It was never about his game. It was about being allowed to play it.
P.J. Dozier’s freshman year was good in terms of what he did for his team. South Carolina tied a school record with 25 wins after a 15-0 start, and the freshman point guard enabled the Gamecocks to do a lot of things they hadn’t been able to do.
As for himself, Dozier freely labeled his season frustrating. His numbers were merely OK.
That’s fine considering he was surrounded by older players who knew exactly what coach Frank Martin wanted on each end of the floor. It wasn’t to him, a starter in the McDonald’s All-American Game who expected to dominate from the time he first laced his high-tops.
“The growth thing, it starts with confidence,” Dozier said. “Last year, it wasn’t there.”
The speed of the game disrupted him. The passing lanes that were there in high school disappeared when he let the ball go. Trying to recover his mistake, Dozier would stretch those lengthy arms toward the ball and get tagged for a reach-in foul.
Two opponent points later, he’d guard his man, flutter a hand across the guy’s hip and hear another whistle. The rest of the half was spent on the bench with Martin.
Martin’s points were simple. Can’t play you with two fouls in the first five minutes. Can’t play you if you turn the ball over (Dozier had 90 turnovers to 70 assists). We know you can score and that’s great, but we need you to direct the offense and be a big piece of the perimeter defense.
Dozier could have taken the high-and-mighty approach. Dozier could have pouted.
Instead, Dozier worked on his game all summer, helped by a few days at Steph Curry’s camp, came back to school and told the coaching staff they could trust him.
Eleven games later, it’s evident how much they listened.
Dozier is playing the best basketball of his career, with five consecutive 20-point games and much better ball control. Somebody had to step up with Sindarius Thornwell sidelined until SEC play, and while all have contributed, nobody’s done more than Dozier.
His career-high point total continues to rise (26 against Clemson after 23 at USF) and his 33 assists to 25 turnovers looknice compared to last year. Dozier’s stroked 18 3-pointers in his first 11 games after he had 10 all of last year.
The accolades and NBA whispers have started to surface, but none of it means as much to Dozier as the relationship between him and Martin. Each admitted they didn’t know how to talk to each other last year.
Now, it’s strange when they do talk during a game, since each is in tune with what the other wants.
“Last year, all he did was turn the ball over and wouldn’t guard anybody, and was in foul trouble every game. Now this year, he’s playing real hard, and he’s defending, and he’s never in foul trouble,” Martin said. “You see any of those turnovers where he just throws it to the guy at the top of key so he can dunk it at the other basket? No. He’s learned to play hard, he’s better defensively.”
“I didn’t have the trust of the coaching staff because I’d come out and do the same thing, make freshman mistakes, throw the ball away,” Dozier said. “The whole turnaround from last year to this year has been great.”
It’s always a fine line for a coach to walk, especially today where one hurt feeling may mean a player bolting for the supposedly greener pasture anywhere but where he is. Does coach let a player, especially a freshman, make a mistake and play through it? And if so, how many of those does coach allow before thinking of his other players and their ability to win the game?
Martin had to sit Dozier a lot last year, mostly because of foul trouble. He didn’t recruit the guy to not play him, but it wasn’t going to do the team much good if he couldn’t play the most important minutes.
“Play hard, don’t get in foul trouble,” Martin’s mantra went. “So now, what happens? He can stay in the game. It’s given him confidence. I understand him better. I think I’m doing a better job communicating with him and at the end of the day, he’s a good player that’s learned how to play hard. So now you’re starting to see some of his abilities and talent show its face a little bit.”
Dozier’s soft reception and perfect putback, on a baseline jumper, beat Monmouth at the buzzer. His alley-oop slam against Vermont immediately went into the team highlight reel. The shots he poured in at USF gave the Gamecocks their foothold and it surely wasn’t on Dozier that USC couldn’t beat Clemson.
The idea is when Thornwell returns, the Gamecocks will be much more dangerous. Dozier certainly isn’t going anywhere.
“That trust is something that has to be built,” he said. “For a coach to keep you out there after you mess up once or twice, you have to show him that you can continue to play through those mistakes. Last year wasn’t my year. I’m happy that this year, he has that trust in me.”
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By the numbers
USC sophomore guard P.J. Dozier has seen his game blossom in his second year on campus. Here’s where his numbers (per game) stand through 11 games:
Shooting percentage: 46.1