LSU basketball's all-time starting 5 could match up with anybody, anywhere
Editor’s note: SDS selected an all-time starting 5 for every SEC program, all part of our expanded March Madness coverage. We conclude the series with arguably the best assembled: LSU.
Kentucky has been to more Final Fours and won more NCAA championships than any SEC school. By a wide margin.
LSU has been to the Final Four just four times and has never won a title.
The histories aren’t close, but you could make a compelling case that LSU has the greatest all-time starting 5 in SEC history.
Though they have never cut the nets, and are more often thought of as a football school, LSU basketball can boast star power that their gridiron counterparts never could. Among LSU’s best starting lineup are three NBA Hall of Famers, including potentially the best college basketball player of all time, one of the smoothest-scoring PGs in basketball history, and a young phenom who’s history is still very much unwritten.
Let’s take a look at the best Tigers of all time.
PG: Chris Jackson (1989-90)
Before he changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and took the NBA by storm with his flashy game and political stances that were each way ahead of their time, Chris Jackson tore it up at LSU. Jackson only played in Baton Rouge for two years, but he certainly made an impact, averaging 29 points per game and twice winning SEC Player of the Year.
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He was Iverson before Iverson – and a better college player. Jackson was electric, full of swagger, and unguardable despite his 6-1 height. His handling, dribble moves and skillful finishes lulled the defense to sleep and then dazzled audiences with their effortless finesse. When he was on (pretty much every night), he had a combination of a pull-up game, a nasty up-and-under, and a deadly outside shot. As if that wasn’t enough, in his second year he had the option of dumping it off to Shaquille O’Neal, making double-teams impossible. Somehow, that team, which opened No. 2 in the country, lost to No. 9 seed Georgia Tech in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Let’s watch some highlights, in possibly the most 1990s video of all time:
The long-term story of Jackson is certainly what could have been, however, as he was pretty much the original Colin Kaepernick. Nearly 20 years before the NFL’s anthem protests, Abdul-Rauf believes he was blackballed from the NBA for the very same thing. If he would’ve lasted longer in college or the NBA, there would probably be more credit given to a player whose flashy, shoot-first game would have fit right in with modern players like Steph Curry and Trae Young.
SG: Pete Maravich (1968-70)
Here he is, the GOAT. Pete Maravich has a career scoring average of 44.2, and a career mark of 3,667 points that will never be touched by another D1 basketball player. The numbers would be even more impressive, but because freshmen were not allowed to play varsity ball, he did all of this in three varsity seasons — and the sharpshooting guard did it without a 3-point line.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of SEC teams’ media guides, and it’s always fun to search “Maravich” just to see what kind of ridiculousness he unleashed on these poor teams back in the day. He dropped 55 on Auburn, 46 at their place, 69 at Alabama … numbers that just don’t make sense.
It would really be a waste of your time to rattle off his scoring records because he pretty much has all of them in terms of the school, conference, and nation. Instead, let’s just take a minute to admire these two screenshots from the record book of LSU, a school that has been playing basketball for well over 100 years.
Imagine scoring 55 points and being tied with six Maravich games for No. 10 in a school’s history.
“Pistol Pete” showed that he could be a multidimensional scorer in the college and NBA games, leading the NCAA in scoring for each of his three seasons, and the NBA in 1976-77. Though we’ve already started this list with a player who was ahead of his time, it would have been so fun to see Maravich in the modern NBA, as his floor-spacing 6-6 body would be perfect for small ball.
In terms of the all-time team, a backcourt of Chris Jackson and Pete Maravich would be truly unguardable, as Jackson had speed, Maravich had length, and they could both shoot the lights out.
SF: Ben Simmons (2016)
This one’s a bit of a leap of faith, but we all see where it’s going. Simmons can be a bit of a polarizing figure to LSU fans because it seems at times that he wasn’t one. All that aside, however, Simmons will belong on LSU’s Mount Rushmore (or at least be a Ben Franklin-esque figure) when it’s all said and done.
He’s the only one-and-done on this list, one of two No. 1 overall picks, and possibly the most complete player if you assume he’s going to figure out that whole shooting thing.
If we’re going off college accomplishments, Simmons doesn’t have many to speak of. Yes, he averaged 19.2 points and 11.8 rebounds as a freshman and was named consensus first-team All-American, but his team’s implosion was one of the more embarrassing moments in program history. I’m not here to tell you he has a great resume, but simply that if you want to win a 5-on-5 game of former alums, you’d be insane to not take Simmons.
Simmons likely will become the NBA’s rookie of the year in one of the most highly contested races in recent memory. He is a giant, more athletic Rajon Rondo who can pick apart defenses with his brain and overwhelm them with his athleticism and skill.
If someone were to invent a time machine and actually create this team, Simmons would be the lynchpin who bridged the gap between the smooth-shooting guards, and the thunderous bigs.
PF: Bob Pettit (1952-54)
Bob Pettit is one of the most underrated players in NBA history, and it’s pretty mind-boggling. The 6-9 power forward did pretty much everything that was viewed as valuable for his position during the 1950s and ’60s. He made an All-Star team in each of his 11 seasons, won two MVPs, two scoring championships, a rebounding championship with seasons of 29.2 points and 20.3 rebounds, and somehow led the Hawks franchise to an NBA title that most fans probably don’t know they have. (Granted, it was in St. Louis, in 1958, but it came against Bill Russell’s Celtics.) He is on the NBA’s 25th, 35th and 50th anniversary team, as well as having two jerseys retired – college and pro.
All of these former Tigers, with the exception of Shaq, of course, seem to be known for one thing: a smooth game that was pleasing to watch. Pettit was that on the largest scale, as he glided through defenders and effortlessly laid the ball in as if he were grabbing something off of the top shelf of a cabinet.
He had a silky jump shot, which he developed more in the pros, and a reliable hook out of the post, which was his weapon of choice in college. He was also tough, and a tenacious rebounder. He could palm the ball with ease, and he used that determination and his big frame to just physically dominate players on the boards. His hands were so large, in fact, that he often shot one-handed.
In the footage below, Pettit talks about the toughness it took to play ball in his era, and it’s truly insane to imagine anyone playing through the injuries and pains that he dealt with on a daily basis. He played two years with a cast on his hand and sought contact at every turn.
While in Baton Rouge, Pettit was a two-time consensus All-American, as well as two-time NCAA All-Region team member. As a senior, he compiled one of those statistical seasons that makes you double take, as he averaged 31.4 points and 17.3 rebounds.
He even has an underrated nickname: The Bombardier from Baton Rouge. What’s not to love about this guy?
C: Shaquille O’Neal (1990-92)
Shaq. The Big Diesel. Superman. The Shaqtus. The Big Aristotle. He is arguably the most unstoppable force and the most electric personality in basketball history.
Shaquille O’Neal was a four-time champion as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat of the NBA and has been a great ambassador for LSU or “Love Shaq University” since he entered the NBA Draft in 1992. Among his many pro accolades are 15 All-Star games, an MVP, two scoring titles, three Finals MVPs, and the most impressive, 10 seasons where he led the NBA in field goal percentage. Shaq’s name will forever be associated with greatness, and also with purple and gold, both in Los Angeles and Baton Rouge.
The word unstoppable is thrown around a lot, but Shaq was the true representation of it. From his days in Baton Rouge and Orlando, when he could run like a deer and handle the ball, to the 350+ pound leviathan who ruled the paint with Los Angeles and Miami who threw 7-foot centers off him like flies, Shaq aged gracefully and dominated at every stage.
There is no better representation of this dominance than the number of backboards Shaq broke during his career. One of the most impressive physical feats to ever occur on a basketball court has to be the clip below when he brought down the whole goal in New Jersey, let it hit him on the back of the head, and then walked away like it never happened.
The crown jewel in O’Neal’s career had to be his 1999-00 season with the Lakers, where he averaged 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 3 blocks per game. In the playoffs, Shaq took it up another notch, averaging 30.7 points and 15.4 rebounds, en route to a Finals MVP and his first NBA championship when the Lakers defeated the Indiana Pacers in six games.
During his three seasons at LSU, he was named AP Player of the Year, two-time SEC Player of the Year, and winner of the Rupp trophy, awarded to the best player in the country. He had a season of college basketball where he averaged 27.6 points and 14.7 rebounds, which, once again, feels like a typo. The likes of Davis Robinson and Patrick Ewing struggled to guard Shaq in the pros, so it was almost unfair to ask college students to match up with O’Neal.
He did enough to turn LSU into the greatest show in basketball, especially when playing with Chris Jackson during his freshman year.