How Auburn basketball has become 'a little family' in the NBA (2024)

richard silva, montgomery advertiser

·4 min read

LOACHAPOKA — Auburn basketball fans never got to experience Chuma Okeke, Isaac Okoro and Jabari Smith play together in Neville Arena, but that doesn't mean the former Tigers haven't ever shared the floor.

The members of the star-studded trio have grown familiar with one another over the years, returning to the Plains at various points and crossing paths. Those run-ins, according to Smith, have included the occasional pickup basketball game.

Okeke, currently a member of the Orlando Magic, spent two seasons at Auburn and helped guide the Tigers to the Final Four in 2019. Okoro propelled Auburn to 25 wins during the 2019-20 campaign before being selected No. 5 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Smith, who recently wrapped up his second season with the Houston Rockets, pushed the Tigers to a regular-season conference title three seasons ago.

Those three, along with others such as Sharife Cooper and Walker Kessler, have helped create a tight-knit clan of former Auburn players in the NBA.

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“It’s like a little family," Smith said Saturday at his youth basketball camp at Loachapoka High School. "When you're playing against them, it’s cool. You know who they are, they know who you are. ... Guys like Chuma always show love to me after the game. Chuma, Isaac. Didn't play with them, but we’ve been back here at the same time, played pickup together and built a close relationship through Auburn."

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl has seen six players drafted since he took over the Tigers in 2014. Davion Mitchell was selected, too, but he spent one year at Auburn before transferring to Baylor, where he won a national championship and established himself as a prospect.

Others who've played under Pearl and have NBA experience include JT Thor of the Charlotte Hornets and Jared Harper, who spent three seasons in the league after going undrafted before signing withValencia Basketof the SpanishLiga ACBand theEuroLeague in September 2022.

Harper was in attendance for Smith's youth camp, as was his brother Jalen Harper, among other previous Tigers such as Wendell Green Jr.

"Former players still watch, still come back," Smith said. "That just shows how much of a family atmosphere BP has built, and just the Auburn program in general.”

The Tigers experienced a 10-year drought in NBA draft picks before Okeke was chosen No. 16 overall in 2019. The last former Auburn player selected prior to him was Toney Douglas in 2009, and before him was Jamison Brewer in 2001. The only others since the turn of the century are Mamadou N'Diaye and Chris Porter in 2000.

Auburn hopes to soon add another player to the "little family," as Jaylin Williams is looking to make the jump to the NBA after five seasons with the Tigers. Williams left the Plains as the all-time winningest player in program history, and Smith points to his former teammate's versatility as a reason for optimism despite Williams not appearing in many mock drafts.

“He can do a lot of things on the court," Smith said. "He’s really not limited. He can shoot, he can handle the ball, he’s skilled, strong (and) can guard multiple positions. What I would tell him is just stay the course. Don’t rush it. Don’t think you’ve got to be somewhere next year. Don’t think you’ve got to be somewhere the year after that.

"A lot of undrafted players’ journeys are different. Just take it slow, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Know you’re good enough, remember you’re good enough. ... I would tell J-Will to just stay the course. Keep working and just know you’re good enough. You know you’re good enough to play on a team. Just wait for your opportunity to come, and when it comes, be ready for it.”

Maybe playing in a pickup game or two with other former Auburn standouts could help Williams stay sharp.

Richard Silva is the Auburn athletics beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. He can be reached via email at rsilva@gannett.com or on X, formerly known as Twitter, @rich_silva18.

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Auburn basketball: Tigers becoming 'a little family' in the NBA

How Auburn basketball has become 'a little family' in the NBA (2024)
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