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SEC Returners, Pt. 3: For programs hit hard by attrition, a reliable starter is a coveted asset

Samir Doughty, Jordan Bowden and Javonte Smart were steady contributors for SEC contenders. Now each is likely to see their workloads and importance grow.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, we began breaking down important returning players in the Southeastern Conference. In that initial post, we outlined the criteria that helped us segment these 25 players into five tiers.

Almost every returner in this piece is due for a promotion. Necessity dictated the change in status, but only time will tell whether it’s genuinely merited.

In Auburn, Knoxville and Baton Rouge, the time to marvel at conference titles and deep runs in March is fleeting. Almost later, the reality of retooling has settled in. For Auburn and Tennessee, roster turnover has left them at the bottom of the SEC in returning production. And LSU only avoided the same plight after it decided to retain Will Wade, which headed off a stampede of talent from the roster.

The good vibes, however, have lingered. The trio has managed to hang around the fringes of early top-25 polls, which might obscure the degree to which those rotations have been whittled down.

While Tennessee finished third nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, the Vols ranked 288th — and dead last in the SEC — for bench minutes, according to KenPom. Losing four starters is bound to leave a mark at most high-major programs, but the welt is especially painful for a team that went seven-deep most nights.

A similar state of affairs exists at LSU, which must replace Tremont Waters, Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams. The Tigers might have checked in at 12th in offensive efficiency, but they were 200th — or 11th in the SEC — in minutes parceled out to reserves. Granted, Auburn’s in a slightly better state, landing in the middle of the conference pack for bench usage.

At the same time, it’s not as if scores of blue-chip reinforcements are arriving as shock forces. Each member of the trio managed to land at least one top-40 recruit, but the rest of their freshmen are prospects who will likely need several years of development.

It’s this set of factors that magnify the importance of any reliable starter still in the fold. Of the five who slotted here, three will likely be counted upon as an heir apparent to headliners and create a measure of continuity.

Tier 3: Reliable Starters

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional Practice Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

SEC Returners | Reliable Starters

School Player Poss. %Min %Poss Player Net On/Off Diff Torvik PPG Torvik RPG Torvik APG
School Player Poss. %Min %Poss Player Net On/Off Diff Torvik PPG Torvik RPG Torvik APG
Vanderbilt Aaron Nesmith 1333 72.2 19.9 1.9 -11.9 13.6 5.9 1.8
LSU Javonte Smart 1389 70.8 20.6 -9.8 -7.7 13.4 3.6 2.3
Tennessee Jordan Bowden 1555 66.4 17.2 27.5 2.8 13.4 3.8 1.9
Auburn Samir Doughty 1618 60.3 15.4 14.3 3.6 13.1 4.5 2
Texas A&M Wendell Mitchell 1412 59.5 23.5 6.2 6.1 13.3 3.8 2.2
Hoop Lens, KenPom, Synergy Sports, Bart Torvik

Attrition ransacked Tennessee’s roster. Consider: Aside from Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, no other returner posted a usage rate better than 15 percent. For as much as the Volunteers’ offense inspired a spirit of collectivism, a ton of touches were routed to Grant Williams (28.1%) and Admiral Schofield (24.1%), while Jordan Bone (19.1%) a steady third option.

When Barnes’ beautifully orchestrated Flex system hit a snag, troubleshooting was as simple as feeding Williams in the mid-post or Bone streaking down the floor to attack discombobulated defenses. Now, those quick fixes might be harder to find.

Now, Bowden does fill a crucial gap on the wing. Last season, he held down the fort at combo guard while Turner worked back from a shoulder injury, sliding into a reserve role midway through the non-conference slate. Coming off the bench, he thrived as a floor spacer shooting 37.5 percent behind the 3-point arc. Crucially, he posed a threat on the catch (42.2%) or coming off left (1.394 PPP) when using a screen.

Above all, the gap between Bowden and Schofield was minimal — roughly 7 points per 100 possessions. No, Bowden rarely used his jumper to set up rim attacks, but Barnes’ filled that need on the recruiting trail with Josiah-Jordan James. The 6-foot-6 combo guard, who was also a top-30 talent, keeps a tight handle in packed spaces, paces with either hand has the length to finish over small defenders.

Pairing him with Bowden, who his 6-foot-5, 193, pounds, also means the Vols get longer and rangier defensively. For Bowden, his gaudy 27.2 net rating is also the byproduct of stellar work defensively (0.798 PPP) as an off-ball and help defender. Questions about Tennessee’s overall depth are legitimate, but a veteran wing like Bowden is invaluable

Down on the Plains, Samir Doughty is also due for a promotion after the graduation of Bryce Brown. Last season, Doughty’s life was simple. While he became a fixture in the starting lineup, the VCU transfer spent most of his minutes as Auburn’s fifth option. When the Tigers blitzed the tempo, he’d sprint the flank opposite of Brown as Jared Harper wreaked havoc. Once the Tigers reorganized and initiated their offense, he could camp out on the weak-side wing for spot-up looks, turning in a 43.6 percent clip behind the 3-point stripe.

How coach Bruce Pearl reconfigures his lineup, though, remains an open question after losing three starters — Harper, Brown and Chuma Okeke — and a pair of steady reserves in Malik Dunbar and Horace Spencer. Conventional wisdom would dictate that Doughty and J’Von McCormick as an heir apparent at their positions. In the post, Austin Wiley and Anfernee McLemore’s relatively modest minutes belie their experience. Freshman wing Issac Okoro projects to be among the SEC more productive newcomers too, while Memphis transfer Jamal Johnson gives Pearl six pieces to build around.

As we stand here today, Torvik’s statistical projections hint that Doughty moves from a tertiary threat to a figurehead. Those bullish predictions are at the heart optimists who’ve kept the Tigers in their preseason top-25 rankings. Maybe those look prescient, but Doughty’s enhanced usage and fluid role still leave me skeptical about whether this will be plug and play.

While Bowden and Doughty face stiff tasks, they pale in comparison to the job awaiting Javonte Smart: take Tremont Waters’ place. Oh, and do it in the after his name is forever linked in infamy to words “strong-ass offer” uttered by LSU coach Will Wade.

Held out of LSU’s regular-season finale after his name was linked to a pay-for-play imbroglio, Smart was reinstated in time for the Tigers’ run to the Sweet 16. The tumult also derailed a late-season surge, a four-game stretch where the Baton Rouge native averaged 20.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists.

This is all before you consider the fact Smart doesn’t cut the same profile physically or stylistically as waters. First, there’s his 6-foot-4, 200-pound. Second, Smart’s game isn’t built on dipping low to the ground, zipping around picks and accelerating into gaps. The reality is Smart’s natural home might be at combo guard and operating as a secondary creator.

Before he arrived at LSU, scouts also noted the inconsistency of perimeter stroke, which seemed to foreshadow a 31.1 percent clip from 3-point range. What’s more striking is his struggle to finish plays through contact and only posting a 43.2 field-goal percentage at the rim, according to Synergy Sports. Finally, Smart could be a weak link defensively, allowing opposing wings to knock down 40 percent of catch-and-shoot 3-balls.

While Torvik’s projections are rosy, the metrics underlying Smart’s freshman season don’t paint a picture of efficiency. Admittedly, the presence of Skylar Mays could offload some responsibility if the duo shares the job of initiating offense.

Statistically, Nesmith put together a stellar debut for the Commodores. Unfortunately, it got buried under the landslide of negativity that comes when your conference losing streak reaches 20 games and a coach gets canned. At 6-foot-6, 213 pounds, he had the size and strength to be a consistent finisher in the paint and serve as a steady presence on the glass. While Nesmith wasn’t atrocious shooting the ball, boosting his 33.7 percent performance from 3-point range is a logical next step.

Lastly, Wendell Mitchell projects to be a viable secondary scorer alongside Savion Flagg at Texas A&M. Again, programs in transition still have players that lead them in scoring. Maybe the senior, who arrived via JUCO, won’t earn raves, but the Aggies could do far worse.