Sharife Cooper is gone to the NBA, the second straight one-and-done player to leave Auburn after a single season following Isaac Okoro. Allen Flanigan, who improved by leaps and bounds from his freshman to his sophomore year, is out till December at the earliest recuperating from Achilles tendon surgery.
The Tigers are coming off their first losing season in five years, but they were picked in the preseason poll to finish fifth in the deep and talented SEC. One big reason: Jabari Smith.
The preseason All-SEC teams include 12 players. The 6-foot-10, 220-pound Smith, who was chosen to the second team, was the only freshman among that dandy dozen. The highest-ranked recruit ever to sign with the Tigers - 247 Sports placed him at No. 6 in the class of 2021 - already is earning respect outside and inside the program. And not just for his dizzying array of skills, which were on display at the preseason Tipoff at Toomer's event, where he won the 3-point shooting contest.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl called Smith "a great teammate."
"He has led by example, and for him to come in as a freshman and be our hardest-working player on the hardest-working team that I have coached, it just says a lot," Pearl said during a Build Up 2 Basketball Zoom call. "That's why he's going to be a pro because he trains like a pro and he acts like one and he wants to be coached."
Smith is the marquee name among a group of newcomers that includes expected impact transfers Walker Kessler (North Carolina) and Wendell Green Jr. (Eastern Kentucky). Kessler brings the size at 7-1, although like Smith, he can step outside and shoot it. The 5-11 Green has the tall task of continuing Auburn's run of quality point guard play from Jared Harper to J'Von McCormick to Cooper. Pearl said he expects Green, who prepped at national high school power La Lumiere, to take and make big shots.
"He played with pros and against pros," Pearl said. "Wendell is not afraid of the moment. He has got some guts. He has got some courage. He has got a swag."
Auburn's ability to swagger into conference play and contend for the SEC title may depend on how soon Flanigan returns from his injury and re-establishes himself as the team's most versatile player. He upped his scoring average by a league-best 11.1 points a game from his freshman to his sophomore season.
"Al wants to play with this team," Pearl said. "We need him. He was my best shotmaker. He was the best guy scoring downhill through contact, the best guy delivering at the foul line and probably our most consistent 3-point shooter and our second-best playmaker so he was a very, very valuable player for us, and we are going to miss him until we get him back."
Smith will be counted on to help the Tigers survive and thrive in the interim.
"Oftentimes, and I have been around some great players, the better they look, the worse the other guys look, and they somehow love a separation between them and everybody else," Pearl said. "That's a human-nature characteristic with some people that are accomplished. Not Jabari. He doesn't care. He wants to bring the rest of the guys up with him and help them be great as well."