Justin Minaya hasn’t been seen on a basketball court in a while. Even when he was around it Sunday at Heathwood Hall, he was tucked away in a bleacher seat — in a camouflage shirt.
But soon the South Carolina wing will reappear with hopes of providing stout perimeter defense and timely shooting again for Frank Martin’s Gamecocks. It just won’t happen this week at the South Carolina Pro-Am.
“I had a chance (to play),” Minaya said. “I’m just not all the way conditioned yet.”
It’s been eight months since Minaya suffered a knee injury that cost him his second college season. While there was initial talk of a return for SEC play, Minaya’s year was done before the Gamecocks tipped off with Wofford on Nov. 26. It took a long time, however, for the New Jersey native to be convinced of his fate.
Minaya was impatient on his road to recovery. Martin revealed this any time questions came in concerning Minaya’s timeline.
“There were a lot of times when I was struggling,” Minaya said Sunday. “I wanted to get back so bad. I was down, I was really down for a little bit because I wanted to be on the court.”
But he stayed on the bench as the Gamecocks shrugged off a difficult non-conference showing to win 11 games and finish fourth in the SEC. Now coming off a medical redshirt year, Minaya becomes a key figure to a team that has NCAA Tournament aspirations.
“I’m excited,” Minaya said. “I’m so excited. I’ve been waiting on for so long, just sitting and watching them. I’m really excited.”
Minaya showed plenty of promise as a freshman, making 30 starts and averaging 7.9 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. Those numbers changed to 7.4 and 5.6 through five games as a true sophomore.
Minaya said he got back to 100 percent health in April or May. It was around that time when Felipe Haase transferred, leaving Minaya as the last-standing member of Carolina’s 2017 recruiting class. The next USC team Minaya plays for will differ greatly from the one he grew used to as a freshman.
“I was thinking about that the other day, just how different the locker room has been from my first year here,” Minaya said. “It’s a totally different team. I think I only got one guy here from my freshman year, right? Maik (Kotsar), he’s the only one?
“It’s a way different team. It’s a faster, more athletic team. So I’m excited for this team, it’s going to be exciting.”
Where does Minaya fit? Does he step back into the starting small forward position? Does he move over to the “four” and allow Keyshawn Bryant to continue work from the wing?
Such questions will be answered soon, but Minaya isn’t going to try to predict anything. That’s what he learned from the injury.
“I put an expectation in my head that I was going to come back,” Minaya said. “So when that didn’t happen, I felt down. So that’s why I’m not putting any (individual) expectations (on next season). Just going day by day.”