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August 2, 2013

Five things we learned: S.C. Pro Am

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1. Sindarius Thornwell will be a difference-maker immediately.

From his first performance on, Thornwell showed he could do most anything he wanted at most any time on the basketball court. With the University of South Carolina players under strict orders to play within themselves and treat the games as workouts rather than intense competition, Thornwell glided through the summer.

He would alternatively score in bunches when he felt like it and coast when he felt like it, all the while demonstrating a calmness and confidence both in his shot selection from inside and out and in his interior defense. For a two-guard who also can play the three, Thornwell is extremely active on defense, with his long arms causing problems for smaller guards to pass around. His size (6-foot-5) presents immediate match-up problems for defenders, and as he showed throughout the league, he will get more rebounds than you'd expect from a guard.

He follows his shot extremely well - something that's been a long-standing source of frustration for fans with previous players - and loves to drive and draw contact, the foul and the basket. He's equally comfortable shooting from the outside, where again, his size means he gets more open looks than most shooting guards. His body control is terrific, and he rarely, if ever, plays or drives or defends out of control.

For a team that struggled to score so badly last year it was painful to watch at times, Thornwell is a natural-born scorer who wants the ball in his hands. Thornwell proved this summer, even while playing in a limited capacity, that he's the biggest recruit South Carolina has gotten since Devan Downey.

2. Jaylen Shaw will contribute early.

When point guard Jaylen Shaw signed to play for Frank Martin out of Hartsville, it didn't exactly shake the foundations of the college basketball world - or even wiggle the banners at the Colonial Life Arena, for that matter. He was the last recruit of the class, and compared to the accolades of players such as Thornwell (top-40 nationally), his credentials were fairly modest, to say the least.

That's OK with Shaw, because all Shaw does is win. He led his Hartsville team to back-to-back Class 3A state championships, and it was the manner in which he carried his team to the last one that made the difference between offers from the Big South and big boys such as USC, Clemson and Tulane. Playing in two all-star games with Thornwell and fellow incoming freshman Justin McKie led to a bond being formed, one that continued through the summer.

Knowing he will be the team's point guard until Villanova transfer Ty Johnson becomes eligible in December and Bruce Ellington returns to the team after football in January, S.C. Pro Am commissioner Carey Rich gave Shaw opportunity after opportunity to run the point, and he responded by being the most consistent player of any of USC's newcomers in the league all summer long. Against Devan Downey, who was all over him the entire game from a defensive standpoint (presumably under orders from Rich and the USC coaches), Shaw showed he can withstand intense pressure on the ball and get the ball upcourt to set up the offense without losing his composure or the possession.

He showed a great touch around the basket - including a nice finger-roll technique - and a deceptive quickness. But most of all, his personality and poise came through game after game along with his consistent effort, and now, rather than turning loose a scared freshman to run the point for the first month or so of the season, Frank Martin will have a confident freshman who is ready to help the team immediately before turning it over to veteran hands. Shaw could one day be the surprise of this class.

3. The bigs need work, but the potential is there.

Desmond Ringer sprained his ankle in the first game and didn't come back until the last two weeks of the league, and he didn't look active at all either offensively or defensively when he did return. On the other hand, Demetrius Henry did play through the summer, though his results were equally uneven.

First, Ringer is a massive body. He's 6-9, 260 and looks like he's 35 years-old (the beard helps). This man would not be carded anywhere in America if he went in to buy a beer; he's a guy you take one look at and realize you don't want any trouble with him whatsoever under any circumstance. He's SEC-ready from a physical standpoint, which, as a freshman, is a huge, huge plus and a huge, huge need for a South Carolina team that was pushed around by almost every decent big man they faced.

Where he will need to improve is in his aggressiveness. He will learn how to use his body to intimidate and set screens, which are two things he did not do well in the summer league - if anything, he was passive. He did show a nice short-range jump shot and a couple of back-to-the-basket moves that could make him more of an inside scoring option than USC's other big body, Laimonas Chatkevicius, who too often seemed to consider himself a svelte outside shooter and often shied away from contact, much to the chagrin of fiery teammates such as Michael Carrera who fear no one.

From what I saw, Demetrius Henry is a player who, at least during the summer, prefers to play away from the basket despite his height (6-9). Listed at a generous 210, Henry is not far off being accurately described as "pencil thin." He reminded me a lot of former USC standout Brandon Wallace in that regard, however (Wallace also played in the S.C. Pro Am, by the way), as a guy who could never put on weight but who still found a way to be super-successful.

Like Wallace, Henry has a plus outside touch extending to the 3-point line. He's also quick for his size, and his hands are above-average...something that cannot be overestimated, especially as Gamecock fans don't have to think too hard to recall the number of entry passes that have bounced of the clumsy mitts of bigs in recent memory.

Are they ready to contribute immediately? No. Can both become All-SEC players? Absolutely.

4. Ty Johnson is ready.

This may be the understatement of the year. Coming out of Montrose Christian in Plainfield, New Jersey, Johnson was a four-star, top-50 national player rated the 11th best point guard in the country in his class and a first team All-Metro selection by the Washington Post.

He also is a player who excels in big games. In high school, he was the tournament MVP of the ESPN Rise 2011 National High School Invitational where he scored 21 points (including 11-straight free throws) in the nationally televised finale where he led his team to a victory over Thornwell's alma mater, Oak Hill Academy, and his best game at Villanova was an 8-point, 5-rebound performance against Syracuse.

I spoke to Johnson to weeks ago, and he told me it was "very difficult" sitting out last season when he saw how much the Gamecocks were struggling at the point guard position. He is a legitimate star at the point and gives Martin an instant leader and trusted court general.

With Johnson on the team for the next two years and the signing of Thornwell, in one year USC potentially could go from worst to first in the league's backcourt department. The fact that in the summer league both players played in the same backcourt leads me to my last point, which is that...

5. This league has made the Gamecocks better.

There is no question about it. From the chemistry and trust formed from Thornwell and Johnson being on the same team to the striking development of Shaw over the course of the summer to players such as Ringer and Henry, not to mention Reggie Theus, Jr., Justin McKie and Duane Notice and future USC freshman Marcus Stroman getting to bang against older and bigger players such as Downey, Wallace, , Dominique Archie and Murphy Holloway, just to name a few, there is no doubt that the S.C. Pro Am has provided USC with a distinct advantage not just in current player development but in recruiting as well, with several Gamecock targets, guys such as Seventh Woods, PJ Dozier, participating.

The USC coaching staff can't comment on the league, I'm told (I asked), but suffice to say they're extremely pleased it exists, and you can rest assured that the players involved worked one exactly what the coaching staff needed them to work on for the summer. Without the Pro Am, these guys would be playing pickup games on their own - if that, even. More likely, they'd have been taking it easy on Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons.

Instead, they were in a competitive environment playing with and against future teammates under the helpful gaze of Pro Am coaches week in, week out, from June 16 through this weekend. I predict the league is worth at least two wins on the court this year, and who knows, potentially more recruiting wins down the road. It's a win for USC, it's a win for the Pro Am league itself and it's a win for any and all Gamecock fans who showed up to get a sneak peek at the talent that will be the building blocks for future success at South Carolina.

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