A sweet start for LSU’s ‘Sugar’ Coleman

Advocate staff photo by Catherine Threlkeld -- LSU forward Shavon Coleman dribbles past McNeese State forward Adrian Fields during their game, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012, in Baton Rouge.
Advocate staff photo by Catherine Threlkeld -- LSU forward Shavon Coleman dribbles past McNeese State forward Adrian Fields during their game, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012, in Baton Rouge.

So many great LSU basketball players have had famously catchy nicknames.

“Pistol” Pete Maravich. John “Hot Plate” Williams. Glen “Big Baby” Davis.

Shaquille O’Neal? Too many nicknames to mention.

If the first five games of his LSU career are an indication of what’s to come, junior Shavon “Sugar” Coleman may soon put another fun-to-say moniker on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

Coleman’s mother, Michelle, began calling her son “Sugar” before he was old enough to dribble.

“It stuck with me my whole life, since I was a baby until now,” Coleman said. “Everyone calls me ‘Sugar.’ If you go to my hometown, everybody just says, ‘What up, Sugar?’ Nobody called me by my real name. Even when I was in high school, the teachers never called me by my real name. They just called me ‘Sugar.’ ”

A former Thibodaux High standout, Coleman waited two long years before getting his first taste of Division I basketball. He originally signed with Louisiana-Monroe, then spent two seasons at Howard College in Big Spring, Texas, honing his skills and getting his academics in order.

“I think I was ready for Division I basketball coming out of high school; it’s just that I didn’t make my ACT score, so I had to go to junior college,” he said. “That allowed me to transition into an even better basketball player and better person. Now I’m taking all my talents that I brought from there and using them here.”

The versatile Coleman, 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds, is one of the primary reasons LSU (5-0) will enter Tuesday night’s game against Chattanooga off to its fastest start in four seasons.

No matter that he is playing inside rather than outside. No matter that he has come off the bench in four of the first five games.

Coleman leads LSU in scoring at 17.4 points and ranks second on the team with an average of 7.6 rebounds. He is shooting 56.5 percent from the field and 56.5 percent from 3-point range.

After helping LSU come from behind to beat Seton Hall, Coleman was named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Week. He had 18 points in that game, including 14 in the pivotal second half.

“It was just what the defense was giving me,” he said. “We were just trying to force it out of them. I was open, and I would take a shot. I tried to always make a play for another player. I just came out there in the second half and executed well.”

Although the Tigers recruited Coleman to play the wing, they have played him mostly in the post.

The list of returning players on LSU’s interior consisted of standout big man Johnny O’Bryant, former walk-on Andrew Del Piero and converted small forwards Eddie Ludwig and Jalen Courtney.

Of the newcomers on the perimeter, Coleman was best suited to play down low. He has used his length and quickness — and heart — to excel there.

“The feeling I have in my heart is, I can do anything Coach needs me to do,” Coleman said.

He has similar sentiments about serving as LSU’s super sub. Jones compared Coleman’s selflessness to that of former LSU standout Willie Sims, who was so good coming off the bench that coach Dale Brown had him introduced with the starters.

“He’s about winning,” Jones said of Coleman. “He said, ‘Coach, I don’t care where I am — inside, outside, starting or off the bench.’ Just playing is important to him, and winning is important to him. I think, when you watch him play, you can appreciate that.”

In the one start of his young Division I career, Coleman provided the best individual performance of LSU’s season. He got the nod alongside Ludwig on Nov. 13 against McNeese State as O’Bryant watched from the sideline with a calf injury. Off he went, surging to 25 points to go with 10 rebounds, both game highs.

During a stretch late in the first half when Coleman scored 10 straight LSU points, he recalled passing O’Bryant as he ran back down court.

“Keep eating!” he recalled O’Bryant saying. “Go for 40!”

Few could have imagined such a scene when Coleman signed with LSU last spring — Jones included.

“I’ll be the first to tell you, it would have been hard to say early on that he would excel the way he has,” Jones said. “A lot of it is just because of his sheer hustle and desire to win.”

Coleman has made a seamless transition to major-college basketball, picking up where he left off as a sophomore at Howard College who averaged 14.7 points and 6.6 rebounds.

If this keeps up, the “Sugar Sweet” posters and T-shirts may not be far behind.