What Auburn basketball is getting in Arkansas transfer guard Desi Sills
Bruce Pearl needed more weapons in his backcourt. Now the Tigers have "a certified bucket" who brings plenty of valuable SEC experience.
Jaylin Williams and Desi Sills (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Last December, Desi Sills came into Auburn Arena and hit more than half of his shots, including a remarkable 4-7 mark from 3-point range. He scored 23 points and added six rebounds as Auburn lost its SEC opener to Arkansas, 97-85.
“Desi Sills is the most experienced player out there, and he was the best player out there in a lot of ways,” Bruce Pearl said after that game. “Really good player, fun kid to watch. I really like him.”
Three weeks later, back in Arkansas, Sills scored 22 points in a 75-73 comeback win over Auburn. This time, he only attempted one 3-pointer. He went 7-11 on 2-pointers and 8-10 from the free-throw line.
The good news for Pearl is that Sills can’t hurt Auburn anymore — because he’s now coaching him.
Early Tuesday evening, Sills announced on his Instagram page that he had committed to Auburn as a transfer. The 6-foot-1 Arkansas native is expected to be eligible immediately.
Sills is the fourth transfer Auburn has added this offseason, joining Charleston combo guard Zep Jasper, Eastern Kentucky point guard Wendell Green Jr. and North Carolina center Walker Kessler.
If JT Thor returns to school later this year instead of staying in the NBA Draft, Auburn will have all 13 of its scholarships filled. However, Sills’ arrival fills a major role in a roster that has had to undergo major shaping in the last couple of months.
Three Auburn guards — Sharife Cooper, Justin Powell and Jamal Johnson — have left the team since the end of the season. Auburn’s backcourt was already in a thinner-than-expected spot following the early-season departure of Turbo Jones, so there was still a need for another guard after Jasper and Green joined.
While Jasper brings several seasons of mid-major prowess and Green offers massive upside after a phenomenal freshman season in a smaller conference, Sills immediately gives Auburn three years of SEC experience to a backcourt that could use it.
Sills started 15 of 32 games as a true freshman at Arkansas, averaging just over 5 points per game and shooting a ridiculous 46% from deep. He was a regular starter during Eric Musselman’s first season with the Razorbacks, becoming a double-digit scorer and a more efficient player overall.
As Musselman continued to add transfers and prioritize others in the rotation last season, Sills fell out of the starting lineup but was an important role player. He overcame a midseason shoulder injury to play heavy minutes in Arkansas’ Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games against Oral Roberts and eventual national champion Baylor.
Sills’ departure from Arkansas wasn’t surprising, as he quickly announced his intentions to transfer after the loss to Baylor. He said on social media that he would be heading “somewhere where I can be Desi Sills and not be held back” and added that he was a “certified bucket.”
And Sills is the definition of a bucket-getter. Although he’s not tall for a shooting guard, that’s his primary position — he hasn’t had much experience running the point at the college level. (While comfortable with the ball in his hands, Sills has averaged 1.5 assists per game at the college level.) He’s a feisty 2 who wants to attack the basket or stretch the floor with his 3-point range.
According to Hoop-Math, 52.4% of Sills’ shot attempts last season were at the rim. He hit 54.1% of those attempts. By comparison, only Auburn’s centers had higher rates of shooting and converting chances at the rim last season.
Sills wants to get downhill and play a physical brand of ball. He has a solid free throw rate for someone his size, although he shot just 67.6% from the stripe last season. Weighing more than 200 pounds, he’s stout and capable of finishing through the contact.
(In a twist from Jasper, Green and Kessler, Sills is not someone who shoots the 2-point jumper. Only 3.7% of his shots came from that range last season, and he hit just 28.6% of them. He’s an ideal fit for Pearl’s “threes and frees” philosophy on offense.)
Sills’ weapon of choice is a Eurostep, which he deploys regularly when attacking in transition or catching defenders off-guard in the halfcourt. It’s become so synonymous with his game that there’s a supercut of Sills’ Euros on YouTube:
That eagerness to get to the rim fits right in with what has been described by many as an “attack dog” mentality from Sills. (It should pair nicely with the “honey badger” nature of Jasper in the backcourt next season.) Just watch the highlights from that 2-point and free-throw-heavy victory against Auburn:
It’s easy to see how that side of Sills comes out frequently on the floor. He’s an undersized two guard who was a weight room warrior at Arkansas. His only two major offers came from Arkansas and Missouri, but he was a starter in his first season.
Sills embodies that mentality on defense, too. He ranked inside the top 20 in the SEC last season with 33 steals and finished 14th in steal percentage at 2.7%. His defensive rating of 96.6 was 17th-best in the SEC among qualified players, and he was 11th in defensive box plus/minus.
Sills doesn’t have the reputation of being a lockdown type of on-ball defender like Jasper, but the Razorbacks were better with him on the floor last season in that area. Here’s what Scottie Bordelon of WholeHogSports found about Sills’ defensive impact late last season:
Sills was no longer a primary scoring option because of the emergence of Davonte Davis, Justin Smith’s efficient play in the lane and the offensive abilities of Jalen Tate and Moses Moody, so he quietly pitched in in various ways. JD Notae’s streaky scoring also played a role. In the final two games of the season, Arkansas’ defense held Oral Roberts and Baylor to 0.96 points per possession in Sills’ 74 possessions, according to HoopLens analytics. It gave up 1.11 PPP in the 72 that he sat. The offense scored 1.04 PPP when he was in the lineup and 0.94 when he wasn’t.
An arrival from the nation’s No. 10 defense from a season ago, Sills should be a welcome addition for an Auburn team looking to raise its game on that end of the floor — particularly at guard. He’s known for his off-ball defensive IQ and hustle plays, which has the potential to make him a favorite for Pearl.
Sills’ attack-minded ways also leads to some streakiness in shooting. When he got regular minutes as a starter two seasons ago, he scored inside double figures on 12 different occasions against SEC opponents.
He went from going 2-30 from 3-point range at the start of that season to knocking down 40% of them the rest of the way. Sills then shot 42% from deep for the Razorbacks in November and January of last season.
A cold spell gave way to fewer minutes down the stretch of the season, but he still was able to pull off performances such as a 5-7 game from deep against South Carolina in early March. He ultimately finished the season with a 32.9% rate from downtown, with 43.9% of his total attempts happening behind the arc.
Almost 89% of his 3-point attempts last season were of the catch-and-shoot variety, reinforcing the notion that he is an undersized but effective shooting guard. When he attacks off the dribble, he preferably wants to get to the rim.
However, Auburn fans might remember the pair of deep 3-pointers off the dribble he hit on the Plains last season.
If Auburn can give Sills a steady, consistent role, there is a chance he can return to the high-efficiency scorer that he was at times as a starter — and basically every time he suited up against the Tigers.
Still, it’s worth noting that Sills’ true shooting percentage of 54.0% and effective field goal percentage of 51.1% would have been second-best among Auburn guards last season behind Powell — even with the midseason injury and slump. He has a pretty quick trigger on catch-and-shoot opportunities, and his left-handed form is aesthetically pleasing.
Another area in which Sills should be able to help Auburn immediately is his ball control. He’s finished 14th and 16th, respectively, in the SEC in turnover percentage over the last two seasons. He only turned the ball over 1.1 times per game for Arkansas last season. So, while he’s not a primary point guard, he can be a steady hand in the fast-paced fury of SEC play.
How much Auburn will use him next season is a fascinating question. Sills left Arkansas after not getting consistent minutes in the second half of the season. Pearl and his staff have apparently sold him on a quality role, since he’s joining a team that has plenty of starter-quality options next season.
At best, Sills could emerge as a starting option at the 2 in place of Johnson. At the very least, he’s an SEC-tested reserve who gives Auburn a third option at the off-ball guard spot, joining Jasper and incoming freshman Trey Alexander. And, in a pinch, Sills looks like he might be able to at least provide some additional cover for Green at point guard, if the Tigers need a third option behind him and Jasper.
Sills definitely gives Auburn a better, deeper and more experienced backcourt for the upcoming season. As the Tigers try to figure out how to best manage the minutes in the frontcourt, adding a graduate transfer at shooting guard was a necessity.
If Thor decides to stay in the NBA Draft, Auburn could add one more scholarship player for the upcoming season — potentially another point guard option or a taller wing to play with Allen Flanigan, who announced he would return to school Tuesday, and Devan Cambridge.
Sills’ mentality and playing style should make for a smooth transition to Pearl’s brand of fast-paced, physical basketball. He has the ability to take over games as a scorer and is coming from one of the most feared defensive systems in college basketball. If Auburn can provide some stability for Sills in terms of role and minutes, there’s a chance he could be one of the biggest additions to the roster this offseason.
Perhaps most importantly for the Tigers, the next time he goes off in a game, the points will be added to their side of the scoreboard.
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