TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Anyone who has ever watched a basketball practice has seen the drill. Players are put on the free throw line, and when one misses the whole team has to run down to the other end of the court and back.
When Alabama ran sprints after reporters were welcomed into the Crimson Tide’s practice facility for a viewing period Monday evening, the same thing happened over and over. Leading everyone back and forth, and crossing the line well ahead of anyone else, was true freshman guard Collin Sexton.
“He’s fast,” junior forward Donta Hall said.
Sexton was also hustling almost nonstop, which is what has really gotten the attention of his new teammates.
The calendar says July, and the regular season is still so far away that Alabama’s full schedule has yet to be announced. Even though these bonus practices are just for the Crimson Tide’s upcoming trip to Canada, the freshman wanted to be out front.
Which is what Sexton is used to.
“His motor, his energy, he comes in every day,” sophomore forward Braxton Key said. “He’s the loudest trash-talker. He’s a great teammate off the court and he’s in here putting in the work.
“All the freshman are really talented. We all joke around that they really play like sophomores and juniors.”
While the Crimson Tide’s newcomers are getting accustomed to the college game, things are a little different as Alabama’s veterans are also getting used to the numerous newcomers. In addition to the stellar recruiting class of Sexton, guards John Petty and Herb Jones, forward Alex Reese and center Gailin Smith, there’s also Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens, a 6-foot-10 forward/center.
Teammates say Giddens was well under 200 pounds when he arrived last year, but now he’s now listed at 245 pounds and moves quickly for a big man. Johnson revealed that Reese is up to 255 pounds — the coaches would prefer he play under 250 — plus Jones has added 10 pounds up to 193 thanks to the Crimson Tide’s strength and conditioning program.
That was among the news Monday, along with sophomore guard Dazon Ingram sitting for a pre-scheduled rest day, and Johnson’s son Avery Jr., a junior guard temporarily sidelined by a strained abdominal muscle.
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Otherwise, two things immediately stuck out during the brief session. The team’s overall talent level talent has improved significantly and the group already seems to have some chemistry.
The blending of young talent and experience appears to be off to a good start with the players spending time together and hanging out away from the court. For example, they often have dinner together, which is something last year’s team didn’t do.
That has to be a relief to the coaching staff. Instead of friction developing between the big personality freshmen and established veterans, their energy has been contagious. And there’s constant communication, especially when Sexton’s involved.
“He loves to talk,” Hall said. “You’re going to hear him regardless. Getting up and down the court, offensive game, defensive game, you’re going to hear him say something.”
Sexton wasn’t just a consensus 5-star prospect in the Class of 2017, but ranked the No. 7 player overall by 247Sports, No. 9 by Scout.com and No. 10 in the ESPN Top 100. In addition to being named a McDonald’s All-American as a senior at Pebblebrook High School in Mableton, Ga., he won the premier all-star event’s dunk contest as well
“He’s got a big attitude, but it’s a good thing for us,” senior forward Riley Norris said. “It pushes us. Makes us better. Makes us more competitive. Not just him, but all the freshman. They all bring something to the table.”
As for the speed part, basketball is no different from a lot of other sports in which more is always better.
Among Johnson’s numerous wishes for the upcoming season, topping it may be being a better a transition team. He wants to push the ball upcourt, but playing faster would help the defense in that area, too.
“We need foot speed,” Johnson said. “Petty, Collin and Herb — Daniel, they can run. You combine those guys with Braxton, they can go up and down the floor with Dazon and AJ. That gives us more depth of speed to be able to play a little bit faster, or when we’re in a chase situation on defense, hopefully they chase the ball down.
“That speed is very important.”
An example he gave from last year was when Alabama was hosting Florida, and when the Gators switched to a 1-3-1 press, the Crimson Tide didn’t have an answer. With a 27-10 advantage in points off turnovers, Florida won going away, 80-67.
“We couldn’t pass, dribble or shoot,” Johnson said. “We hope that when we’re in situations like that, not only will we be able to start games, but close games better because of the talent on our roster.”
They have a long way to go, not just with the upcoming games in Montreal (Aug. 7) and Ottawa (Aug. 10), or the season opener vs. Memphis at the U.S. Naval Academy (Nov. 10). But if this initial week is an accurate indication, this year’s Crimson Tide is going to have a lot of fun along the way. So will the fans.
“We’re meshing,” Norris said.