LSU forward Mickey staying for his sophomore season

Jordan Mickey didn’t drop many hints over the past month.

Mulling the choice to put his name into the NBA draft, LSU’s soft-spoken forward quietly answered questions with a stock-and-trade line about simply collecting information to weigh.

“It’s a difficult process,” Mickey said, “but a fun one knowing that you have that opportunity in front of you.”

Even earlier this week, the freshman didn’t drop cryptic hints as he closed in on his decision, outside of tweeting he was excited about the return of The Boondocks.

But Tuesday night, Mickey and his father put all the evidence on the table and reached a conclusion: The time to turn pro can wait until he finishes another season in Baton Rouge, a decision he announced Wednesday alongside coach Johnny Jones.

“It’s a big relief to just get that out there,” Mickey said.

The decision to stay is a major linchpin for the Tigers, who went 20-14 and bowed out in the second round of the NIT to SMU, and for their front-court depth ahead of Jones’ third season leading the team.

With junior forward Johnny O’Bryant III already making the NBA leap, Mickey, who averaged 12.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, is the next logical candidate to inherit the role of main cog on the low block.

“I can’t tell you how excited we are that Jordan is going to be a part of our team next year,” Jones said.

The 6-foot-8, 221-pound Mickey made a splash despite seeing a modest 19.1 percent of LSU’s possessions — a figure that ranked only fifth on the team — flow through him this season. Instead, Mickey flourished on interior feeds from O’Bryant, putbacks and spot-up jumpers from the elbow.

He shot 53.3 percent from the floor, which ranked second in the Southeastern Conference, and a hyper-effecient 78.9 percent at the rim, while finishing fourth in the conference for rebounding.

Draft projections hinted Mickey may have been no better than a second-round pick.

ESPN analyst Chad Ford doesn’t list Mickey among his top-100 prospects for the June 26 draft. DraftExpress.com, though, is more generous, ranking the forward the No. 55 prospect in this year’s class and No. 17 among freshmen.

Yet James Wright Sr., who is Mickey’s father and attended the announcement, said information gleaned over the past month revealed the big man “is good enough to play in the NBA right now.”

“It just depends on what type of impact he wants to be as an NBA player,” Wright said. “Quite naturally, you want to go in being as a good as you can be. And right now, there’s some areas we can improve.”

Jones said he heard a similar consensus.

“Everything they had was great in terms of positive feedback on his growth,” Jones said. “They thought one day he would be playing at that level.”

The ability of Mickey, who was named to the SEC’s All-Freshmen team, to mesh with an established presence in O’Bryant was a trait NBA franchises also found appealing, Wright said.

“You get evaluated on what you do without the ball,” Wright said. “How can you come into an environment and be a supporting player? Well, he’s displayed that all year.”

And Mickey’s innate shot-blocking abilities, which helped him swat a SEC-leading 3.1 per game, also proved enticing. Yet the feedback from personnel men was they wanted to see the lean big man bulk up and add strength in the offseason.

How Mickey goes about that has a loose outline. Already, he has invites from LeBron James’ and Amare Stoudamire’s skill academies, and Mickey will get his strength and conditioning in on campus with Rick Lefebvre.

“Just improve every aspect of my game,” Mickey said. “Footwork is a big key to everything, so I just have to continue to make my feet faster and just keep improving.”

The expectations ahead for LSU are abundantly clear: Snap a five-year hiatus from the NCAA tournament. The Tigers bring back point guard Anthony Hickey while adding UNC-Asheville transfer Keith Hornsby and four-star junior-college prospect Josh Gray to mix with the nation’s No. 23 recruiting class.

“It’s a big motivating factor,” Mickey said. “Every college athlete wants to get to the tournament and be able to play in it, and try to get deep in it.”

The question moving forward is what direction the Tigers offense goes with Mickey in the fold. Fellow freshman Jarell Martin, a former McDonald’s All-American, will be back in the mix, but how much will he be anchored inside?

Martin, a Baton Rouge native and Madison Prep product, endured a wobbly transition to small forward this season. Early in SEC play, he came off the bench for six games before finding his rhythm down the stretch, averaging 12.3 points and 5.1 rebounds over the final 10 games.

There’s also the arrival of center Elbert Robinson, a 7-foot, 285-pound center rated by Rivals.com as the No. 51 prospect in the country. While his size is a plus, the question is whether Robinson can get conditioned to contribute up 15 minutes a game.

So Jones faces a potential conundrum many of his peers might envy: How does he work out a rotation to capitalize on ample size?

“Who knew the impact Jordan was going to come in an make this year?” Jones said. “If we can get a guy like Elbert Robinson to come and do that same thing, then we’ll certainly have to make some choices.”