2016 five-star guard Mustapha Heron commits to Auburn in Bruce Pearl's biggest recruiting win yet
The 6’5” Heron becomes the biggest recruiting coup yet for Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. The powerful, versatile wing from Waterbury (Conn.) Sacred Heart verbally committed during an unofficial visit to campus Sunday.
Rivals.com ranks Heron the 19th overall player in the 2016 class. He displayed a blossoming all-around game over the summer, able to use his size and strength effectively in getting to the rim and finishing through contact. The talented scorer is the highest-rated player Pearl has landed, after Auburn brought in a pair of four-star players last season, forwards Horace Spencer and Danjel Purifoy.
Heron originally committed to Pittsburgh as a sophomore in January 2014 before retracting that pledge in April. His listed top five schools were Auburn, St. John’s, Mississippi State, Marquette and Alabama. There had been speculation Heron could partner with AAU teammate Rawle Alkins, a guard from Brooklyn, N.Y., at the next level, as the duo led their New York Rens program to a summer title on the adidas Uprising circuit. The list of 10 schools Alkins recently announced does not include Auburn. Alkins is still considering St. John’s, the local program many New York media members speculated both might attend.
While there’s a long way to go in this recruiting cycle—only 17 of Rivals’ top 50 players have verbally pledged—the big-picture takeaway here is that the Tigers have emerged as a viable recruiting threat in the SEC, which has largely been dominated by Kentucky and Florida in recent years. Heron’s commitment gives Auburn an early leg up in the 2016 race, with the Wildcats’ only pledge, New Zealand forward Tai Wynyard, reported to be enrolling at UK in December and Florida’s lone recruit, forward John Mooney, a holdover from Billy Donovan’s coaching staff.
Though other programs are sure to catch up, Auburn’s ability to strike early with such a highly regarded player is a statement to the rest of the conference that the program has returned to relevance. The Tigers have not made the NCAA tournament since 2003, the longest drought in the SEC. Auburn went 15–20 last year in Pearl’s first at the helm; it was the first losing season of his career. He helped revive the Tennessee program upon his arrival in 2005 and made the tournament in six straight seasons in Knoxville before he was fired for a series of recruiting violations that brought him a three-year show-cause penalty. The task now falls with Pearl to turn Auburn's recruiting success into results.
Heron becomes the third commitment for the Tigers in the 2016 class, joining point guard Jared Harper and power forward Anfernee McLemore, both rated as three-star recruits. Last season, in addition to Spencer and Purifoy, the Auburn signed four-star junior college point guard T.J. Dunans and three-star guards Bryce Brown and New Williams.The Tigers continue to pursue several highly-rated prospects, including five-star center Udoka Azubuike.