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SEC Returners, Pt. 2: Will a trio of young guards make a sophomore leap?

Andrew Nembhard, Kira Lewis Jr. and AJ Lawson showed promise after arriving on campus a year early. Now, they’re primed for major roles.

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NCAA Basketball: Florida at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-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.

The SEC’s youth movement starts here, and with it comes grading on a curve.

Over the past several years, the quest by elite recruits to reach a professional payday has created an emerging trend: reclassification. The mechanics aren’t complicated to understand, either. Instead of playing out their senior year, top-tier prospects graduate from high school and enroll in college.

Under the NBA’s current set of draft rules, American high schoolers are eligible one year removed from graduation and after they turn 19 at some point in the calendar year. For prospects who are in a position to pull off the jump — namely those who have met NCAA eligibility requirements — it’s easy to see the allure in joining a program with stellar facilities, well-structured strength programs and better coaching.

Last season, a handful of top-150 prospects opted for that route in arriving at SEC programs: Ashton Hagans (No. 12), Andrew Nembhard (No. 23), Kira Lewis Jr. (No. 39), D.J. Burns (No. 108) and A.J. Lawson (No. 149).

The payoff benefits both parties. Take Nembhard, for example. Florida had a glaring hole to fill with the departure of Chris Chiozza, and adding one the best pure passers at the prep level would be an obvious boon. Bringing him in a year early also enabled them to line up five-star lead guard Tre Mann as an understudy.

For Nembhard, reclassifying meant taking advantage of all the amenities the Gators could offer and sharpening his game against college players. This spring he was able to explore the NBA draft process and receive feedback from NBA front offices — a year ahead of his former peers in the 2019 class. While he took his decision down the wire, the Canadian ultimately decided another year in Gainesville would boost his stock.

The same circumstances existed at Alabama, which plugged in Lewis for Collin Sexton, and at Kentucky, where Hagans took the reins from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Meanwhile, mock drafts from ESPN ($) and The Athletic ($) are already forecasting Lawson, Hagans and Lewis as players who could come off the board in the late-first or early-second round in 2020.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a risk involved in trying to speed up the clock. Stepping up a level and increasing exposure to NBA scouts can cut two ways. If a younger prospect excels, they improve their position on draft boards and still entice front offices with their room for improvement. Conversely, struggles offer room for those same evaluators to poke holes in profile.

In a way, reclassification is a balancing act: offer up enough data points to get on the radar of NBA teams but still leave them enamored with the idea of what you can one day become.

This season, it’s created a clear juxtaposition. On Monday, we saw how rebuilding programs are relying on proven veterans to shoulder large loads with heavy minutes, ample usage and hefty doses of projected productivity. Just below them, though, is a quartet of sophomores — including three early enrollees — who received ample seasoning last season and seemed poised to become luminaries.

It’s a gamble those players — and their programs — are banking on paying off.

Tier 2: High-Quality Starters

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-LSU vs Michigan State
LSU combo guard Skylar Mays has quietly been one the SEC’s better two-way players.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

SEC Returners | High-Quality 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
Florida Andrew Nembhard 1819 81.3 17.5 8.1 6.4 12 3.7 5
LSU Skylar Mays 1572 80.8 17.8 29.6 -10.7 15.9 3.7 2.1
Alabama Kira Lewis Jr. 961 78.8 22.1 10.7 10.8 15.4 3.4 3
Arkansas Isaiah Joe 1811 74.7 19.3 22.5 14.3 9.9 3.2 1.6
South Carolina A.J. Lawson 1429 69.4 23.8 -2.6 -4.7 15.2 4.6 3.2
Hoop Lens, KenPom, Bart Torvik

Let’s pick up where we left off with Nembhard as our case study for the reclassification trend.

When he committed to Florida, the rationale was easy to understand. Gators coach Mike White aspires to play fast and relies on his point guard to serve as a catalyst at both ends. Defensively, he’s the tip of the spear, using stifling on-ball pressure to suffocate movement. On offense, he navigates scores of ball-screens in a four-out system.

Nembhard, however, ran into turbulence. Instead of a brisk pace, the Gators bogged down, finishing 344th nationally in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom. Instead of pushing the ball on the break, the program only ranked 210th in transition possessions, per Synergy Sports.

The result was a stark contrast for the 6-foot-4 lead guard. In the rare event Florida was able to run the break, Nembhard averaged a gaudy 1.17 points per possession. However, when Florida backed the ball out, his efficiency tanked, sliding to 0.766 against a set defense. Worse, Florida’s shortage of reliable shooting — outside of Noah Locke – blunted his impact as an elite distributor (0.599 PPP) navigating pick-and-rolls.

To be clear: Nembhard’s job isn’t to pile up points. His job is to defend and dish, a style based more on exemplary feel after turning the corner and knifing into a gap. For all his prowess as a creator, Nembhard is still reliant on his supporting cast to finish what he starters. And despite all of Florida’s issues, he still finished second in the SEC for assist rate.

This season, White’s amassed enough raw talent to leave you optimistic about Nembhard. Locke is back as a floor spacer, while Keyontae Johnson excels when the game gets into the open court. Adding a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans — Mann and guard Scottie Lewis — on the wings was already a boon, but the Gators scored another coup when Virginia Tech forward Kerry Blackshear committed two weeks ago.

To a degree, the same issue confronts Lewis at Alabama. Under Avery Johnson, the Crimson Tide never quite capitalized on the upgraded talent he drew to Tuscaloosa, failing to crack the top 100 in offensive efficiency he was on the job. With the arrival of coach Nate Oats from Buffalo, the Tide’s approach will embrace analytics and pace-and-space tactics. It should work wonders for Lewis, who averaged 13.5 points and 2.9 assists last season.

When Lewis committed last August, his decision came well after the Tide wrapped up their offseason strength program. It might explain why he only converted 46.4 percent of shots around the rim and struggled to earn a trip to the free-throw line. Simply getting stronger and finishing plays he’s already capable of creating could boost his productivity – a necessity for a scoring point guard.

Lawson’s slot, however, is more fluid. Despite a productive debut, his individual net rating (minus-2.6) and team-wide impact (minus-4.6), were modest. Admittedly, playing for coach Frank Martin, who’s never had an offense finish higher than 91st in adjusted efficiency during his tenure, is a plausible explanation.

The case for Lawson is also simple: the Gamecocks don’t have many proven scorers. Chris Silva, Hassani Gravett, and Tre Campbell all graduated, while Justin Minaya and T.J. Moss each missed the bulk of last season with injuries. If last season’s usage rate is any hint, he’ll get plenty of touches to prove his case.

Unlike the other three freshmen in this tranche, Isaiah Joe, who was rated as the No. 170 prospect in his class, arrived at Arkansas with modest expectations. By season’s end, he was arguably the SEC’s most potent spot-up threat, ranking second in the conference by canning 39.4 percent of the 3-pointers he launched in the half court. Meanwhile, he was steady enough defensively (0.846) to qualify as a legit 3-and-D wing.

While Joe was the epitome of a low-usage, high-efficiency threat, it’s worth monitoring whether his shooting stroke becomes the platform on which he builds his game. Among SEC returners, no one else skews their shot selection (87.3%) more heavily toward jumpers than Joe. Still, it would be surprising if coach Eric Musselman curb the sophomore’s minutes. Utilizing Mason Jones or SMU transfer Jimmy Whitt Jr. at combo guard makes for an ideal complement since both are capable of creating quality mid-range looks off the bounce.

Finally, what is Skylar Mays doing here?

It’s simple: look at the net difference for LSU when he’s on the floor compared to when he sits. The Tigers’ are almost 11 points worse when he checks in. On this point, context matters. When you play alongside Tremont Waters, there’s going to be a drop-off when he takes a seat — and it acts as a drag on the senior’s profile.

None of that should diminish what Mays provides the Tigers. He’s thrived as a combo guard spotting up off the ball as Waters slithered into the lane, collapsed defenses and whipped kick-outs all over the floor. The Baton Rouge native snagged those feeds, slashed into gaps and had the size and strength to punish teams at the tin routinely. Defensively, he was just as adept at creating turnovers and getting LSU off to the races.