It’s hard to find a bigger loser of the pre-draft process this season than USC.
In March, USC had an argument to be a top 15 team in the preseason for 2016-17 as it was expected that the Trojans would return its entire team from a squad that made the NCAA Tournament and was just seconds away from the Round of 32. Plus, Andy Enfield would get the services of transfer Shaqquan Aaron and a stellar recruiting class.
But now, at the end of May, it’s relatively difficult to make an argument for them in the top 25.
The news from Wednesday regarding the program is that Nikola Jovanovic, their starting center, leading rebounder, and second-leading scorer, will keep his name in the NBA Draft after he had previously been testing the process. This news comes on the heels of the news from earlier in the month that starting guard Julian Jacobs will also keep his name in the draft and eschew his remaining collegiate eligibility.
Taken singularly, neither move is all that shocking. Jacobs is an elite athlete who led the Pac-12 in assists last season and is already 22 years old. Even if he doesn’t get drafted, there will be a line for his services in the D-League, where he can continue to develop his jump shot and eventually get a chance at the next level.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Jovanovic is a 6-11, 235-pound center from Serbia who can both post up inside and occasionally knock down shots on the outside. He’s also already 22 years old. Comparisons have been made between he and former USC star Nikola Vucevic, but those are unfair. Vucevic is a better athlete and has considerably longer arms than Jovanovic, allowing him to make a great impact on the glass and on defense. But even if Jovanovic goes undrafted — which seems probable — it’s likely that he will be a highly sought-after player overseas. He played on Serbian power Partizan’s youth team, and his father played for 15 seasons in Europe. Simply put, he’s going to have options.
But taken together — along with the fact that USC has lost four players (Katin Reinhardt, Malik Marquetti, Malik Martin and Darion Clark) to transfer this offseason — and it’s been a fairly shocking turn of events. That’s six players who played at least 170 minutes this past season leaving off of a team that potentially could have returned everyone. It’s 48.5 percent of the team’s scoring, including its best distributor and best post presence. Really, that’s difficult to come back from just from a depth perspective.
I wouldn’t write off USC next season, by any means. These departures do clear the way for a bit more of a formalized roster in terms of function and construction. For instance, last year, Jacobs and leading scorer Jordan McLaughlin didn’t exactly mesh well at times as they traded off handling the ball. Jovanovic’s departure gives the team more time for the highly athletic Chimezie Metu, who many NBA evaluators believe is the best long-term prospect on the Trojans’ roster. He’ll help them defensively even if he’s still growing offensively. The roster just fits together now, with a starting five of McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart, Aaron, Metu and Bennie Boatwright. Plus, they still have quite a bit of explosiveness off the bench in freshmen Jonah Mathews and De’Anthony Melton,
Offensively, that’s a terrifying group of seven players who can all step away and shoot, attack the basket, and score. It’s exactly the kind of team Enfield had at Florida Gulf Coast when he was able to go with a pace-and-space system and run without exactly playing small in terms of size.
But the team lacks some pretty significant depth, particularly on the inside now with the loss of Jovanovic. There’s very little in the way of bulk on that roster. I’d look for them to be in the market for a graduate transfer who can play immediately, as it’s unclear if freshmen Nick Rakocevic and Harrison Henderson will be ready for the grind of college basketball in 2016-17. Even with that player though, I’m not sure it fully makes up for the losses sustained this offseason.
Even during the Trojans’ hot run this season that led them to the NCAA Tournament, it was expected due to the young talent on the roster that USC was a year away from reaching its full potential. Well, that year is about to be here, and there are now some pretty significant questions about just what to expect from USC in 2017.
The Trojans are still talented, and they’ll fight for an NCAA Tournament berth in 2017. But there are now some significant questions as to how far that talent is going to be able to take them after these losses.