Yanking off his warm-up top, LSU point guard Anthony Hickey jogged to the scorer’s table five minutes into a 79-63 victory against Bethune-Cookman and ended a temporary exile.
Sitting out practice and a victory against Houston Baptist, the Tigers sophomore guard required only 12 seconds to leave his first charcoal sketch in the game, bolting ahead of guard Charles Carmouche to corral a bounce pass for a layup after steal near midcourt.
The instant jolt is the omnipresent allure of keeping Hickey, who missed an exhibition and two nonconference games because of suspensions, in the fold for first-year coach Johnny Jones.
Yet the fact Jones, a stalwart assistant under former coach Dale Brown and 11-year veteran at North Texas, required three corrective measures raises a question: What amount of effort to keep Hickey outweighs the benefit of inheriting an asset key to implementing his up-tempo system?
On Monday, Jones clearly said he is “not a ‘line in the sand’ type of coach” and handled Hickey, a 5-11, 178-pound native of Hopkinsville, Ky., in the same manner he’d expect from a colleague dealing with his son.
“All of these kids are an extended part of my family,” Jones said. “If that’s giving them a second chance or whatever, trying to help them and deal with their growth, you can do that.”
Granted, Hickey approaches his latest stint on Jones’ probation as creeping ever-closer to a line resulting in his ouster — no matter if he is the Tigers’ assist leader (4.0 per game) and his on-ball defensive skills are the best catalyst for LSU’s fast break.
“I look at it that way,” Hickey said of viewing his latest stint watching from a folding chair on the sideline as a last chance. “I don’t want to go through that again.”
Does Hickey, who will be coming off the bench in the Tigers’ Southeastern Conference opener at Auburn on Wednesday, think he’d still be in uniform if former coach Trent Johnson had not decamped for TCU in April?
“I don’t know,” Hickey said after pausing for a moment.
Gleaning insight into Jones’ handling of Hickey doesn’t appear complex. The coach’s comments over the past week sketch a basic outline: An empathetic ear and tone, but a handy hook to pull Hickey out of the lineup if the message appears too soft or unheeded.
“I understand the temptations and things that are our there,” Jones said. “I’ve been coaching a long time and seen the sides. He’s the guy that’s blessed with talent, but so many other people out there have been as well. I try to utilize examples to help him.”
And reading between the lines of Hickey’s statements hints at potential causes, ranging from settling into a seat in a lecture hall to carrying out what’s called for on a syllabus.
“You need to get these things done first,” Hickey said of Jones’ dictum. “You can’t have basketball if you don’t get in your books right. I was being late to things, just not being responsible.”
Hickey also understands he’s put himself in a position where earning bits of trust back remains his sole option, along with the skepticism about whether he can bank enough to set aside doubts permanently.
“If I’m flying a plane, and I was in trouble, I would have crashed it,” Hickey said. “Everyone on my plane was in trouble. I told my teammates, I’m going to jump on their plane for a little while.”
For his part, Jones’ said LSU has buttressed Hickey as he works through a maturation process.
“His team has really been good,” Jones said. “The great part is to see him be receptive to his teammates as well.”
The practical perk to keeping Hickey on scholarship was easily apparent against Bethune-Cookman, where he scored 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting along with nabbing four steals in 28 minutes.
Hickey and Carmouche, a Memphis transfer, pair up to provide stellar defensive pressure out front, speeding up opposing offenses in a conference where the tempo is among the slowest nationally.
It also allows Jones to set a stable guard rotation with role clearly defined.
Hickey is the conductor, using dribble penetration to create dump-off situations in the lane or kickouts to the perimeter.
Carmouche, a 6-4, 187-pound New Orleans native, can put the ball on the floor, get to the rim and the foul line — he leads LSU with 45 free-throw attempts — but also spot up on the perimeter.
“Both of them have been really good competitors on the floor,” Jones said of Hickey and Carmouche. “It’s been one of those things that have evolved over some time, and it’s great to see that type of chemistry happen as quick with two competitors out there.”
Watching Carmouche, who is averaging 9.8 points per game, and Andre Stringer find early degrees of success only hardened the reality of sitting out for Hickey. And Jones has hinted that a player seeing a team thrive without his presence can be a tonic.
“I’ve been on the bench and the sidelines watching,” Hickey said. “I see everything this team goes through, and I see them working hard and me just sitting. I’m just studying the game, and sitting over there made me a better player.”
Amid doubts he can sort out whatever issue plagues him, Hickey said there’s only one message left.
“You get it or you don’t,” Hickey said.