USC guard Elijah Stewart remains a well of untapped potential.
The 6-foot-5 sophomore once again showed a glimpse of just how good he can be against UCLA last week. He came off the bench to produce a solid 16-point, six-rebound performance, but what turned the heads of the professional scouts in attendance was a three-minute spurt at the end of the first half.
Stewart showcased how the versatility of his offensive game has blossomed in his second season under head coach Andy Enfield. Last season, Stewart was primarily a spot-up shooter that occasionally threw down a big dunk thanks to his athleticism.
“I was kind of a one-dimensional player and that was a shooter. If my shot wasn’t falling, I really wasn’t producing,” Stewart said. “I had to try to learn how to score at three levels — shoot, drive and at the mid range. I feel like I’ve improved to where I can do that.”
That’s exactly what he displayed against the Bruins, scoring the Trojans’ final nine points of the first half. Stewart began the run with a corner 3-pointer from the left side. A turnover on UCLA’s next possession was scooped up by Jordan McLaughlin, who led the break and tossed up a lob to the right side of the rim where Stewart was skying to throw down the slam.
Stewart showed his mid-range game next. Catching the ball at the top of the key, Stewart dribbled with his left twice toward the lane and then made a pop jump toward the left wing to create space from the defender. He rose above UCLA’s Bryce Alford and drained a jumper without the slightest graze of the rim. On USC’s subsequent possession, Stewart ran a pick-and-roll from the left side and attacked off the dribble. He dashed through the lane, cutting between three defenders, hanging in the air and scooping the ball up off the glass for the bucket.
In the second half, Stewart showed an even wider arsenal, going down into the post, catching the ball on the block and showing that opponents can’t use smaller defenders against him. He hit a short turnaround over Alford and said he has a jump hook he can use as well.
“The post up was my high school go-to. I don’t really shoot the fadeaway no more, but I got the jump hook now. That’s really a good tool in college basketball right now, especially over smaller guards and players that aren’t good at playing defense.”
Stewart’s biggest basket came with just under four minutes remaining after UCLA had trimmed the lead to six points — the smallest margin since the middle of the first half — with an 11-2 run. Unfazed, Stewart stepped into a three-point attempt after Julian Jacobs drove into the lane and kicked it out.
“That shot was pretty much muscle memory. That’s a routine shot coming down on the trail, just shooting the three. Defense collapsed and sagged in. I was able just to hit it. I stuck to my form and just relied on my muscle memory.”
The three-point muscle memory has begun to take on pachyderm potential. Stewart has boosted his long-range shooting nearly 10 percent from a year ago, improving from 34.6 to 44 percent. He’s been even better during Pac-12 play, knocking down 52.4 percent of his three-point attempts — second best in the conference.
Following a strong offseason, Stewart began the year in the starting lineup and got off to a great start, averaging 17.3 points in the first three games, but then he went through a prolonged shooting slump. For a month, Stewart struggled to contribute, scoring in double figures only once in nine games.
It cost him his spot in the starting lineup. Instead, he became the Trojans’ first man off the bench. Being demoted is never easy, but Stewart responded positively. Beginning with a 27-point effort to tie his career high in a win over Lafayette in USC’s last non-conference game, Stewart has been one of the most consistent Trojans. He has scored in double figures in nine of the last 11 games.
“He’s played great basketball the last month,” Enfield said. “He’s embraced his role. He knows how valuable he is to our team.”
Stewart has made 49 of his 100 shots in the last 11 games and is averaging 13.5 points per game.
“It takes a team. That’s our motto this year. So if they want me to come off the bench…as long as it’s working, I can’t complain about it. Plus, we’re winning and that’s all that matters right now.”
“I kind of get the green light to spark the offense,” Stewart said. “The coach feels that it’s best for me to come off the bench. I respect his choice.”
Over the last four years, Stewart’s game has grown each year. His defense exemplifies that best. When he first arrived in Los Angeles from DeRidder, La. as a high school sophomore, Stewart’s defense was so bad, Westchester High coach Ed Azzam believed Stewart would struggle with inanimate objects.
“Coach Azzam really preaches defense,” Stewart said. “Before I came there, he told me that I can’t guard a statue. That was his favorite saying and honestly I probably couldn’t, if a statue could move its arms. He just taught me my fundamentals and how to play good team defense and I appreciate that.”
Stewart is capable of making an impact on both ends of the floor now. Last season, Stewart led USC with 37 blocks and had the most by any guard in the Pac-12. He routinely surprised shooters that figured they had space to get a jumper off, only to have Stewart get a piece of the shot. He often raced to the other end of the court after blocking a shot, looking for the quick runout.
He has been up and down during his Trojan career, showing flashes of being an all-league player at times. He scored a then career-high 22 points on perfect 10-for-10 shooting in a game against Boston College last year, but followed that up with just 26 points in the next 13 games. Stewart rebounded from that poor stretch by averaging 13 points in USC’s final eight games last season, including a 27-point effort in the Pac-12 Tournament.
That propelled him to his strong offseason and beginning to this year. After his late November/December shooting slump, the last 11 games have shown the progress Stewart has made.
“He’s defending. He’s limiting his turnovers. He's putting the ball on the floor now and going to the basket,” Enfield said after the UCLA game. “He is just a much better basketball player than he was last year and the sky's the limit for him. He’s got a long way to go. He still has quite a few things that he can work on. But if he gives us that effort like he did tonight, he’s just terrific.
He’s been such a key contributor, providing starters’ minutes off the bench and an ability to get hot quickly like he did against the Bruins that whether he can take the next step could determine just how far USC can advance in March.
The future still holds a lot of possibilities for Stewart and the Trojans.
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