For the first time since Andy Enfield took over the USC men's basketball program in 2013, the Trojans will have a core of talented returning upperclassmen with sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright announcing in a video on Twitter Thursday that he is pulling his name from the NBA draft pool and plans to return to school for his junior year.
Boatwright was USC's most explosive scorer last season despite missing two months after partially tearing his medial collateral ligament in his right knee. He also missed the first two games of the season with a minor nerve issue in the back of his right shoulder. Boatwright still led the team scoring 15.1 points per game even though it took him a little time to shake the rust when he returned from the knee injury.
In his first game back, the sophomore team captain scored 23 points despite having no lift when he jumped and showing signs of fatigue throughout. But as he got back in playing shape, Boatwright showed an ability to score in different ways, hoisting up three-pointers but also going inside to bang with forwards to draw fouls and get to the free throw line.
Despite missing almost half the season, Boatwright finished tied for second on the team with 47 made three-pointers and fourth on the team in made free throws. He improved his shooting percentages across the board, improving to 42.8 percent from the floor, 36.4 percent on three-point attempts and an astounding 90.7 percent on free throws after shooting 73.8 percent as a freshman.
In the NCAA tournament, Boatwright was second on the team scoring a combined 54 points — three points behind Metu. Boatwright shot 54 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from the floor. He made five of his seven free throws in the First Four matchup with Providence, but did not get to the line in USC’s other two tournament games.
A healthy offseason should help Boatwright improve his lateral quickness — an area he wanted to attack last summer before having a labral surgery to repair a one-inch tear in his hip. If he can improve defensively, showing he can guard on the wings, Boatwright could see his name rise up the draft boards because he is a walking offensive mismatch. He can handle the ball on the perimeter like a guard and shoot the deep ball with deadly accuracy when he doesn’t force shots. He can drive by forwards that try to guard him outside and when he gets in the lane, he can draw contact and make his free throws.
Boatwright’s return gives USC a formidable upperclassman core -- something it has yet to have under Enfield. During his tenure, USC has had only one scholarship four-year player graduate -- Strahinja 'Luis' Gavrilovic. In Enfield's first season, the Trojans had four seniors who had each transferred to USC, but Gavrilovic has been the only scholarship senior since. The Trojans were set to have several upperclassmen last year, but juniors Nikola Jovanovic and Julian Jacobs both entered their names in the draft pool (and went undrafted), redshirt juniors Katin Reinhardt and Darion Clark both took advantage of the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule while sophomores Malik Marquetti and Malik Martin both sought out more playing time at other schools.
This year, the Trojans have seen the exact opposite. Boatwright tested the waters and is returning. Junior guard Elijah Stewart said he was going to stick his foot in the water, but decided to stay on the beach while sophomore forward Chimezie Metu and junior guard Jordan McLaughlin didn’t even bring their swimming trunks to the draft beach.
With their core-four returners back once again, the Trojans will also have to deal with significant expectations next season. Under Enfield, the Trojans have improved every season from a 10-21 record to 11-20 to a big jump in year three, going 21-13 and making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011. USC followed that with an unblemished non-conference record, 23 wins and the Trojans’ first NCAA tournament win since 2009. USC advanced from the First Four to the second round where they held a lead before succumbing to the No. 3 seed Baylor.
The Trojans also add Duke transfer point guard Derryck Thornton Jr., who is eligible after sitting out last season, and a three-man recruiting class highlighted by Chuck O'Bannon Jr., USC’s first McDonalds All-American since DeMar DeRozan. They are likely to have their highest preseason ranking since the 1970s and their first preseason ranking since 2009.
USC guard Shaqquan Aaron also submitted paperwork and will go through the pre-draft process. He has until May 24 to pull his name out of the draft and remain eligible to return to USC as long as he does not hire an agent.
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