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Refocused Wayde Sims earning leadership role for young, talented LSU hoops

Wayde Sims is far more at ease discussing his work to improve his ball-handling and shooting.

But recent praise heaped upon him by coach Will Wade finds deeper roots in the strides in maturity the LSU forward has shown throughout the offseason.

The former University Lab star has battled through some ups and downs as an underclassman and now enters his junior season among the leaders on a young, but hyper-talented Tigers team.

And Wade, for one, couldn’t be much more excited.

“I’ve just been very, very pleased with him,” the Tigers’ second-year coach says. “He’s really cleaned up his life, and he’s a lot more focused and a lot more driven. Some of that’s just maturing and being a junior and that sort of thing, but I’m very, very proud of him.”

Sims provided Wade his share of headaches during their first year together.

The 6-foot-6, 210-pound Sims smiles with a bit of embarrassment when he thinks back on a few poor off-court decisions in his first years of college.

“I just feel like last year I could’ve done a lot better personally,” he says. “And I just felt like this summer I needed to get in the gym a lot more and work on my game, work on my shot, ball-handling and things like that and just improve my skillset and help my team more.”

Sims averaged 6.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 0.7 steals, 0.5 blocks and 0.5 assists per game as a true freshman under Johnny Jones on 77-for-153 shooting from the field (50.3 percent) and 14-for-34 (41.2 percent) from beyond the arc.

He started eight of his first nine games as a sophomore and averaged 7.1 points and 3.4 rebounds per contest in the process before finding trouble, decreased playing time and lower numbers.

“I’d warn him about it,” says junior guard Skylar Mays, a teammate throughout childhood, high school and college. “He has just had his moments. But for the most part, he does a great job, he’s a great teammate and a great person.”

Rather than complete the breakout season for which he appeared poised, Sims finished the season with averages of 5.6 points, 2.9 rebounds, 0.7 blocks, 0.5 steals and 0.4 assists and 73-for-142 shooting from the field (51.2 percent), but only 9-for-36 (25.0 percent) from 3-point range.

“Unfortunately, when you’re young, sometimes you make bad decisions and you do things that you regret down the line,” says father Wayne Sims, a former LSU basketball player from 1987-91. “Me and his mother, we really pray for him and pray that he does the right thing at all times, but you know, it’s part of growing up sometimes. I was no angel all the time growing up, either, and things happen. But as long as you learn from your mistakes, and you grow from them, like he has done, I think that good things will follow.

“Me and his mother are constantly on him about doing the right thing. And I can tell sometimes when we’ll bring up something from the past, he’ll kind of shrug his head and pretty much gives us the idea that he learned from it and really doesn’t want to hear about it again.”

The younger Sims would rather focus on basketball.

And he’s taken that approach ever since a one-game suspension last winter, making a conscious effort to better focus himself on his craft and minimize the self-inflicted hurdles.

The results, as the Tigers begin full practice Friday, have been evident in a variety of ways.

“He’s been phenomenal,” Wade says. “Some guys when they see competition, they run scared, and some guys embrace it and lift their level and raise their game. And he’s embraced it and lifted his level and raised his game to a high high level. He’s playing as well as he’s played here. He’s playing with confidence.

“I’ve just been pleasantly surprised… He just knows what he’s doing out there. He’s totally changed his body. He’s taken his diet a lot more serious. He’s lifting a lot harder. He’s in the best shape of his life. He wins some of our conditioning runs now, where he was just hoping to barely get across the line in time this time last year.”

Wayde has indeed returned with a more tightly trimmed haircut — more reminiscent of his high school days — and confirmed he’s feeling in better overall physical shape.

He remains about the same weight at which he played as a sophomore — but a more fit 210 pounds, he says — and has spent a lot of time fine-tuning his perimeter skillset as his role on the court shifts that direction.

“(Assistant) coach (Greg) Heiar had kind of mentioned to him that he had kind of put it in coach Wade’s ear to let him run at the three a little bit,” Wayne Sims says. “So I think once he finds his niche, and if he gets his chance to play at the three more than playing at the four or five, I think that he’ll blossom.”

The move is one the former Louisiana Gatorade Players of the Year admits he’s been anticipating since at least his final prep season at on-campus U-High.

But the Tigers’ rosters in previous years kept him primarily in the post, where he had excelled for the Cubs but found himself undersized at the college level.

“I’ve been waiting on it,” he says. “We’ve actually got some size to our team this year, so I’m able to step outside and play the three. If I need to go to play the four, it all depends on what the game has in store. I’m able to play both.”

Wayde explains: “I like the three better because I’m 6-6, and being a four-man that’s 6-6 is kind of hard going down in the past and stuff. But I like to play where the team needs me, and I try to do the best I can to help the team win.”

He feels he has regained better consistency on his outside shot and feels more comfortable and confident handling the ball.

And his entry passes to the post after his own years of experience playing down low have also been a notable strength.

“Just getting in the gym and working on my game and noticing my shots are starting to fall a lot more than it was last year, I feel like that gives me a lot of confidence in my game,” he says. “So that helps.”

As has renewed trust and praise from Wade and the staff.

“I think he’s come a long way,” says Wayne Sims. “Definitely this summer, he was very excited because he had a good summer, he had good workouts, and I definitely do see some maturity in him. And for me being a former player, I always preach (leadership) to him.

“I was talking to him earlier, and I’m so excited. They had their workouts, and he feels like he’s in top shape. I told him, ‘Man, we’re a little bit over a month until the start of the season.’ And it seems like he’s excited. I’m excited. His mom’s excited. And we just can’t wait to see what’s gonna happen.”

LSU has earned recent preseason rankings such as No. 19 by CBSSports.com and No. 20 from NBCSports.com and Sporting News.

And a rededicated Wayde Sims figures to play an important leadership role for a suddenly reloaded roster headlined by a slew of highly regarded freshmen, including forwards Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams.

“I know we’ve got high expectations, but I don’t really think about it,” he says. “Just take every day at a time because you never know — it could be taken away from you at any day. But I know if we come in and compete every day, I know that the hard work will pay off in the long run and the cream’s gonna rise to the top.”

Sims still has two seasons of eligibility remaining with the Tigers, and hopes that that work ethic and attitude will prove to be his biggest impact on the program.

The early years included some bumps in the road, but more maturity and focus have gone a long way in rewriting his own story each day since then.

“I’m just excited about watching him grow as a man, first,” Mays says. “Obviously he’s grown as a player because he puts the work in on a daily basis, and that’s why he’s bene so consistent on the court. But just as a man, watching him go through his ups and downs and dealing with it when it’s time to deal with it and keeping it to the side when it’s time to play ball, that’s something that I admire about him.

“I’ve known Wayde all my life, and I know where his heart is. And he’s a great guy, and I wouldn’t want anyone else as my teammate.”