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June 23, 2013

S.C. Pro Am Day 3 wrapup

The third day of the S.C. Pro Am, featuring several current, former and future Gamecocks in action, took place on Sunday at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School.

The opening game was the most anticipated, as future USC backcourt mates Ty Johnson and Sindarius Thornwell competed on the same team against a squad featuring former point guard Eric Smith and current roster member Brian Steele.

Without a doubt, Thornwell was the highlight of the day. He scored a loud 28 points, with eight of those coming on thunderous dunks, two of which on perfect feeds from Johnson. This was my first time seeing Thornwell play in person, and he was every bit as impressive as advertised, even in a sloppy exhibition atmosphere.

Several things stood out about his play. One, the man goes and gets his own rebounds. I can't tell you how frustrating it's been to watch player after player at USC release a shot and sit there and watch it. Thornwell doesn't do that - it doesn't enter his mind to do it - and the result is second-chance opportunities for himself and his teammates. Two, he works hard on the glass; as a guard, it's amazing how often he ends up fighting for a rebound with the bigs inside, and because of his leaping ability, often coming away with the ball (he had six rebounds to go with his 28 points and three assists). He's extremely active, with his feet and with his hands, on both sides of the court underneath the basket, and more often than not, the results are positive.

Third, I can't think of a more instinctual player at drawing contact since BJ McKie. He's not as good as McKie at leaning in, drawing the defender's foul and converting the three-point play as McKie, but his instincts are superb in terms of penetrating, drawing in the defense and either converting himself by using his quickness and athleticism to create space and a shot, or kicking it back out to a wide-open teammate.

Finally, his overall defense was above where I expected. He disrupts passing lanes. His long arms and hands are constantly moving. He seems like he plays half the game in the air, and no one moved quicker up and down the court than he did, even the lesser players who typically give way more effort than the established guys in games such as these. He's the real deal, and his upside offensively is tremendous.

On the opposite side, I have to say that Johnson's performance was regrettably disappointing. Whether he just wasn't in it, didn't care or what, he was slow, displayed no offensive aggressiveness or defensive will and seemingly couldn't have cared less to be suited up - two points, five rebounds and five assists is not a strong line in a league where defense is an afterthought and you're expected to be the point guard of record for an SEC team, one who has the added benefit of bringing in Big East experience.

I'm sure he's better than how he performed Sunday, but Sunday was miserable to watch as he was lackadaisical in shot-taking and decision-making, throwing passes away, taking ill-advised long-range jumpers before the offense had set and generally going through the motions - barely. Hopefully, this was just an aberration. In fact, he was out-performed by walk-on teammate Steele, a late-game crowd favorite who scored six points and made up with hustle what he lacks in ability.

The day's second game featured several intriguing matchups - 6-foot-5 Michael Carrera banging inside against a determined 6-8 Jermaine Johnson, a 1,000-point scorer who graduated from College of Charleston in 2008 and still is an absolute brick wall of a human being, and former USC standout Brandon Wallace going inside against incoming freshman Demetrius Henry.

First, Carrera. Thus far, he's been a man among boys in the Pro Am, and despite missing his first seven shots of the game while he and Johnson traded blow after blow underneath (including taking a pretty vicious elbow to the jaw on an offensive foul on Johnson trying to back in), he still managed a double-double, scoring 20 points with 13 rebounds.

And even more to Carrera's credit, he kept his temper in check, not retaliating after the hard foul to the face and saving his revenge until the second half, when Johnson went up strong, Carrera lept to meet him and swatted his attempt away with the force of a tornado, stopping to admire it and shaking his head "no way" at Johnson as they ran back up the floor.

The other matchup was less a battle than a rout. Wallace was simply too skillful for Henry, and finished with 18 points and five rebounds to Henry's seven points and one rebound. Wallace's defense forced Henry into uncomfortable shots, and he could never establish a defensive presence, something that's been the case with him through the first week of Pro Am play even though he was a good inch taller than Wallace (although both are listed at 6-9). If anything, Henry should learn from Wallace's game, as the two are so similar in stature that it's striking.

At the point for the team facing Carrera, Justin McKie and Wallace was Brenton Williams, who had a quiet first half before sparking a key run late in the second half that gave his team the lead and ultimately the win, finishing with 14 points, one rebound and one assist.

The final current USC player of note in the game was McKie, who played on Carrera's team. He played sparingly and seemed to be nursing a slight ankle injury of some sort that he got taped up before the game. It didn't appear to bother him when he ran, but after starting and playing a rotation in which he was 2-of-7 from the floor, he was a non-factor the rest of the game, contributing just eight points and three rebounds. Having seen him play with much more gusto a week ago, my guess is that he was on orders to take it easy and not aggravate anything that remotely could be bothering him, just as is the case with Desmond Ringer, who did not play Sunday after spraining his right ankle a week ago when he slid on a wet spot on the floor.

The only other players of note to participate on Sunday were former USC standouts Carlos Powell and Devan Downey. Powell, playing his first game of the Pro Am, was a monster, finishing with 23 points and eight rebounds, while Downey scratched out 10 points and five assists.

OF NOTE: Neither of the day's heralded recruits - Seventh Woods or L.J. Peak, showed up to play due to previous commitments.

IN THE CROWD: USC quarterback Dylan Thompson came out to support his school-mates on Sunday along with teammate A.J. Cann. More than any other player I can quickly remember, Thompson is fantastic about supporting other team sports at USC, and he was recognized even before entering the gymnasium and graciously answered questions about this fall's team.


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