BATON ROUGE, La. — New LSU basketball coach Will Wade is doing what is supposed to be the hard part — beating out the likes of Kentucky and Kansas for players.
On Friday, the Tigers picked up a commitment from Baton Rouge Scotlandville Magnet point guard Ja’Vonte Smart, a 5-star prospect rated the No. 1 player in Louisiana in the Class of 2018 by 247Sports. This is a seismic shift for a previously listless program. He has yet to coach a game at LSU, but Wade has already accomplished the improbable.
Now, it feels like recruiting talented players won’t be the biggest challenge Wade will face in Baton Rouge. Instead, it will be recruiting people to watch them.
When SEC Country posted the unexpected news of Smart’s commitment Friday afternoon, I presumed it was one of those stories that would spread like wildfire. If anything was going to wake up a moribund fan base, this was it.
Instead, the data indicated something just one step above a collective yawn. We have a lot of stories that get a lot of clicks, and somehow this was not one of them. Perhaps it was the result of being a bad day to release news — with it being the Friday before the Fourth of July, plenty of people were likely on their way out of town for a holiday weekend and not scouring the internet.
But it also seems probable that even in those conditions there would have been buzz if LSU nabbed any 5-star football recruit in the same time frame.
So what’s it going to take Wade to combat that raging indifference? For starters, it’ll take Ja’Vonte Smart.
Why Ja’Vonte Smart is so valuable to LSU basketball
There is another factor to consider in the relative lack of pomp that followed Smart’s commitment: Ben Simmons Fatigue.
It was just two years ago that Simmons — the consensus No. 1 prospect and future No. 1 NBA draft pick — was supposed to catapult the program. But nothing changed. Instead, it got worse and Johnny Jones was sent packing as a result.
But Smart is not Simmons, who was never anything more than a mercenary. As an Australian, the letters “LSU” offered no emotional connection to Simmons. He was just playing a role in an NBA-mandated charade keeping him out of the league for a year.
Those letters mean something to Smart, who grew up in North Baton Rouge. The building blocks of LSU’s most recent Final Four team in 2006 — Garrett Temple, Tasmin Mitchell, Tyrus Thomas, Big Baby Davis — were also Baton Rouge-bred.
Smart is also the perfect fit for the kind of basketball Wade wants to bring to LSU — fast-paced, full-court and driven by a point guard who can run a team in transition. He’s found his man and didn’t have to go very far to get him.
He did, however, have to fend off two of the bluest bloods out there to do it. Any basketball conversation that includes Kentucky and Kansas tells you all you need to know about a player’s caliber.
More players will follow
With a full season to go before Smart arrives on campus, there’s now no telling the caliber of player he will attract to LSU to play alongside him. The Tigers are already looking strong with 5-star power forward Naz Reid, who has offers from powers such as Kansas, Louisville and Arizona. In very short order, LSU basketball could be morphing from afterthought to appointment viewing.
And if you must view things through a football lens, consider this: Smart is such a big get that he’s even having a positive effect on LSU football recruiting. Scotlandville cornerback Kelvin Joseph said that Smart’s commitment to the basketball program all but seals the deal for him to follow suit with the football team.
Given the recent state of the program, it’s understandable if fans are taking an “I’ll believe it when I see it” approach. But if Wade continues this talent haul, they’re almost certainly going to see it.