In an offseason full of transfers, the Tigers’ new additions to the roster include two big men who have the potential to make up a frontcourt among the best in the NCAA.
Highlighted by freshman power forward Jabari Smith and UNC transfer center Walker Kessler, the new-look Auburn team will look to gel together early in the season.
“Everyone is so bought in to just the common goal of trying to win, and that's contagious,” Kessler said. “Everyone has pride in Auburn.”
Smith has already made his presence felt at Auburn, both on and off the court. The 6-foot-10 freshman has been attending sporting events on The Plains, being spotted at football, softball and volleyball matches. Smith has also been doing well in the classroom, according to head coach Bruce Pearl.
“Overall, just wanting to experience the college life,” Smith said on what led him to choose Auburn. “You don't really get that college life going to the (NBA's) G League and different routes. So choosing a school — that just came down to the family atmosphere, the coaching staff and how much they invest in their players.”
In addition to taking in all that Auburn has to offer, Smith has been working in the gym with his teammates early in the mornings. Pearl said that the Tyrone, Georgia native has been arriving at the gym at 6:30 in the mornings to work on shots. Smith arrives with fellow teammates Wendell Green Jr., Devan Cambridge and Lior Berman to work on shots, something that they call “The Breakfast Club.”
“He’s in here every morning,” Pearl said. “Five mornings a week at 6:30, getting shots because he’s training to be a pro.
“He's not alone. He's bringing three or four guys with him. And so he's doing it on the court, he's doing it off the court, and putting himself in the best position.”
Smith is joined by Kessler, who transferred from North Carolina after only one season. The seven-foot-one sophomore averaged 4.4 points per game and 3.2 rebounds per game at UNC, and scored the majority of his points in the Tarheels’ final 11 games of the season.
“I mean, we look really, really good,” said Kessler of the Tigers. “I'm super excited for this year.”
Kessler cited his prior relationship with Pearl as one influence that led to his transfer to Auburn. Pearl and the Tigers recruited Kessler, a Newnan, Georgia native, out of high school and was named one of his top-six teams before his decision to enroll at UNC.
“I loved Auburn,” said Kessler on his high school recruitment. “In the end, my family and I thought Carolina was best.”
The former 2020 Gatorade Player of the Year and Mr. Basketball in the state of Georgia announced his commitment to Auburn less than a month after entering his name in the transfer portal.
“I knew I had a good background recruiting-wise here, and I knew that (Bruce Pearl) had a very stretch, big oriented offense,” Kessler said. “And I loved being close to home.”
The combination of Smith and Kessler gives the Tigers the opportunity to have one of the best frontcourts in the country. Combined with a backcourt composed of transfers Green Jr. and Zep Jasper, the Tigers ought to be a dangerous team in the SEC. Pearl’s team will receive another boost once guard Allen Flanigan returns from his ruptured Achilles injury. The junior from Little Rock, Arkansas is projected to return in mid-December.
Smith said he's looking forward to stepping onto the court with Kessler, who also reciprocated the sentiment.
“He's an unbelievable player,” Kessler said of Smith. “Super talented. He has such a natural feeling for the game, he's not hard to play with at all.”
Smith also added his excitement for this upcoming season.
“You’re just going to see me playing hard, playing my game,” he said. “I'm really just trying to prove to everybody that I am what they think I am.”
The Tigers are slated to play an exhibition game vs. Southern Indiana at 7 p.m. on Nov. 5 in Auburn Arena before kicking off their regular season schedule on Nov. 9 at home against Morehead State.