By Rich Ruben
In his debut column, WeAreSC basketball columnist Rich Ruben looks at USC recruiting under head coach Andy Enfield, the makeup of the 2019-2020 roster, and projects what to expect from USC basketball this season.
Many Trojan fans believe that Andy Enfield is a very good recruiter, but does not do as well in developing his players. Let’s explore whether these opinions are accurate, and then turn to realistic expectations for the 2019-2020 season.
Coach Enfield’s Recruiting Classes
The 2016 recruiting class consisting of guards Jonah Mathews and De’Anthony Melton and big man Nick Rakocevic was ranked 34th nationally and 6th in the conference. That ranking did not include Duke point guard transfer Derryck Thornton, a former five star recruit the year before. Based on results, that class may have been under ranked. Mathews has been very solid, and Rakocevic has turned into a potential all conference player. Melton had a great freshman year, but was kept off the court the next season because he was roped into the recruiting scandal that caused Associate Head Coach Tony Bland to lose his job. Still, Melton was drafted in the second round. Thornton did not live up to his hype, but did start at point guard for much of last season.
The 2017 class included wing Jordan Usher, McDonald’s All American guard Charles O’Bannon, Jr, and bigs Victor Uyaelunmo and Harrison Henderson. It was ranked 31st nationally and 7th in the PAC 12. That class was greatly overrated. The two bigs were not PAC 12 level players and have left, and so far, O’Bannon has barely played. Usher had a productive freshman year, but is no longer at SC.
The 2018 three player class was ranked 18th nationally and 4th in the conference. Guard Kevin Porter was Enfield’s first five star recruit, and guard Elijah Weaver and forward J’Raan Brooks were solid four stars. That ranking would have felt about right, if Porter had lived up to his potential in his one year with the Trojans, but that was not the case. Still, Porter was the 30th player drafted this Spring.
The much hyped six player 2019 class, easily Enfield’s best, is ranked 7th nationally and third in the conference, behind Arizona and Oregon. The Trojans class includes two five star bigs, 6’10” Isaiah Mobley and 6’9”Onyeka Okongwu (the two time state player of the year, who arrives with the nickname “ The Big O”). This ranking does not include three transfers, including two grad transfer guards who are eligible this year, and a third guard who will red shirt. If the transfers are factored in, this class is ranked a little low.
The Knock on Enfield’s Player Development is Misplaced
The perception that players are not developing under this staff is belied by the facts. Point guard Jordan McLaughlin was a much different and more accomplished player and leader in his last two seasons than his first two. Part of that improvement may be attributable to the staff recruiting better players around him, replacing an inherited roster of non PAC 12 level players, but Jordan’s individual game dramatically improved in every phase. Combo guard Julian Jacobs also improved greatly in his SC career, becoming a much better ball handler and finisher at the rim. Louisville transfer Shaqquan Aaron became much more consistent, and upped his shooting percentage and defensive play. And current shooting guard Jonah Mathews has clearly improved his decision making, defense, and ball handling.
The front court players have achieved similar levels of improvement. Chimezie Metu developed from an athletic forward who tried to block every shot and picked up fouls in bunches, into a player with good inside moves, a reasonable shot from 15-18 feet, a good high post passer, and a second round NBA pick. Bennie Boatwright greatly improved his ball handling and ability to drive to the basket, and became a much better rebounder and inside defender. And Nick has developed from a player who could move well and had good basketball instincts, but could not stay on the floor because he picked up fouls in bunches, to a player with good post moves along with a reasonable outside shot, a good high and low post passer and a much improved shot blocker. He has learned to avoid most silly fouls (other than his frustrating penchant to pick up flagrant fouls).
The Current Roster
SC has only four returning players, Rakocevic, Mathews, Weaver and O’Bannon. And O’Bannon played only 10 minutes last year before a season ending finger injury, and played in 14 games and scored only 18 points as a freshman. This lack of experience on the roster was partially addressed by adding the two grad transfer guards, Daniel Utani from Akron, who has 207 career three pointers in his three seasons (SC has only five players with 200 or more threes in four years, led by Elijah Stewart’s 245), and Quinton Adlesh from Columbia, who has 180 career threes. They provide much needed outside shooting and Division 1 experience.
The rest of this year’s roster consists of the six freshmen. Highly regarded Drake London, a 6’5” freshman shooting guard, is also playing wide receiver for the football team. We don’t know how much basketball London will play this season and how much he can contribute.
Realistic Expectations for This Season and Beyond
Is the loud buzz about this year’s team realistic? Losing three players expected to be significant contributors this season hurts a lot. It was not a surprise that Kevin Porter entered the draft. But highly regarded wing Jordan Usher was dismissed from the team early last season, forward J’Raan Brooks , who was coming along in the last weeks of last season, opted to transfer, and Derryck Thornton eventually decided to leave as a grad transfer. That is a lot more experience and talent than expected that needs to replaced. This team’s success will require the six freshmen and two grad transfers to be major contributors.
The Trojans got help from an unexpected source, the NCAA. Current NCAA rules allow a team to take a foreign trip and play exhibition games during the summer once every four years. This team benefitted greatly from the extra summer practices. A few players were dinged up before or during the trip, and only seven played in the last of the three games, but the extra time together with the staff was very valuable with so many new players. The Trojans have also scheduled a home exhibition game against an always good Villanova team on October 18, which can provide a good mid preseason measuring rod.
The Trojans need several things to happen for this team to achieve the success many are hoping and expecting to see. First, the three bigs all need to have good seasons. The two freshmen must step up right away, and Nick needs to become more disciplined – no more silly flagrant fouls. All three must play good position defense to limit their fouls. This is the first time in at least many decades that the strength of an SC team is inside, but there is no front court depth. Highly regarded Max Agbonkpolo is 6’8”, but weighs only 190 and was recruited as a wing.
Second, one of the two freshman point guards, Ethan Anderson or Kyle Sturdivant, needs to be able to contribute this season. Weaver played both point and shooting guard as a freshman, improved over the course of the season and is expected to make a big leap In his production, but he is not an elite ball handler. Transfer Adlesh may also play some point. In today’s college game, it is very difficult to succeed without at least a couple of good ball handlers.
Third, outside shooting success is a must, to balance the scoring and to also open the court for the bigs. If an opposing team does not need to extend its defense to try to limit legitimate outside threats, the three inside players will have much less room inside to maneuver. And the guards and wings will need to play good defense. Mathews and Weaver are established good defenders, but at least one or two more guards must be reliability good defenders, in both Enfield’s man and zone defenses.
And fourth, it would be very helpful if O’Bannon makes a meaningful contribution this year. In pregame warmups, it is obvious he has a very nice, smooth outside shot, but his maturity and work ethic have been questioned. Now is his time to silence the doubters.
If this team comes together, it has the talent to finish in the top tier of the conference (probably along with Oregon, Arizona and UCLA), make the NCAA tournament, and possibly win a game or two. On the other hand, significant injuries or lack of needed contributions from some of the new players could send this team down to the middle of the conference and the NIT.
This season may also portend the program’s direction for the next several years. Whether the coaching staff will be able to use this year as a stepping stone toward becoming a consistent tournament team and conference power will depend in significant part on how the team performs, and also whether this year’s core players return next year and how the four players who leave at season’s end are replaced. The unexpected early departure of several players has hindered the building process. Every year cannot be a rebuilding season. Enfield needs to continue to bring in high level recruits, and he has a great start for the 2020 class with the commitment of the current top rated high school player in the country , 6’11” Evan Mobley. SC will need at least one more big man addition who can contribute right away (and two if one of this year’s freshmen forwards leaves after one year), and players who can replace the outside shooting of Mathews and the two grad transfers. One such player is already on the roster, 6’6” San Jose State transfer Noah Baum, who made 81 threes last season and ranked eighth in Division 1 three point shooting percentage. He will have two years of eligibility after sitting out this year.
This year’s team should be very entertaining to watch, and the depth should allow Enfield to play the up and down style he prefers. The defense is expected to switch between man and zone; it may be necessary to play more zone to protect the three post players from foul trouble, since there is no one behind them. Fall practice is only a few weeks away, and there is good reason for Trojan fans to be excited!