Jarell Martin tilted back his head and peered into the rafters at Texas Tech’s United Spirit Arena.
Perhaps LSU’s ballyhooed freshman forward hoped a solution to his early season struggles might materialize from the ether.
Roughly 10 minutes into the Tigers’ 71-69 victory against the Red Raiders on Wednesday, Martin’s fallback option failed him. Putting the ball on the deck, he tried to burst into the lane with an explosive first step while hobbled by a left high ankle sprain. Instead, Tech’s Jaye Crockett slid over.
The result: a charge, Martin plodding up the floor and doubts creeping in about his health and his role at small forward.
“Definitely, I keep thinking about it,” Martin said Thursday after he had just two points in 18 minutes and four fouls against the night before. “I try not to make certain moves on it in the game. It just plays a big role in everything mentally.”
Soft-spoken and polite, that’s a candid admission for a 6-foot-9 prospect with a McDonald’s All-American pedigree.
And it’s one underscored by the quick emergence of freshman Jordan Mickey, who is averaging 13.9 points and 8.5 rebounds and twice has been named SEC freshman of the week. Meanwhile, Martin has been stuck on an exercise bike and held out of contact portions of practice.
“(Fellow freshman Tim Quarterman) and Jordan haven’t had to go through what Jarell has been through,” coach Johnny Jones said. “That’s tough. He’s one of those guys that, because he’s so talented, you ask him to do a lot of things, and he hasn’t been out there on the floor.”
Soreness from the sprain is clearly a culprit. He’s known for having a startling first step for someone his size, but the injury has limited his range of motion. Cutting laterally only exacerbates the discomfort.
“He’s got a great first step going toward the rim,” junior forward Johnny O’Bryant III said. “Having an ankle injury like he has slows you down trying to sweep past your defender and explode.”
So it falls to Jones to point out that Martin’s size makes him a capable passer off the wing. That he’s a nightmare for small forwards to keep on the floor. And that his length changes how foes orient defenses to slow him down.
Yet LSU needs the Martin who posted 12 points against Butler in last month’s Old Spice Classic and was a nightmare to stop in the open floor. Or the version who put up 17 on Saint Joseph’s in that same tournament and looked comfortable lofting jumpers on the perimeter.
“We know he wants to get to the rim and dunk and make physical plays, but we tell him all the time to make the easy play,” senior guard Andre Stringer said. “When we kick it to him, he’s got to let it go.”
Right now, they have neither. So would it behoove Martin to carve out a niche and build on it before worrying about his entire repertoire?
“It’s not something he should be pressing because time will take care of that,” Jones said. “When he’s out there on the floor enough and getting enough reps, those things will come to him.”
But there’s the undercurrent of Martin adapting to creating shots for himself away from the rim. He admitted that has been tough, and a solution might be to work on the low block with some pick-and-pop plays built in. Yet that runs counter to LSU’s structure of flowing its attack through direct entry plays to O’Bryant and Mickey.
That creates another bind. To alter it means pulling one of the two, potentially subtracting O’Bryant’s scoring or Mickey’s rebounding. Meanwhile, forward Shavon Coleman’s solid start has meant carving out more minutes for a veteran.
Therein lies the vexing problem for player and coach: How do you get Martin enough playing time to establish a rhythm and rebuild confidence that has been dented?
“There’s no other way to get it,” Jones said, “unless you’re out there playing.”