Defense has big role in freshman’s game
Moses Kingsley never had a chance.
After a steal, the Arkansas forward drove toward the rim. Standing flat-footed, LSU forward Jordan Mickey stood beneath the rim and waited for Kingsley to lift off.
Outside the charge circle, Kingsley elevated and cocked his arm back. Bad idea. Mickey rose to meet the fellow freshman, smashing his palm on the ball for the last of a season-high six blocks last month.
“He blocked it,” LSU men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones said, “and kind of stared down at him for a second.”
Sure, Mickey has swatted enough shots — 96, to be exact —to splice together an incriminating highlight reel of opponents denied bids at the rim. Many of them, though, were unsuspecting souls caught off guard from the help side.
“He made a mistake,” LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant III said.
For all its defensive inconsistency, the 6-foot-8 Mickey, who has a 7-foot-4 wingspan, has been reliable for the Tigers (18-12) in the lane this season.
And if seventh-seeded LSU can knock out No. 10 seed Alabama (13-18) at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Southeastern Conference tournament, he may become the first player since Shaquille O’Neal to block more than 100 shots in a season. All while being the quietest LSU player on the floor.
“A lot of players hate getting their shot blocked,” Mickey said. “Something about that gets under a guy’s skin. It’s fun knowing that I can get inside a guy’s head like that and take him out of the game.”
Nationally, Kansas freshman Joel Embiid attracted intrigue for his length, timing and equally impressive shot-blocking prowess, considering he ranks No. 19 by blocking 11.6 percent of shots when on the floor, according to kenpom.com.
Yet Mickey, who landed on the SEC’s all-freshman and all-defensive teams Tuesday, isn’t far behind.
His 3.2 blocks per game pace the SEC and rank eighth in the country. Meanwhile, his 9.5 block percentage, which can help evaluate shot blockers playing different amounts of minutes, is No. 40 nationally and fourth among freshmen.
He averages 13.0 points and 7.6 rebounds to go with 53.3 percent shooting, but his role on defense makes Mickey essential to have on the floor when his part in the offense — one where no plays are called for him — may shrink.
“It gave me a little comfort early on and helped figure out where I was at with the team,” Mickey said. “That was big for me.”
And it helped by Jarell Martin, a fellow blue-chip freshman and former McDonald’s All-American, buy time for a transition to the wing.
LSU coach Johnny Jones said plugging in Mickey at the power forward spot meant Martin, who has elite athleticism for a 6-9, 242-pound big man, could settle in at the small forward spot.
Martin’s averaged 11.4 points per game during SEC play, including an 11-game closing stretch where he’s posting 12.5 points and reached double figures eight times.
“It has allowed us to possibly put Jarell in other situations early on and play more minutes at the 3 because of (Mickey’s) development and how quick he developed at that spot and the impact he made,” Jones said.
Not that it wasn’t a well known trait before Mickey arrived in Baton Rouge.
“What you see now with him — knowing to come from the weakside (to) help,” said Jazzy Hartwell, who coached Mickey during his stint with DFW Urban Elite. “He’s always had that.”
For Hartwell, Mickey’s role on the defensive end was the same as it was now: serve as a deterrent around the rim. In a risk-taking variant man-to-man with heavy doses on on-ball pressure, Mickey was a safety valve if a guard fell behind on a blow-by.
“We just let him use his athleticism,” Hartwell said. “He wasn’t going to take no charge, that was the first thing. He might start taking them now. But back then, he was coming from the backside and blocked shots to a T.”
Now, it means O’Bryant knows that if he’s beaten on the low block, there’s a quick-leaping backstop rotating over to cover for him.
“I always played against teams that had guys like Jordan who did that to me, so it’s an awesome feeling to have a guy like him on my team,” O’Bryant said. “He’s there to clean up everything.”
Another facet of Mickey’s game caught the eye of Jones and lead assistant Charlie Leonard, who have deep ties in the Dallas metroplex after a decade at North Texas. Soft-spoken of the floor, the Prime Prep product could direct traffic.
“It was almost like he always had everybody in the right place,” Jones said. “He would talk – position, pointing and all of those things. When that happens, that means that you’re in the right place.”
Case in point, when Kingsley made his foolhardy choice.
“It was a little shocking to me,” Mickey said.