McEachern High School in Powder Springs, Georgia has been Auburn basketball’s most recruited high school in recent years.
In return, Auburn gained commitments from the likes of Isaac Okoro and Sharife Cooper, Auburn’s first one-and-done and the highest ranked signee in program history.
Okoro and Cooper both signed with Auburn alongside an underrated McEachern teammate, with Babatunde “Stretch” Akingbola signing in 2019 and Dylan Cardwell in 2020.
Auburn fans have already come to know Akingbola as an energetic, high ceiling big man, and McEachern High School Head Basketball Coach Mike Thompson filled us in on why it’s only a matter of time before Auburn fans are familiar with Cardwell.
Cardwell missed his senior season of basketball due to transfer rules, but he still practiced every day and improved throughout the season. And Thompson said he expects those improvements to surprise people.
Dylan Cardwell was one of the best up and coming big men in the country before having to miss his senior season due to transfer rules. What parts his game and development did we miss seeing?
Thompson: He’s a very skilled player. He’s a tremendous athlete first and takes tremendous care of his body. He worked hard, got stronger and got more flexible. You know, that was a pleasant surprise.
He practiced every day with us, even knowing he may not get to play. I think throughout the year it helped him in practice because we’d always put him on the other team. I’d allow him to handle the ball, I’d put him on the perimeter and allow him to do some different things. Just because I knew that he is pretty good with his back to the basket anyway, and he needed to work on those [perimeter] skills. His outside shooting got a lot better, and his ball handling got a lot better. I think he took advantage of that year as well as anybody could probably.
How good are his outside shooting and ball handling skills?
Thompson: I mean, he can step out and make three point shots. I don’t think that’s a problem for him at all. He’s going be a guy that when big guys are running back into the paint, he’ll be trailing a break and will knock some three point shots down that I think will surprise some people.
If you look at him as a perimeter player, his ball handling is probably very average. If you look at him as an inside guy, his ball handling becomes elite.
He worked on it enough to where he can take the ball from the top of the key and make a move, take one dribble and get to the rim. He has some ability to handle the ball running down the floor without turning it over. He just has some really unique qualities at his size that I think will benefit him a lot.
I’ve watched Auburn quite a bit since Isaac was there and we knew Sharife was going there.
[Cardwell] is not a Wiley. He’s not a guy that will go down there and play on the block all the time. He can do that. He can play with his back to the basket, and he’ll be effective doing that, but I think he has a broader game than that. He has a lot of other qualities. Scoring from the high post, he can step out and hit a three or take somebody on the baseline off the dribble. He has a lot of tools in his bag.
How effective can he be as a shot blocker and rim protector?
Thompson: He’s going to be outstanding. Shot blocking is about athletic ability and timing. His ability to get off the floor, run the floor and jump more than one time is really high-level type stuff.
His shot blocking won’t be as effective as it would have been in high school, but he’ll alter his share of shots. He’ll be a real plus.
He’s not the outstanding defensive player Stretch is, but he’s certainly athletic and can block and alter shots in the middle.
Auburn will likely run some small ball centers too, but what are your thoughts on a potential Akingbola and Cardwell center rotation?
Thompson: It’s been a while with Stretch, but I don’t think his defensive ability has ever been in question. I think he’s one of the most vocal and competent defenders I’ve seen at the high school level. He just needed to gain some confidence and more offensive skill to be a plus at the college level, and I think he has probably done that.
I don’t think there will be too many teams that have that kind of athleticism at center. They both run the floor and have athletic ability that will be elite at that position.
Cardwell and Akigbola both had media outlets making mix tapes of their sideline celebrations and on court celebrations. What does the energy they play with bring to the table?
Thompson: I’ve done this for over 30 years and I’ve never had two guys that were more team oriented and selfless players.
You have a kid who didn’t play a game all year, but he was at every practice and every game. He spoke to his team before games he didn’t even play in. He commanded the attention of the players even though he wasn’t playing in the games. He’s just a tremendous, program kind of guy.
Stretch was the best I had ever had at that too, while he was here. I don’t know if it was their upbringings, or what all was entailed in that.
There’s a lot of selfishness in the game, and those two guys were just notorious for putting themselves behind the team and taking care of everyone else first.
The chemistry on those [Auburn] teams should be outstanding. The other thing those two can do is they’ll call you out if you’re not with the group. If you’re not with the group, they’re not afraid to challenge that.
How can the chemistry and leadership established from so many of these guys playing together before college factor into a season with an abnormal off season and potentially an altered regular season?
Thompson: There’s no question that you don’t see many guys come into a program and make leave a footprint like Isaac Okoro did, especially on an older team. He just has a great understanding of the game. Sharife and Stretch played with him, Dylan has been around those guys and they’ve all played in big games against really good players.
Those times they played in the summers, just kicking it around and playing, I think that’ll be a great benefit to Auburn when basketball does start.
[Devan Cambridge] fits right in that mold too. He was with that group during the summer time and they’ve played together a lot.
They probably have a little cohesiveness that not every college team is going to be able to trot out there.
Drew: The biggest questions I have about Cardwell revolved around how he was able to use the time during which he was ineligible to play. Not playing a full season is a negative overall, but there are ways to utilize the time off effectively. Thompson’s responses to these questions make me feel great about where Cardwell is after missing his senior year. I love that he was used in a variety of ways in practice. Running ball handling duties, playing on the wing, and taking on other offensive roles that he normally wouldn’t have as much experimental time with against McEachern’s starters can only be a positive factor in his development.
The next point I wanted to emphasize was Cardwell’s team-first approach. As a young center, that’s a good way to get playing time early on and make an impact. Those “grind it out minutes” that don’t always show up in the box score can still be extremely important to a team, and it sounds like Cardwell is fully prepared to contribute to the team any way he can.
Jay: Cardwell working on his perimeter skills and ball handling ability stood out most to me. Several underrated big men have been able to make a name for themselves under Bruce Pearl, thanks to those attributes and defense.
I also liked what Thompson said about Cambridge and the cohesiveness Auburn could have. Auburn will be young, but it will be filled with guys who know each other and come from championship winning back grounds.