ALEXANDER CITY, Ala. — Though he was known as the Tigers’ “little general,” Jared Harper leaves behind a massive hole for Auburn basketball to fill.
All 5-foot-11 — maybe — of Harper dominated last week at the NBA G League combine, resulting in an invite to the official NBA Combine, where he also impressed scouts and coaches. Translated: Bruce Pearl is preparing to be without the primary catalyst of his offense.
Pearl is now tasked to name and develop a new point guard for the first time in three seasons. The sixth-year Tigers head coach has said the competition will be open between pure point guard J’Von McCormick, combo guard Samir Doughty and touted true freshman Tyrell “Turbo” Jones.
The Tigers also must replace Bryce Brown, the program’s all-time leader in 3-point shooting and two-year starter at shooting guard.
Thus, Auburn has been busy on the transfer market this offseason, notably pushing hard for Arkansas Little Rock graduate transfer Rayjon Tucker — a high-flying combo guard who eventually committed to Memphis over Auburn, Kansas and others. Recently, it’s been reported Pearl is also attempting to court USC transfer Derryck Thorton — another two-way guard who began his career as a five-star prospect at Duke.
Pearl said Monday before his annual “BP Fore the Children Golf Classic” in Alexander City that he and his staff are still after guards that can play both spots in the backcourt.
“You lose Jared and Bryce, you lose your entire backcourt,” Pearl said. “(A grad transfer) is definitely a possibility. Again, I’ve got champagne taste. I’m not going to bring in somebody that can’t help us get there.”
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Pearl added that the talent of the 2020 class — where he’s likely referring to Sharife Cooper, a five-star point guard prospect who is reportedly leaning heavily Auburn’s way — makes Pearl weary of signing a freshman or sophomore grad transfer.
He wants a player to make a sizeable impact for the next few seasons and be gone by the time his recruited talent arrives.
“I’m going to bring in somebody that is going to be here for a year or two and gone because I’ve got such a good, promising class in 2020 and I’ve got that set up,” Pearl said.
As Chuma Okeke decided to remain in the 2019 NBA Draft earlier this month, Pearl said the Tigers also haven’t ruled out chasing a versatile forward transfer in addition to a combo guard.
“There’s a chance that we’ll add one or two, but there’s a chance we don’t add anybody,” Pearl said.
But the Auburn coaches aren’t necessarily interested in any pure point guards — and for good reason.
“I just think the way J’Von McCormick ended last season he’s earned the right for me to not bring in, say, a grad transfer point guard,” Pearl said.
A former transfer himself out of Lee College in Baytown, Texas, McCormick didn’t exactly hit the ground running on the orange and blue court in Auburn Arena. He solidified himself early as a reliable backup for Harper, but he wasn’t doing enough for Pearl.
“My issue with J’Von had been for much of the preseason was, ‘What are you waiting for?’” Pearl said. “‘You’re not out there just to log minutes. With the guys we’re playing against you need to make plays; you need to make shots. You don’t need to just defense; you have to turn people over more.’ I was on J’Von real hard just because I wanted more.”
“More” came at the perfect time.
McCormick progressively improved as the regular season neared a finish, but his best minutes came in the postseason. It began when Harper was sent to the bench with a pair of fouls in the first half of the SEC Tournament title game against heavily favored Tennessee.
McCormick filled in masterfully, making sure the Tigers’ offense didn’t stall. The offensive looks were changed — less perimeter isolation, more emphasis on breaking down the first layer of the defense and making extra passes — but it worked. Harper rode the bench for the remainder of the first half, in which Auburn outscored the Vols 32-23 in the first half en route to its first conference tournament championship in 34 years.
The New Orleans native McCormick’s encore was even better. In the Tigers’ next matchup four days later — the NCAA Tournament opener against New Mexico State — McCormick shot 6-for-8 from the field and dropped an Auburn career-high 16 points in the nail-biting victory.
The common caveat surrounding McCormick is his ability to bear the load of starter at point guard after he logged more than 20 minutes in a game just twice last season. However, the way Pearl sees it, McCormick came this far, and his coach believes there’s no reason he can’t continue to develop into a go-to offensive weapon and leader.
“Just enormous growth, as much as any player I’ve ever coached I think from the beginning of the season to the end in the sense that at the end of the year he was a factor — both offensively and defensively,” Pearl said. “He was as fast a guard as there was in college basketball and we played to his strengths… He had more to give and made a big, big difference down the stretch.”
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