January 10, 2013 by Marshall Kelner
By Marshall Kelner
There were many reasons for the high level of optimism about USC basketball coming into the season. For me, the arrival of J.T. Terrell was at the very top of that list. The Trojans hadn’t had a pure scorer from the perimeter since DeMar DeRozan wore cardinal and gold during the 2008-09 season.
In came Terrell, who was rated the No. 49 overall prospect in the class of 2009 by ESPN, received a four-star ranking from Rivals, and averaged 30 points per game at West Charlotte High School in Burlington, North Carolina. His accolades are well known, and you can read about them all for yourself on his player page on the USC website.
Let’s go over some highlights, though. He committed to Wake Forest and had immediate success in his freshman season with the Demon Deacons, finishing second on the team in scoring (11.1 ppg) and fifth among ACC freshman. Terrell scored 26 points in his collegiate debut and put up a season-best 32 against Iowa, including seven three-pointers and the game-winner with two seconds left. On the season, in which he started 18 games and played in all 32, he made 35.7 percent of his three point attempts (50-140). Those 50 are the fourth-most ever by a Wake Forest freshman. He was fifth among ACC freshman in scoring.
Terrell decided to transfer after pleading guilty to a DWI charge in the fall of 2011. He enrolled at Peninsula Junior College in Washington and on November 9, 2011, signed a National Letter of Intent to play for USC beginning this season. He was rated the No. 1 junior college player in America by some publications, leading his team in scoring (24.4) and shooting 38 percent from three-point range. He scored 30 or more points 12 times, leading the Pirates to a 25-6 record.
Now comes the interesting part and if you’re a USC fan, the disturbing part as well. One would think that getting a player of Terrell’s caliber, especially on a team that struggled to score last season and won only six games, would be just what the doctor ordered. For whatever reason, it hasn’t worked out thus far. That much is undeniable. Terrell is currently averaging 8.8 points per game, while shooting just 29.3 percent overall (39-133) and 32.9 percent from three point range (23-70). He started his first nine games in a Trojan uniform, but has come off the bench ever since. In the loss to Cal last Saturday, Terrell logged exactly zero minutes, the first time he has not seen any action this season. He is now firmly entrenched in Kevin O’Neill’s doghouse and it’s unclear when, if ever, he will find a way out.
Why Terrell has been so unproductive is where the debate begins. In my opinion, the lion’s share of the responsibility for Terrell’s poor play rests on the shoulders of Head Coach Kevin O’Neill.
When he signed Terrell, O’Neill heaped praise on him: “J.T. is a dynamic scorer that will be able to impact our team offensively next year. He comes in with the experience of playing in the ACC, which will allow him to have an immediate impact in the conference. He’s an exceptional athlete that can score in a number of ways. He’s as talented a perimeter player as I’ve coached in college.”
Somehow, it’s gone from that to not getting off the bench in the second Pac-12 game for a struggling USC team that currently sits at 6-9 (1-1 in conference play). Anyone that has watched a USC game this season will tell you that Terrell’s shot selection has been flat out awful. I can’t argue with that for the most part. They will also tell you, however, that Terrell has excellent mechanics on his jump shot. He gets a ton of elevation, has good rotation on the basketball, and his release looks natural as can be. The problem isn’t mechanics; it’s when he’s taking the shots.
Here is my issue: Kevin O’Neill’s stagnant offense doesn’t put J.T. Terrell in enough situations to succeed. Terrell doesn’t get enough open looks and therefore has to force up shots with a man in his face. He knows he was brought in to be a scorer, and is pressing because he wants to live up to that expectation.
This is not to say it’s entirely O’Neill’s fault. Terrell needs to share the ball more, not press so much, and move better without the ball in his hands. It’s on O’Neill, though, to help him through his current struggles, and the head coach has failed to do that.
O’Neill came into the season saying he wanted to run more. That hasn’t happened consistently enough, and when the Trojans have tried to run, they haven’t been efficient enough in transition. In an ideal world, Terrell would be getting tons open threes and easy looks at the rim in an up-tempo offense.
In the half court offense, there is way too much standing around. USC wastes most of the shot clock pointlessly passing the ball around the perimeter with no purpose, or playing one on one basketball with little to no ball movement whatsoever. Even though they have three seven-footers, the Trojans are rarely able to work the ball inside-out. As a result, Terrell is left to force up contested, low percentage shots when the shot clock is running down. I would venture to say that when he’s been open this season, Terrell has shot the ball at about a 50 percent rate. The problem is that he’s rarely open.
The worst part is how O’Neill has dealt with Terrell’s struggles. As mentioned earlier, he started the first nine games. Terrell’s best game in that stretch was a 21- point performance (7-16 shooting, 5-9 threes) in a loss to Marquette in Maui. In his last start, he scored just two points, while missing all seven of his field goal attempts in a loss at home to Minnesota. Then, one week later, Terrell saw just one minute of action in a 70-26 blowout win over UC Riverside. He received more time (15, 27, and 29 minutes) the next three games, played just eight minutes against Stanford in the conference opener, before he was benched in the loss to Cal.
USC, by the way, hasn’t been tearing through its schedule since Terrell’s time on the floor has been cut. They are just 3-3 since he started a game, including losses to lowly UC Irvine and Georgia. When Kevin O’Neill has been asked about Terrell’s playing time, his excuse has been that Terrell doesn’t play good enough defense and doesn’t play hard enough. He has rarely even mentioned the shot selection, probably because offense is never really the first thing on his mind. I have watched nearly every second of USC’s games this season and Terrell’s effort has never been an issue from what I can tell. Is his defense outstanding? No, but neither is Chass Bryan’s, a 5-9 freshman walk on who O’Neill has now fallen in love with. Bryan played 18 minutes and scored four points (2-6 shooting) in the loss to Cal, while the former four-star recruit Terrell didn’t take off his warm ups. This is nothing against Bryan, who plays with a lot of energy. There is no way, however, that he should get more minutes in a Pac-12 conference game than J.T. Terrell. That is a joke.
I can understand O’Neill’s decision to bring Terrell off the bench for a period of time, at least until his shot selection and shooting percentage improve (which go hand in hand). The problem is, O’Neill’s tactics have a tendency to turn off his players, rather than motivate them. I don’t have a problem that he constantly yells at his players. Plenty of coaches do that. My problem is that he seems to do it in order to assert his authority, rather than to build his players up. After awhile, players start to tune him out, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that has already happened with J.T. Terrell.
Normally, when a team goes 5-8 in conference play (albeit with a very tough schedule), the coach looks at the way he’s doing things and tries to make adjustments. Instead, what Kevin O’Neill has done is get more stubborn in his ways. The only adjustment he’s made is benching the most talented player on the team. This USC team desperately needs perimeter scoring. They are shooting just 42.2 percent overall and 32.1 percent from the three-point line. Not to mention, they are shooting an embarrassing 65.8 percent from the free throw line, and an 8-18 performance against Cal from the charity stripe likely cost them the game.
By the way, Jio Fontan, who leads the team by far in minutes played (33.7), is shooting just 30.9 percent overall (43-139) and a staggering 28.9 percent (13-45) from beyond the arc. I understand that he is coming off an ACL injury, he’s the team captain, and starting point guard, but what does that say to Terrell? Fontan has long been a favorite of O’Neill (he once called him the best player on a team that had NBA first round draft pick Nikola Vucevic), so he gets a free pass? A productive Terrell would actually take a lot of pressure off of Fontan in the backcourt, something USC desperately needs.
It would serve Kevin O’Neill and his team well to figure out a way to make J.T. Terrell a solid player in the Pac-12. The talent is clearly there. Instead of sitting him on the bench, get him open looks in the half court by running him off screens and also encouraging him to attack the basket more when his outside shot isn’t falling. Get out in transition more and get him open looks there. You simply cannot give up on a player this talented. By the way, it’s not only J.T. Terrell that is getting short changed. It’s also his former Wake Forest teammate and fellow transfer Ari Stewart, along with Tennessee transfer Renaldo Woolridge. Both are former four-star recruits and neither has gotten significant enough playing time to even have a chance to contribute this season. That is another post for another day. For now, let’s just hope Kevin O’Neill puts his most talented player on the court.