA Draft. While Pearl knew replacing Smith would be at the top of his offseason to-do list, as the season progressed, he also realized the increased likelihood that Walker Kessler, too, would be one-and-done on the Plains.

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Shortly after Kessler took home National Defensive Player of the Year on April 3, the sophomore big man declared for the NBA Draft. A mere formality at that point, Smith followed suit two days later. Suddenly, Pearl went from coaching the best frontcourt in the country to being faced with the challenge of a rapid rebuild on the frontline.

Fast forward a month, and Pearl has seemingly met that challenge head-on. Just days before Kessler declared for the draft, Auburn picked up a commitment from former LSU commit Yohan Traore, a five-star combo forward rated as the No. 24 overall player in the 2022 class. Then, last weekend, Auburn added one of the premier big men in the transfer portal in former Morehead State star Johni Broome.

“Which one’s more like Jabari? Which one’s more like Walker? It doesn’t matter,” Pearl said. “But we had to replace two.”

Both Traore and Broome have signed on with Auburn, giving the Tigers a frontcourt that will also feature returning rotation pieces Jaylin Williams and Dylan Cardwell, as well as reserve Stretch Akingbola.

“I’m telling you what, this practice in June is going to be fun,” Pearl said this week in Montgomery. “And I play four out of five of them. Four out of the five are playing, so only one of the five isn’t playing, because I play four in the regular rotation.”

How those roles shape up will be determined through the summer and the preseason as Auburn gears up for the 2022-23 season, but Pearl appeared excited about the versatility and interchangeability of the Tigers’ frontcourt options. Broome, Traore and Williams all have the skillsets to play the four or the five in Pearl’s system, which makes for some intriguing rotation possibilities next season and a potentially blurred line between the labels of the four and five positions.

Williams started all 27 games at center for Auburn during his sophomore season in 2020-21 before accepting a backup role behind Smith at power forward this past season. During that sophomore campaign as the Tigers’ five, Williams proved to be arguably the team’s best all-around player, averaging 10.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, two assists and 1.4 blocks per game. On a per-40-minute basis, he averaged 16.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, three assists, 2.2 blocks and one steal.

Even with a move to the four, and in a diminished role, last season, Williams’ per-40-minute numbers remained steady: 16.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.4 blocks. In Auburn’s two NCAA Tournament games, he flashed some more of his upside, averaging 10 points per game while shooting 8-of-11 overall and 4-of-5 from beyond the arc in Greenville, SC, as Pearl expressed an eagerness to build around Williams’ abilities next season.

Traore was listed as a “combo forward” by Auburn when it announced his signing last month, with the 6-foot-10 big man’s long-term future likely as a stretch four in Pearl’s system. However, he may be better suited to play the five as a freshman, depending on how quickly his perimeter skills can translate to this level.

“Yohan can shoot it,” Pearl said. “Whether or not he can defend on the perimeter or play-make on the perimeter, that’s going to be stuff we’re going to have to work on because he’s not done a lot of it. But I absolutely think he projects to. It’s going to take some work.”

It’s work Pearl is intrigued to see play out this offseason, especially after adding Broome to the fold last weekend. The two could stagger minutes in the rotation, but Pearl hasn’t ruled out the possibility of Traore and Broome playing alongside each other up front.

“I think (the four and the five) could be the same position,” Pearl said. “One’s going to trail, one’s going to rim-run. You just kind of go to the strengths of one.”

Broome, who averaged 16.8 points, 3.9 blocks and 10.5 rebounds per game last season at Morehead State, has a more traditional back-to-the-basket game. That’s something Auburn lacked last season, but Pearl believes his skillset also projects to the perimeter and that he can be a stretch-type player in the frontcourt.

Broome was one of the nation’s most efficient two-way players near the rim, and he only attempted five 3-pointers (with zero makes) during his two seasons at Morehead State. Yet there are elements of his game that Pearl is confident can be developed to where Broome can be more than just a low-post threat for the Tigers next season.

“I think he can catch it and rip it,” Pearl said. “I think he can play-make a little bit. I think he can save multiple positions. I think Yohan can too. I got two really good mobile five-men.”

As Auburn finishes rounding out its roster for next season — the Tigers have one more available scholarship, and top target/five-star forward Julian Phillips is set to make his decision Thursday — the focus the next several months for Pearl will be figuring out the best way to optimize the team’s new embarrassment of riches in the frontcourt, even after losing a pair of All-Americans and likely first-round picks.

It’s a good problem to have, particularly with the positional versatility of Williams, Traore and Broome.

“Two are going to start, two are going to come off the bench, one or two are going to play more dominant roles,” Pearl said. “They’re great kids. They all want to get better. I’m really, really happy with my frontline.”

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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