Frank Martin’s ongoing quest to identify roles for South Carolina’s 2017-18 basketball team took an interesting turn last weekend at Colonial Life Arena.
Less than two minutes remained in a tied game with Coastal Carolina. Martin, from his USC head coaching spot, raised his fist, signaling an opportunity for the youngest Gamecock on the floor.
Freshman forward Justin Minaya, surrounded by a graduate senior, two juniors and a sophomore, ran off a screen and accepted Hassani Gravett’s pass at the top of the key. He rose from 21 feet, not hesitating to realize the shot’s stakes.
“I preferably would have rather him driven the ball,” Martin said, “but he didn’t shrink, he didn’t hide. He came off that screen and he saw separation and he lifted up and he let that thing go.
“And it just missed. It was dead-on, just a little long.”
Martin on Thursday evening’s “Carolina Calls” radio show cited this sequence to note the advanced nature of Justin Minaya’s game – and where the rookie stands among his more veteran teammates.
“It’s late and I ran a play for him,” Martin said. “I’m still trying to figure out our team, who I can run stuff for and who’s gonna shrink in the moment.”
The 3-point attempt bounced off the back iron, sure, but it was the thought that counted.
“He’s a young man that stands tall the more difficult it gets,” Martin said.
South Carolina is 8-2 and next travels to rival Clemson on Tuesday. Littlejohn Coliseum is likely to hit the Gamecocks with the kind of environment where leadership is a necessity.
Martin’s been calling for USC to improve in that area for a while now. Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice are gone, and the door remains open for a new captain to emerge.
Minaya just finished his first semester of college. Thursday, he spoke to media members for the first time since coming to Carolina. He has an aura of newness – but also of savvy that perhaps separates Minaya from most 18-year-olds.
As Martin put it, Minaya has a “willingness to accept responsibility, not deflect responsibility.”
The 6-foot-5, 210-pounder and son of a former Major League Baseball general manager is third on South Carolina in scoring (10.8 points per game) and fourth in rebounding (4.5). On defense, Minaya routinely draws the opponent’s top perimeter player.
What has allowed him to handle such a role at such a young age?
“I just try and do what the coaches ask,” Minaya said Thursday at CLA. “I feel like if I do what the coaches ask, everything will work out. I just try and do it to the best of my ability. Whatever happens, happens.”
Minaya rooms with fellow freshman David Beatty. Beatty said the two sit down after every practice and go through a detailed performance review.
“We got a special bond,” Beatty said. “If he’s doing something, I’m gonna get on him – harshly, but it’s love. And he’ll do the same for me. We’re just learning from each other.”
Minaya has started the first 10 games of the season, becoming the first USC freshman to do so since P.J. Dozier in 2015-16. Minaya’s average of 28 minutes over the first 10 games is the most by a rookie Gamecock in that span since Thornwell logged the same to begin 2013-14.
“He has a different type of motor to him that nobody really has,” Beatty said. “It’s special in a way. He’s quiet, but as soon as he comes, he’s going to keep coming and he won’t stop.
“He won’t go one play and take a thousand plays off. He’ll go one play and he’s gonna keep coming for a thousand plays until you eventually get tired and he’s just going to overpower you.”
While his father, Omar Minaya, served the New York Mets from 2005-10, Justin Minaya was a clubhouse regular, messing around with the likes of Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. Minaya’s heroes became his friends.
“I still have good relationships with those guys,” Minaya said.
Nowadays, in a South Carolina locker room, others can look up to him.
“A lot of time we think kids, because they come from certain backgrounds, maybe they’re not as competitive,” Martin said. “Justin is as competitive as anyone on our team. It’s important to him. It’s important that he’s a good teammate.”
Comparing Justin Minaya through 10 games against 10-game starts for other notable USC freshmen of the Martin era:
P.J. Dozier 8.6;4.1;2.2;43.1;46.7;53.1
Michael Carrera ;9.1;6.8;1.1;45.2;N/A;80.5