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Basketball is a guard’s game now, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. Teams are putting four of them on the court at a time. They’re playing wings as small-ball centers. They’re teaching centers to shoot 3-pointers so they can stretch the floor at every position.

But, in the midst of all that, Pearl’s Tigers are getting bigger. "Bigger than we've ever been," the eighth-year coach said last month.

That became even more true Tuesday, when Arkansas transfer guard Desi Sills announced that he will not play for Auburn next season and instead attend Arkansas State due to credits for his major not transferring.

“I hope we're not just big and ... slow," Pearl said.

That shouldn’t be the case. Auburn’s power forwards, Jabari Smith and Jaylin Williams, have the skills to stretch the floor. Pearl described the five-star freshman Smith as a “fourth guard” capable of playing on the wing, even though he’s 6-foot-10. Centers Walker Kessler, Dylan Cardwell and Babatunde Akingbola are mobile enough to run the court.

Still, this is a different kind of roster than the Tigers have had. When they went to the Final Four in 2019, they rotated 6-7 Danjel Purifoy and Anfernee McLemore; 6-8 Chuma Okeke and Horace Spencer; and 6-10 Austin Wiley in the frontcourt. That was the same group they played with for most of 2020, with 6-6 Isaac Okoro taking the place of the departed Okeke and Spencer.

Williams, Smith, Akingbola, Cardwell and Kessler stand 6-8, 6-10, 6-10, 6-11 and 7-1, respectively.

So Pearl is watching film of the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Lakers have a huge frontcourt, with Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Andre Dummond and Kyle Kuzma all standing 6-10 or more. In a more traditional lineup, they might play Gasol or Drummond at center, Davis at power forward and LeBron James at small forward.

They’re better, Pearl said, when they play Davis — who has the ability to stretch the floor — at center and James as a playmaking power forward and surround them with guards. But Gasol and Drummond also need to be a part of the rotation.

“All of a sudden, they're all playing out of position. They're bigger. What could they be doing better?” Pearl said. “I watch the Lakers really carefully.”

Auburn is going to be in a similar boat in terms of size. With Sills gone, there is an argument to be made that it is deeper in the frontcourt than it is in the backcourt.

The determining factor may be how the Tigers decide to use sophomore Chris Moore. Pearl described him as a "classic tweener" — he was recruited as a power forward but has the size of a wing at 6-foot-4. He played both last season, opening the year in the frontcourt before gradually transitioning to more small forward minutes by the end of the year.

If that continues — and if the Tigers don't add another guard — that would give Auburn six players to rotate through three backcourt spots — returners Moore, Allen Flanigan and Devan Cambridge; and transfers Wendell Green Jr., Zep Jasper and K.D. Johnson — compared to five for two frontcourt spots.

The Tigers could still play relatively small, with a lineup such as Green, Johnson, Flanigan, Smith and Williams from one through five. That would be similar, size- and skill-wise, to the team’s most-used lineup through its final five games last season — Flanigan, Jamal Johnson, Cambridge, JT Thor and Williams.

Kessler, though, is a potential game-changer. At 7-1, the North Carolina transfer will be the tallest player to suit up for the Tigers since Trayvon Reed, who played sparingly during his lone season on the court in 2014-15.

Kessler was statistically a better rebounder and shot-blocker than Cardwell and Akingbola were last season, and he’s also capable of stretching the floor and shooting 3-pointers. He didn’t show it with the Tar Heels, but he shot 35 percent from deep at Woodward Academy in College Park, Ga.

“He can put the ball on the floor. He can pass. He moves really well,” Pearl said. “Let's get him here, let's get him moving, let's get him acclimated, and then we'll start to play a little bit."

So Auburn can also play big. Pearl could put Kessler at center and shift Williams to power forward, Smith to small forward and Flanigan at shooting guard. With Green at point guard, that’s 5-11, 6-6, 6-10, 6-8 and 7-1 from one through five.

The Lakers showed that can work, too — they outscored opponents by 13.4 points per 100 possessions when Gasol, Davis and James shared the floor this season, according to Bryan Kabrosky of HoopsHype.

The key for Auburn will be finding the right balance.

“Taking advantage of our size and it not being a weakness,” Pearl said. “Letting it be a strength and a problem for our opponents.”

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This article originally ran on annistonstar.com.

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