“If they don’t block it, it’s probably going in…honestly,” Elijah Stewart said. “I just feel like I can do whatever I need to do on the court to score. It’s coming easy.”
That’s how much confidence the USC sophomore guard is playing with right now.
Can you blame him?
"In the very small sample size of two games, Stewart looks to be the Trojans’ most dynamic player. The Louisiana native is averaging 17 points per game on 65 percent shooting, making contested shots over defenders, who can’t match his NBA-caliber athleticism when he makes the decision to stop and pop on a pull-up jumper.
When the ball leaves his hand, he figures it’s going in.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the experience and the maturation process,” teammate Julian Jacobs said. “Obviously, the more you play, the more comfortable you feel with the ball and he’s a splitting image of that.
“It’s really exciting to watch him because he is really athletic, but he can stretch the floor. He’s putting the ball on the ground better now and it’s really fun to watch his game develop.”
Stewart already possessed elite athleticism, which flashed most prominently last season on the defensive end where he often swatted away shots of unexpecting opponents — both under the basket and beyond the three-point line. However, he lacked consistency on the offensive end.
After scoring 22 points on perfect 10-for-10 shooting in December last year against Boston College, he went nearly two months without reaching double figures. But he came on at the end of the season with a 19-point game in an upset of Oregon State leading to a final four-game stretch were he averaged 16.8 points per game, including a career-high 27 points in a win over Arizona State in the Pac-12 tournament.
It seems simple, but Stewart says he knew he had deficiencies coming into college that he needed to work on, so after his freshman season, he set to turn those weaknesses into strengths. Stewart worked on his shot extensively in the offseason. He cumulatively put up thousands of shots during the summer. He worked on small tweaks throughout all facets of the shot to find the perfect smooth stroke.
According to head coach Andy Enfield, Stewart worked on his footwork and shot preparation just as much as the final delivery. He also devoted himself to being able to create space so that he can get the shot off cleanly.
“Stew is one of the hardest working guys on the team,” Jacobs said. “Everything you see out there, he’s put in the work over the summer. He’s just persistent. He wants to get better. He’s very receptive when it comes to coaching and you’re starting to see that translate on the court.”
His offseason wasn’t solely focused on his jump shot though. When asked what he’s seen the most results from his offseason work, Stewart focused elsewhere.
“Playing with a smooth pace and my ball handling. Pick and roll. Just making the right reads.”
His improved handles and extra experience with the ball in his hands has led to more opportunities for Stewart in the offense. There have been pick-and-roll sets designed around having the ball in Stewart’s hands. At 6-foot-5, he has the ability to see the court well while he has shown a deadly pull-up jump shot, making him a tough assignment for an opposing wing player.
Stewart has been one big reason why the Trojans are searching for their first 3-0 start since the 2001 season. He grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds to earn his first double-double in the opener against San Diego and then dropped 20 points to allow USC to beat a tough Monmouth team.
As Stewart went, so did the team against the Hawks. USC jumped out to a big lead in the first half as Stewart scored nine points in the first 12 minutes. After Monmouth rallied to make it a back-and-forth game throughout the middle 20 minutes, Stewart helped the Trojans pull the game out by scoring 11 points in the final 8:17. In a one-point game, Stewart drained a corner 3-pointer on a kick out from Jacobs with 4:16 remaining and a couple of possessions later, Jacobs fed Stewart again for a dagger three-ball that pushed USC’s lead to 90-82 en route to an 11-point win.
“He’s a better basketball player,” Enfield said of Stewart’s increase in production. “He put in a lot of time in the offseason to improve his ball handling, his decision making and his shooting. He’s growing as a player and we’re excited for him. If he can continue this consistent play, I think we’ll have a great season.”