What adding Georgia transfer guard K.D. Johnson means for Auburn basketball
But he wasn't the only highly regarded freshman on the floor that night at Stegeman Coliseum. K.D. Johnson, who also missed the early part of the season while the NCAA reviewed his eligibility, debuted for the Bulldogs that night with 21 points, seven rebounds, four steals, two assists and two blocks.
Here's what his addition means for Auburn:
More depth and experience at guard
Auburn entered the 2020-21 season with two true freshmen, two sophomores who averaged fewer than four points per game the year before and a junior with zero SEC starts at guard.
As a result, the Tigers struggled with consistency, turnovers and defense in the backcourt. That was reflected in the team's 13-14 (6-11 SEC) record.
So, for the 2021-22 season, Pearl has flipped the script entirely. All four of Auburn's guards are new to the team, but none could be described as inexperienced or unproven. Wendell Green Jr. ranked 15th nationally in assists last season. Zep Jasper averaged nearly 16 points during his junior season for College of Charleston. Desi Sills played in 98 games over three years at Arkansas.
IN THE FRONTCOURT:Walker Kessler makes good Auburn basketball roster potentially great
Johnson is actually the least experienced of those players, having played in only 16 games as a freshmen. But all of them were against SEC competition, and he more than held is own in averaging 13.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 22.5 minutes. He scored in double figures 12 times and 20-plus four times. He shot 42.2% from the floor, 38.7% from 3-point range and made 61.5% of his free throws.
'A different level of energy and competitiveness'
There's a ton to like about Johnson on paper. He was a four-star recruit ranked as a top-100 player nationally in the 2020 class. He played mostly shooting guard for the Bulldogs but was considered a point guard coming out of Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy, so he might have the versatility to contribute at both spots.
He's not the biggest guard, at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, but he plays with physicality. He might not be an elite on-ball defender, but aggressive play and active hands helped him record multiple steals in half the games he played.
The biggest selling point for him, though, might be intangibles that don't show up in a box score. Georgia coach Tom Crean raved about those, saying "he's as competitive as anybody that’s on the team. He’s strong, he has a tremendous mindset defensively, he moves the ball, he moves without it, he can shoot. He just has a contagious confidence."
Those are things last year's Auburn team often craved.
The end of Auburn's roster rebuild?
It's possible – possible – that adding another guard ticketed for big minutes just two days before top target Scoot Henderson's "big day" on Friday indicates that Auburn expects the five-star 2022 point guard to reclassify and head to the G League rather than go to college.
If that is the case, then the Tigers' 2021-22 roster might be complete. Pearl made it sound like it was Monday when he said, "We'll return six players, is all. And we'll bring in six."
The six returning players would be Allen Flanigan, Devan Cambridge, Chris Moore, Jaylin Williams, Dylan Cardwell and Babatunde Akingbola. Forward JT Thor can't yet be ruled out as a possible seventh, but it certainly wouldn't be a surprise to see him keep his name in the NBA Draft after declaring in March.
Johnson would be the sixth incoming player, joining Green, Jasper, Sills, Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler. Auburn still has one open scholarship, but it would take the right player to fill it given how deep the roster already is.
Still, even if this is it, there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the 2021-22 Tigers.
"I like this roster a lot. I think it's got a chance to be very, very competitive," Pearl said. "We've got to get good in a hurry because the schedule is pretty tough, but I really like my team."