AUBURN — Auburn's Mustapha Heron wants to play professional basketball, but if he accomplishes that goal, it might not be based much in his individual box score.
For the second time this season, Heron was named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Week for reasons that had to do with points, rebounds, assists and shooting. The 6-foot-5 sophomore averages 15.3 points and 5.6 rebounds a game, with both figures ranking second on the team.
But for Heron to get to the NBA, it’s the defensive end of the floor where he’ll be constantly challenged and evaluated.
“Mustapha wants to be a pro, and he's always wanted to be one. He trains himself like a pro. He carries himself like a pro. And he knows the only way he's going to get there at the highest level is that he's going to have to be an asset defensively,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said.
Auburn (20-2, 8-1 SEC), which leads the SEC by two games, hosts last-place Vanderbilt (8-14, 2-7) at 7:30 p.m. today on SEC Network with the opportunity to win its 13th straight home game.
In Auburn's 79-70 win at Ole Miss on Tuesday night, the Rebels used a four-guard starting lineup that was intended to challenge the ability of Heron and the rest of the Tigers' perimeter players on the defensive end. Ole Miss graduate transfer Markel Crawford, who led Memphis in 3-point shots last season, was supposed to get in one-on-one situations against Heron, similar to how other coaches have pinpointed the sophomore in halfcourt sets.
“As a high school player, he was a dominating offensive player,” Pearl said. “He never really was placed in schemes. You place your best player, you put him on your team's worst player and you hide them. For us, we just don't do that.”
The result Tuesday was a two-point first half for Crawford, as Ole Miss made 5 of 21 from 3-point range and none of the Rebels' perimeter threats reached double-figure scoring until just after the final media timeout.
Throughout the season, Auburn opponents targeted Heron as Auburn’s weak perimeter defender. The other options are Bryce Brown, whom Pearl said might be the league’s best perimeter defender, and the fast and quick Jared Harper, who was the other guard picking up Ole Miss ballhandlers full court. However, Heron leads No. 11 Auburn with 28 steals and continually faces quicker and more athletic point guards.
“I don’t think that we can get caught up in necessarily having our offense determine how well people play,” Heron said. “I think defense is something that where you could always play well on the defensive end, so I think we just got to focus on that. Our offense will always come.”
Heron is one of the players Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy called “not watchers." Heron has become a much more active defender who has helped Auburn go from being 147th in defensive efficiency last season, according to Ken Pomeroy’s 2017 analytical statistics, to 25th this season.
“What they don’t have, and you guys have probably heard me say this in my time here, they don’t have watchers. They do not watch,” Kennedy said Tuesday night. “At times, we kind of get locked on to the ball and the next thing you know somebody is shooting a layup. And the guy guarding the layup still doesn’t know that was his man. He looks around going, ‘Where did that guy come from?’ That’s your guy.”
The "that’s your guy" result was typical Auburn defense by Heron and the rest of the Tigers last season when they gave up nearly 80 points a game and were near the bottom in 3-point defense. Pearl said that this season it’s Heron in practice who is the most active not only with his feet but with his mouth by calling out screens and switches in Auburn’s defensive sets.
“Mustapha absolutely knows where to be and when to be there. He's one of our best communicators. He understands defense,” Pearl said. “He's got stuff defensively that you can't teach or that's hard to teach. As a result, we're better with him on the floor defensively, because he really understands our defense and communicates actions to get us in the right spots.”