Elijah Stewart saw his game take a big leap from his freshman to sophomore seasons.
The USC guard's numbers were up across the board last year. He scored more (9.8 versus 6.4), rebounded better (3.6 to 2.4), increased his assists (1.1 to 0.7), reduced his turnovers (0.9 from 1.1) and shot better making 43.8 percent of his field goals (compared to 37.4 as a freshman). His long-distance shooting also saw a huge improvement. Stewart improved his three-point shooting percentage by more than eight percent, making 42.9 percent last season.
But there was one area the 6-foot-5 DeRidder, La. native remained the same. He was still consistently inconsistent.
His scoring shows that best. After averaging more than 17 points in the first three games, Stewart scored in double figures only once the next nine games. A 27-point effort against Lafayette got him going again. He scored in double figures in nine of the next 11 games, including a clutch 27-point outing in a four-overtime win over No. 7 Arizona. But as USC wilted down the stretch, losing eight of their final 11 games, so did Stewart. He scored in double figures just three times and averaged 7.1 points.
“Elijah needs to be a consistent performer every game,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said. “He made a big improvement from his freshman to sophomore year. Now he needs to make another jump where we can rely on him offensively and defensively and rebounding the basketball.”
Rather than being the spot-up shooter one night, the defensive stopper the next game followed by a game of being an off-the-ball creator, Stewart knows the Trojans “need the whole round package” from him. He has worked on his ballhandling. He's tried to fine tune his decision making. And he says he's learning how to create his own shot.
The makeup of the roster has changed significantly this year. After USC’s offseason mini-exodus that saw seven players — six with eligibility remaining — depart the program, the Trojans need players to step up. Having started 18 games in each of the last two seasons, Stewart is the primary candidate on the wing.
“We lost three guards last year -- one that started on and off, one who entered the draft and another who gave us support off the bench,” Stewart said. “Together I think we lost like 28 points [editor’s note: 25.0 combined] between the three, so I've got to pick up that slack this year.”
He is primed to take another step in his development, but that starts with consistency. For Stewart, the key may lie in being more aggressive. Stewart only took more than 12 shots twice — in the wins over Lafayette and Arizona. When Stewart attempted 10 shots or more in a game, his shooting percentage rose to 52.1 percent and he averaged 17.0 points in 10 games.
The departure of starting point guard Julian Jacobs and Katin Reinhardt, who Stewart switched in and out of the starting lineup, leaves playmaker and shot taker roles vacated, which Stewart thinks he needs to fill.
“I'm going to have to take those hard shots for the betterment of the team,” Stewart said. “I mean I worked on it, so I feel like I can take those tough shots and convert at a high level.”
“The players that are here on our roster have a huge opportunity to take the next step in their career with more playing time, more responsibility and an opportunity,” Enfield said.
With responsibility, comes added pressure. But Stewart, quoting a line from Drake’s “Views,” said he isn’t worried about the pressure because he’s been playing basketball for years and his role this year won’t be new to him. It’s the same he had when he was Mr. All-Around for Westchester HS after moving to L.A. to play against better competition.
The pressure of a regular season college basketball game is abated after spending the offseason playing in the Drew League — the premier summer basketball league that draws NBA players, international pros, college and high school stars as well as streetball legends.
“It just brings out the dog in you,” Stewart said of the competition. “It's either you're going to stop this man or this man going to give you 40 and you're going to be on ESPN. No one wants to be embarrassed, so it just brings out that fight in you.”
This summer Stewart said he picked the brains of a lot of professional players, including former Trojan current Laker Nick Young, Baron Davis and Cuttino Mobley. He feels like he took a lot of wisdom from the collection of talent that he played with and against. The veterans he was around also helped him learn how to be more vocal as Stewart transitions into a leadership role with USC as a junior this season.
“Just listening to them talk and kind of like mimicking them. Talk in a constructive way, not in a nagging way. Taking that and translating that to whenever you play basketball.”
For the Trojans, Stewart will try to do that this season…consistently.
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