Frank Martin will be the first to tell you that the second edition of his South Carolina basketball team will look distinctively different than his first. It won’t just be in personnel but the way they look when they enter an arena.
Four players — guards Damien Leonard, Brian Richardson and Eric Smith along with forward RJ Slawson — departed the program for various reasons with eligibility remaining. That allowed Martin to sign eight new players.
So far, in the two weeks of summer individual workouts, the results have been positive.
“We’re bigger, plain and simple,” Martin said. “That’s the first thing you notice when we’re on the court. We’re bigger, and that’s something that was important. You have to have size, either at the rim or on the perimeter. Last year, we didn’t have size at either. That’s a problem when that’s how you play. When you have size on the perimeter, that helps protect the paint. When you don’t have size on the perimeter, then you have to have size at the rim to compensate. But we’re bigger and longer, both on the perimeter and in the front line.”
Five of those newcomers are on campus. Desmond Ringer is a 6-foot-9, 250-pound bruiser, and Demetrius Henry adds another long, lengthy player with his 6-9, 210-pound frame. Guards Justin McKie, Jaylen Shaw and Sindarius Thornwell each are over 6 feet tall and play longer with their thick, lanky frames. That is a much different scenario that last season when Smith, Bruce Ellington and Brenton Williams often times left the perimeter without anyone over 6 feet tall.
The Gamecocks will be at a disadvantage at guard to begin the regular season. Ellington will be finishing his playing time with the football team, and Villanova transfer Ty Johnson will not be eligible until the end of the first semester. That would leave the point guard position short on experience. Williams and Thornwell might get the bulk of the minutes there until Johnson and Ellington join the team. Duane Notice and Reggie Theus Jr. are two more guards who could figure in the mix once they are on campus.
Right now, that is not a big concern for Martin. He is trying the learn the strengths and weaknesses of the new guys and put them in the best position possible to be successful.
“It’s my job to give them as much responsibility as possible and figure out who has that ability or not,” Martin said. “Who wants to be in charge and who does not? When I start figuring that out, I can start placing roles and responsibilities on the right people so they can take a leadership role.”
This is not the first time in his career that Martin has had so many first-time players. When he arrived at Kansas State, he had seven freshmen, a junior college transfer and a regular transfer on the roster. This year’s Gamecocks will feature seven freshmen and a transfer in Johnson. Martin loves the challenge in front of him and likes the way the players have responded.
“I had to have a lot of patience,” Martin said. “You have to rely on what’s important, and that’s teaching. The guys that want to be good embrace it. That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes, they just embrace it. They want more. They get consumed with the want to improve. Those are the guys you focus in on. The guys that embrace it start getting better. The guys that don’t embrace say, ‘Well, heck, I need to join the party,’ or they get left behind.”
Michael Carrera, Ellington and Williams have been the players around the most this offseason. Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugus Kacinas are playing with the Lithuanian Under 20 National team and are expected back.
Having players who have been through a season with Martin and the rigors of SEC play has paid dividends.
“The best thing about this group of guys is there are a nucleus of guys in the locker room that have been through it,” Martin said. “They’ve been working out for a year, and they understand our teaching points and demands. They are giving the young guys leadership right now. It’s encouraging to see that.”