Auburn basketball: Return of 100 percent healthy Anfernee McLemore is oh-so important

Auburn's Anfernee McLemore is a defensive problem for teams.
Auburn's Anfernee McLemore is a defensive problem for teams. /

The Auburn basketball began practice for the 2018-19 season this week and you’ve picked up on the excitement.

Different outlets and college basketball analysts are placing Auburn in their preseason top-10 lists. Anticipation for Auburn basketball never has been greater. And with good reason.

But even as you listen to Bruce Pearl discuss the team’s mantra — #UnfinishedBusiness — and you see point guard Jared Harper talk about the Tigers’ lofty goals, there’s something that came out earlier this week that brings a bigger smile to our faces.

Anfernee McLemore is healthy.

Auburn’s 6-foot-7, 220-pound junior forward suffered a horrific leg injury on Feb. 17. Near the end of the first half against South Carolina, he went up for a defensive rebound and dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia on the way down. He was going to be sidelined for months. Lots of them.

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And now, seven months after that injury not only derailed his season, but the Tigers’ season, too, he’s back and looking good.

“Just thinking about how hard they’ve all worked this offseason and Anfernee recovering in this offseason,” Harper said. “Everyone is in awe about how quick he’s been able to get back to the peak of his performance that he was at last season. He’s been pushing every day to get better.”

Auburn finished last season 26-8. In the seven games the Tigers played without McLemore, they went 3-4. They lost their best shot blocker, an emerging threat on offense and an elite rebounder.

Last season, McLemore started 21 games, averaged 7.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and blocked 73 shots in 27 games. He shot 53.2 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from 3-point range (18 for 46).

It’s difficult to accurately convey his importance. His numbers are solid. He was a nightmare on the defensive end. Pearl put it best earlier this week when describing him.

“He’s a real dimension,” Pearl said. “He is an absolute nightmare matchup because for his size. He plays as big as anybody in the country. He’s an amazing rim protector, and he is one of our best three-point shooters. He can score inside and out. Around the basket, one of his greatest strengths – and this just goes unnoticed or discussed — is if you throw it to him either at the rim or in traffic, he catches it and goes up so quickly, his feet are always ready to finish, that he’s really productive around the basket.”

And he’s not embellishing.

McLemore is every bit of what Pearl described.

Pearl’s biggest challenge this season will be managing the rotation. He said that he doesn’t know how often McLemore and center Austin Wiley will be on the floor together. But stop for a second: Imagine Wiley at center, McLemore at the four and 6-7 Danjel Purifoy 6-8 Chuma Okeke at the three. That’s crazy size and talent that Pearl has not had at Auburn.

Yes, it’s good to have you back, Anfernee.