Raley-Ross becoming a more complete player
For the first twelve games he was an ideal fit for Horn, an undersized but physical player who could spread the court on offense and crash the boards. He was the Gamecocks' third leading scorer at 10.6 points per game, was among the top three point shooters in the country at 65%, and hauled in 3.2 rebounds per game, an impressive figure for the 6'2" guard. So far in practice and in the games in Europe, Horn's offensive system has set up perfectly for the junior guard.
"I've had a lot of open shots," Raley-Ross said. "This offense is geared to three-point shooting and driving and penetrating. If you have a good look, and you're open, shoot it... Only if it's a good look though."
A knee injury during an individual workout on New Year's Eve followed, and although he missed just two games, Raley-Ross never seemed to be the same player the second half of last season. He scored in double figures just once (10 points against Mississippi State) and averaged just 2.9 points per game over the final 18 games, which corresponded with the SEC portion of the schedule. Raley-Ross saw his rebounding average dip to just 1.2 per game, and most dramatically, he shot just 27% from behind the arc. Although it seemed obvious to most observers that Raley-Ross never recovered from the injury, he refused to use it as an excuse.
"I was a step slow coming back from the injury," he said, "but I could still get my shot off."
Still, the numbers show otherwise. He attempted fewer three pointers than he made in the first half of the season (26 attempts compared to 30 makes), and went six games without a three-pointer immediately following the injury. Whether due to the physical aspect of the injury or Raley-Ross simply lost confidence and became passive, the drop in production was undeniable. This year, he hopes to regain his early season form.
"I think I'm stronger than ever and faster than last year," said Raley-Ross. "Obviously I want to have a way better year than I had last year toward the end. I want to build on what I did at the beginning of last year and let that work for the whole season."
Although Horn "hasn't really defined" what he expects from Raley-Ross, shooting and rebounding top the list.
"Obviously he wants me to take open shots and not be passive when I'm open," Raley-Ross said. "When we were playing in Europe, he asked me to get ten rebounds a game, he asked me to bring the ball up court on occasion."
That does not mean Raley-Ross will be the backup point guard. Although it remains unclear who will spell Downey, it will likely be done by committee. Raley-Ross will be expected to bring the ball up court, like each of the other players on the court, whenever South Carolina gets a loose ball, enabling the Gamecocks to run.
"I'm not the backup point guard, but when I get a rebound I'm going to go up court with it," he said. "We're going to play up-tempo. We're going to play fast and try to speed up the team. We'll pick up the ball full court [defensively]."
Horn echoed that sentiment, proving that Raley-Ross is picking up his responsibilities quickly. Horn added that regardless of his responsibilities to the team, becoming a better ball handler is just a part of Raley-Ross becoming a better player.
"You can be a better player than you are," Horn said he told Raley-Ross. "You can be more than a jump shooter. Part of that is going to be handling the basketball, not necessarily bringing it up against pressure, though he may do that, but just being able to make some plays. There's a perception of shooters that they can't make plays, but in some ways it makes it easier for them because there's the threat of being able to shoot that can get the defense out of position. He's responded really well to that and we've seen him make some strides."
In order for Horn's style of play to work, Carolina must improve in two key areas. The Gamecocks lack depth, going into the season with only six or seven key players, and lack size on defense, which could make it difficult to rebound and get into the open court. In order to make up for the lack of depth, Horn has focused extensively on conditioning. The hope is that with superior conditioning, the Gamecocks will be able to wear down opponents, something Raley-Ross is buying into.
"We run," he said, before correcting himself. "I'm not talking about running, we sprint. There have been a couple of days, man [where I almost didn't make it]. He demands us to play full speed all through practice. You can be dead tired, exhausted, but you're playing full speed, still running. There's been days where I felt like I might not make it up court."
Just as there is no way to teach depth, there is no way to teach height. Carolina will have to get rebounds through positioning and technique, which Horn has been working on. Rebounding is not where it needs to be, and is still something of a liability and ten rebounds a game may be a stretch for Raley-Ross (his career high is nine as a freshman and he never had more than five in a game last season), but he is embracing his role as a rebounder.
"Rebounding is coming on good," he said. "We still need to work out some kinks because it's a different rebounding style with coach Horn. We all go to the glass and we go to the glass hard."
The team may still be a work in progress, as the players transition into Horn's scheme, but Raley-Ross is brimming with confidence. He feels more at home in Horn's system than he did in that of former coach Dave Odom, and Raley-Ross thinks the Gamecocks will finally be able to maximize their talent on the court.
"We're hard to guard," he said. "The way Coach Horn is going to ask us to play offense and defense, I don't see many people in the SEC or outside the SEC that matches up with us. It gives us more sense of freedom to play our style of play. It sort of gives everyone a newfound confidence."
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