Mays and Smart poised to lead Tigers into start of preseason hoops practice
Skylar Mays turned 22 years old about three weeks ago.
But the Tigers’ senior guard, the heartbeat of LSU’s defending Southeastern Conference basketball champions, admits he’s aged a lot in the last year.
Few people his age grieve the loss of teammate Wayde Sims who was shot to death just before the start of preseason practice, then win a regular season conference championship, reach the NCAA Sweet 16 without his suspended head coach because of an alleged recruiting scandal, join five other underclassmen on his roster declaring for the NBA Draft, un-declare and then sigh in relief when the suspended head coach is reinstated and three other underclassmen teammates also undeclare.
In short, the band led by the maestro got back together.
“The plan he (Wade) has in place for us, for the LSU basketball program, knowing that stability is there helps you let go of any stresses and get back to work,” Mays said Monday in a media availability also featuring Wade heading into Friday's start of preseason practice. “Just having that stability makes it easier moving forward.”
With five of its top eight players returning (including starters Mays and Marlon Taylor) from last year’s 28-7 team that was 16-2 in the SEC, an August trip to Spain where the Tigers went 3-1 jumpstarted the meshing of returnees and signees.
“I like our group, it’s very talented,” Wade said. “We have plenty of skill, we have better shooting (than last season). It’s just a matter of being able to do the little things. Can we get loose balls? Can we get stops? Can we stop runs by having good offensive possessions?
On the Spain trip, returning players such as Mays, Taylor, Javonte Smart, Emmitt Williams and Darius Days stood out at different times.
Mays talked about Smart becoming more of a leader entering his sophomore year.
“Javonte has always been a real vocal leader,” Mays said of Smart, who’s stepping in at point guard to replace All-SEC first-team selection Tremont Waters who was drafted by the NBA’s Boston Celtics. “Now, he’s really able to use it.”
Wade praised Williams and Days play in Spain.
“Emmitt has been very consistent and very dependable,” Wade said. “He’s worked very hard. Because of that, his game has taken off. He’s taking it very seriously. Last year was a point of reference for him.
“Days is going to have a breakout year. He’s really shooting well and playing with a lot of confidence.”
Mays pointed out outstanding play on the Spain tour from new faces like freshman forward Trendon Watford and junior college transfer guard Charles Manning Jr.
“Trendon is so versatile, he can pretty much play five spots,” Mays said. “Charles has frequently gone at me in practice. He has made it a point of guarding me and challenging me with his on-ball defense.”
Wade’s immediate emphasis to open preseason work is defense and toughness.
“I’m a little worried about our grit and toughness, especially in the last six minutes of games,” Wade said. “We have to start developing an identity around that. It doesn’t happen overnight.
“We have to continue to improve our defensive fundamentals. We’re going to score plenty of points. We’re going to a score a ton. It’s just a matter if can we get stops, can we do the little things that helps you win the game in the last six minutes?
“Can you value the ball? Can you be solid on defense? Can you make free throws when you're fatigued?”
The one thing LSU began installing in the Spain trip was a motion offense that the Tigers will lean on more than last year’s ball-screen offense.
“We were like a 78 percent ball-screen oriented last year,” Wade said. “This year, we’ll be 60 percent motion and 40 percent ball screens.
“I like the way our motions look. I like our spacing, we’re giving our guys driving lanes. Last year, we played with those two bigs (Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams) sitting on the blocks and our guards would drive right into them.
“This year, we have much more spacing. We’ve put a lot of time into it.”
Wade wants the 2019-20 team to develop many of the positive repetitive habits as last season’s title squad, especially having poise under pressure.
That’s something that Mays and the returning players must pass on to the newbies.
“It (last season’s emotional off-the-court rollercoaster) helped us develop a confidence you can only develop through our type of experience,” Mays said. “It wasn’t something very normal.
“But I can say we came out very successful and we’re going to get a little jewelry (a SEC title ring) to show that we did the right thing and good things came from all we went through.”
LSU travels to Louisiana Tech on Nov. 2 for a "Hoops 4 Disaster Relief" exhibition game before opening the regular season at home on Nov. 8 against Bowling Green.