BATON ROUGE, La. — The idea of “positions” has come under scrutiny in recent years in almost every team sport.
Football coaches are salivating over versatile players who can play both linebacker and safety, or wide receiver and running back. Baseball mangers are tinkering with what it means to be a relief pitcher while players like the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant are redefining what it means to play the field.
And in basketball, positions are essentially on their way out. Gone are the days of the distributing point guard, the sharp-shooting two guard, the lanky small forward, the high-post presence at power forward and the shot-blocking and glass-cleaning center. The lines are becoming muddled in favor of speed, spacing and athleticism.
Looking at the way LSU’s men’s basketball team plans on constructing its lineup this year, this concept seems to have spread to Baton Rouge.
“It can be Elbert (Robinson), it can be Craig (Victor), even (Aaron) Epps can play (center) sometimes,” LSU forward Duop Reath said. “It doesn’t really matter. Because I can play the four and the five. And Craig can play the four and the five too. It’s just mainly Elbert that’s only a true five. All the bigs have really rotated around.”
Unpacking Reath’s comments a little further, it seems LSU’s frontcourt this season won’t rely on a strict adherence to positions. Instead, the team will read the matchups and the situations to decide who is playing where, especially when Reath and Victor are on the court together because they can play the same two positions.
It’s likely that LSU will ask a lot of Reath, a junior college transfer preparing for his first year of SEC ball, this season. LSU coach Johnny Jones has heaped nothing but praise upon Reath, often unprompted, since the team opened up fall practices.
When asked about Reath’s ability to stretch out from his natural position at power forward to earn some reps at center, Jones all but guaranteed the possibility.
“Duop has the ability in our league to be versatile enough to play either,” Jones said. “He can stretch the floor defensively because he can step out. He can put the ball on the floor. He’s a good passer. His footwork, he has really good footwork that will allow him to defend on the perimeter as well. So that’s something that we’re encouraged by with his play.”
Reath likely won’t be the only player asked to stretch outside of his natural position. Epps, who describes himself as a lengthy four, said he’ll be asked to kick inside to small forward from time to time. And, as Reath hinted at earlier, Victor will likely rove between power forward and center.
One of the few players on LSU’s team who can sleep steady knowing that he won’t have to move positions is sophomore Antonio Blakeney, the team’s shooting guard and de facto scoring leader. Blakeney took a turn for the enthusiastic when asked about the versatility of his frontcourt Tuesday, miming their actions and drawing plays on a desk while trying to explain the value of his tallest teammates.
“They all can pick-and-pop,” Blakeney said. “They love to pick-and-pop and shoot that three. So that’s going to really stretch the floor because you’ve really got to pick the way you guard the pick-and-roll and come off screens. If they want to double team me, I’ll kick it to a shot and then a team might have it’s guard trying to step here, but that’s (guard Brandon Sampson) in the corner and he stepped there and Epps gets it and swings it over.”
The renewed focus for LSU this season has been on defense, and this is especially true among the forwards. But Reath and Epps both said that part of the reason they have confidence that they can serve the role as defensive enforcers is because they trust Blakeney, Sampson and the rest of the backcourt to hit shots.
It’s a sort of symbiotic relationship in that sense. Because Blakeney said as much as the forwards feed off him, he feeds off the forward as well.
“What I like playing with them is I know those guys are going to play hard and try to block shots to where I can guard my man and get up tight,” Blakeney said. “If he beats me, those guys are athletic enough to change their shot at least. Last year, guys were getting to the rim and just finishing, no contest. But those guys like Epps and Duop, those guys are really getting up there and trying to block a shot.”