April 14, 2018 by Sam Dodge
Boatwright returns. Is that enough? (Galen Central)
Bennie Boatwright confirmed this week that he will play one more season in Galen Center, giving him a chance to redeem last year’s injury-ridden campaign.
Barring unforeseen departures, the roster shuffling seems complete. Here’s a quick look at 2018-2019, if for no other reason that to drown the sorrows of last year with the sweet nectar of unreasonable expectations.
PG Jordan McLaughlin, SG Elijah Stewart, F Chimezie Metu, G Kurt Karis and F Harrison Henderson
WHO’S LEFT? (next year’s eligibility)
PG: Derryck Thornton (RS-JR), Elijah Weaver (FR) and Devin Fleming (JR)
SG: Jonah Matthews (JR), Shaqquan Aaron (RS-SR) and Kevin Porter (FR)
Wing: Shaqquan Aaron, Jordan Usher (SO) and Charles O’Bannon, Jr. (SO)
Four: Bennie Boatwright (SR) and J’Raan Brooks (FR)
Five: Nick Rakocevic (JR) and Victor Uyaelunmo (SO)
SOLID AND BALANCED FRONTCOURT
First, the positive. Andy Enfield is trading the dynamic, exciting and occasionally baffling Chimezie Metu for two big men that complement each other.
Bennie Boatwright regressed offensively last season, but multiple injuries stunted a potential breakout. In 2016-2017, he was a high-usage offense-first stretch four who tallied 15.1 points a game. His numbers dipped all across the board last year. Points and shooting from two, three and the line all dipped. With that said, he finally seemed to find a groove near around the holidays, averaging over 26 points against Middle Tennessee State, New Mexico State and Washington.
The toe injury stunted that momentum, and the season died out soon after.
With inconsistent offense, he quietly bumped up numbers elsewhere. He became a nationally ranked defensive rebounder and significantly cut down on turnovers. A full-strength Boatwright is not “just a scorer” anymore.
Nick Rakocevic is X-factor for a rebound season next year. He traded quiet and defensive performances with offensive explosions. In the first half of the Pac-12 Tournament Title Game, he went toe-to-toe with potential No. 1 pick De’Andre Ayton for a half, scoring 13 points on seven shots. Obviously, Ayton proceeded to smash villages a la Godzilla, but if he’s Godzilla, Rakocevic has Jet Jaguar potential.
Obviously, Jet Jaguar is the one holding Megalon, who Godzilla kicks in the sternum while defying the laws of physics. Obviously.
The advanced stats show a big man not asked to do much, but doing those things very well. He ended No. 6 nationally in offensive rebounding, and top-100 in two-point percentage. Basically, he made his layups, dunks and putbacks.
If he can continue his Jet Jaguar ways, and keep defenses honest with a midrange jumper when left open, he teams up with Boatwright for a versatile front court.
J’Raan Brooks enters the fold with as a four-star and No. 79 player in the 247 composite. At 6-foot-8, he has a rep as a more traditional power forward (i.e. back to the basket and physical), but at 215 pounds, expect more of Victor Uyaelunmo. Either will be looking to fill Rakocevic’s role from last season.
It’s worth mentioning that Harrison Henderson is gone, as he is seeking a transfer. He scored 21 points in two seasons, and presumably saw the writing on the wall. Best of luck to Harry and the Hendersons.
CUZ BABY YOU’RE A FIIIIIIIRRRREWORK!
Jo-Jo 40. That’s the potentially horrendous nickname I am giving to Jonah Matthews and Jordan Usher, both 40 percent shooters from three poised to surge next season. Offensively, it’s just about finding a middle ground between torching the nets and denting the rim. Both experienced offensive eruptions against Oregon schools.
Matthews shot 12 of 16 from deep in the final two games against Oregon, while Usher canned all four of his threes against Oregon State on Jan. 20.
— USC Men’s Basketball (@USC_Hoops) March 10, 2018
Men’s Basketball: USC 74, Oregon State 67 – Highlights 1/20/18 https://t.co/CagqG1h8wE
— USC Sports Now (@USCSportsNow) January 21, 2018
The more encouraging part is that neither are just shooters. Mathews drove the basket with far better authority than his freshman year, boosting his two-point shooting by nearly 10 percentage points. Usher occasionally flashed Melton-esque hands defensively, averaging just under a steal a game in conference play.
Mathews and Usher (along with Jordan McLaughlin) anchored the conference’s No. 1 turnover defense.
We know these guys can shoot. They should continue doing so. The backcourt holds great promise with these two burgeoning conference stars.
Now about that point guard…
WHO’SA GONNA PLAY DA POINT?
The early favorite to lead the offense is former five-star Duke transfer Derryck Thornton. The pedigree is good. The problem is he turned the ball over nearly 30 percent in his limited playing time last year. That’s Jar Jar Binks levels of ball security.
There’s a reason Jordan McLaughlin played 90 percent of the team’s minutes last year. Thornton, who in all fairness was nursing nagging injuries all last year, was only seen as a guy to give the senior breathers. A high-turnover guy without many reps last year? We’ll see.
Moreover, Enfield needs a low-turnover man at the point to compensate for a lack of scoring (Thornton cracked double-digits once…against Cal-State Fullerton in the opener). It has to be said that Enfield papered over massive deficiencies last year by maximizing a shot volume advantage.
USC didn’t shoot nearly as well as a team than many expected, ranking squarely in the middle of the conference in effective field goal percentage at 53 percent. In addition, Metu and Boatwright were not nearly good enough on the defensive glass, giving too many opponents such as Arizona or UCLA too many second chances. Enfield needed a low-turnover game to make sure every possession ended with a shot, or in the simplest terms, an opportunity to score.
If Thornton is still turnover prone next year, the team is majorly limited. The other option either a freshman in Elijah Weaver or Devin Fleming, who kept the bench nice and toasty even when Thornton was injured. With Weaver, the talent is undeniable, as he’s a top-40 consensus player on the composite with offers from basketball luminaries such as Arizona, Duke and Louisville.
Outside of one-and-dones like Lonzo Ball or De’Aaron Fox, though, how many times do freshman point guards pan out? Trey Burke at Michigan? The immediate parallel is McLaughlin, who was top-30 in assists nationally as a freshman, but an incredibly inefficient shooter.
Point guards simply take time.
A pre-season national ranking is optimistic, to put it mildly. This team will need to lean on its one-two bunch in Boatwright and Rakocevic in the front court. There will be scoring from Jo-Jo 40, and there’s plenty of talent between Shaqquan Aaron and the incoming freshman.
However, with so many pieces returning from 2017, the 2018 offense still only ranked No. 39 per Kenpom by season’s end. Pretty decent, but not enough to make the tournament. For 2018-2019, there’s no longer the point guard stability of McLaughlin, the Stewart the spark plug or the threat of Metu.
If the offense is to build on last season, it needs harmonious execution. With massive uncertainty at the point, this seems unlikely. Since the defense has never ranked better than No. 80 nationally under Enfield, it’s equally unlikely that the Trojans can lean on that side of the ball.
Right now, without seeing the off-season improvement, 2018-2019 smells like of the NIT once more.
Everyone reference this column when USC is in the Final Four next year.