After its first appearance in the Final Four last season, Auburn’s basketball team looks different heading into the 2019-20 season.
With Bryce Brown, Malik Dunbar and Horace Spencer all graduating, plus Jared Harper and Chuma Okeke choosing to enter the NBA draft, Auburn lost several of its key players from last year.
Now returning players like Samir Doughty, Daniel Purifoy, J’von McCormick, Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy are having to take on bigger roles to lead a team that has eight newcomers on the roster.
Doughty, Purifoy, Wiley, McLemore and McCormick are all seniors this year, and Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl expects them to be the leaders for this relatively young team.
“He's (Doughty) a leader,” Pearl said. "He's going to get a lot more attention than he did last year. He's going to get the kind of attention that Jared got and that Bryce got. As you would expect and so how he's able to handle that, we'll have to go through and see that. But he's done great. He's worked hard and he's shown good leadership."
Both Doughty and Purifoy have been working on certain aspects of their game heading into this season so they can better assist their team in its quest for another successful season.
“Just finishing around the basket more," Doughty said of what he’s focused on. "I’ve been working on my shooting, but I know that’s something I struggled with last year: finishing over the top of bigger people than I’m used to."
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Purifoy lost 12 pounds during the offseason in a bid to help improve his ability to move on the court.
“I can move better, jump like I used to,” Purifoy said of the effect of losing some weight. “I’m just more comfortable with myself.”
As for McCormick, Doughty said he’s taking on some of the responsibility of leading the younger guys and preparing them for the season.
“He’s taking on a bigger role, more of a leadership role, more of a scoring role,” Doughty said. “He’s also been doing a good job of communicating with the younger guys, helping them be in the spots they need to be. He’s been scoring the ball a lot more, and thats what we’re gonna need from him this upcoming year.”
Pearl also hopes to see Johnson, who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, take what he learned from watching the team and help teach the new players while making his own mark on the team.
“I think with Jamal, he’s got experience,” Pearl said. “He’s got ability. He’s really improved his outside shooting. I want him to take his knowledge and be able to make the other four guys better out there with his ability to communicate.”
While the returning guys are figuring out how to lead this new group, a couple of newcomers are already making an impression.
Isaac Okoro has been talked about a lot during the preseason, and so far he’s exceeding the expectations of his teammates.
“He don’t look like a freshman on the floor,” Doughty said of Okoro. “He’s talking like he’s been here. He’s worked on his game, he’s one of our hardest workers. He’s shooting the ball a lot better than people would’ve expected, more than I expected. But that’s come from working hard everyday. So he’s definitely a standout freshman.”
Another freshman that has been making his mark has been Babatunde Akingbola. The 6 foot 10 center from Nigeria goes by the nickname Stretch.
“He is hardworking,” Pearl said. “He is dedicated. He wants to be coached, and he is a great communicator on the floor. I got eighteen guys on the roster and seventeen are American born. He’s Nigerian born, and he’s the best communicator… He’s motivating, he’s fun to be around, and he’s gonna be a really good player for us someday.”
There’s only a couple weeks left for Auburn to prepare for its first games of the 2019-2020 season, and Pearl knows that even though things are progressing, there is still a lot of work left to be done.
“I leave practice every day going, ‘Man we got a lot done, but we have a lot to cover,'” Pearl said.
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