South Carolina’s new point guard? Jair Bolden talks year off, what’s ahead
A week of dunks, packed gyms and Jermaine Couisnard 40-point games comes to a close at 2 p.m. Sunday with the South Carolina Pro-Am championship at Heathwood Hall.
This year’s version might have been the most entertaining in the eight years Carey Rich has hosted this event. The former USC captain turned Columbia basketball enthusiast attracted the NBA’s Sindarius Thronwell, P.J. Dozier and Torrey Craig and put them on the floor with and against the best of the current Gamecocks and beyond.
Ahead of Sunday’s final — which matches Couisnard, Dozier, Maik Kotsar and the Chick-fil-A Two Notch Road team against Trae Hannibal, Wildens Leveque and Hood Construction — here are five observations from three days of games to stock away before the season begins in November:
1. The guard battle will be an interesting watch — and that’s a good thing
In Frank Martin’s seven years as USC coach, he’s never had more than four guards average over 20 minutes a game. Only twice — in 2018-19 and in 2016-17 — have five guards averaged over 15 minutes a game.
Martin has five legitimate options for 2019-20 in Couisnard (averaging a Pro-Am best 39.3 points per game), Hannibal (top 150 recruit), A.J. Lawson (projected 2020 NBA draft pick), Jair Bolden (touted transfer) and T.J. Moss (started three games before getting hurt last season). Lawson, who led the Gamecocks in minutes last year at 29.9, isn’t going to see his role diminished. A first-team All-SEC candidate, Lawson figures to be the offensive centerpiece.
So how do the rest of the minutes get divided up?
2. Trae Hannibal will play
All five can play point guard, but only Hannibal — at 6-foot-1 — profiles as only that position. The rest — all 6-2 and taller — can spread off the ball. Hannibal, though, is going to make it very difficult to keep off the floor. While shooting is still in development, he’s got supreme vision, strength and athletic ability. Combine that with his willingness to defend and rebound and Hannibal looks built in Martin’s lab.
“I like the energy (Hannibal) plays with,” said Craig, a USC Upstate product about to enter his third season with the Denver Nuggets. “The poise, he’s not rushed. It seems like he’s figured it out. If he continues to work, he’s going to be a really good player.”
3. Don’t forget about Bolden
Offseason buzz around Bolden was that he was destined to be the starting point guard. That’s still likely to be the case. The transfer averaged 11.2 points and three assists in his final year at George Washington.
“I played 1 (point guard) my whole high school career and for two years at GW,” Bolden said.
Bolden on Thursday made six 3s on his way to 28 points. Everything about his game is solid. He can shoot, pass and defend, sure, but he’s also going into his fourth college season. Martin values that experience on the perimeter, and the Gamecocks lost a couple senior guards in Tre Campbell and Hassani Gravett.
“I think the biggest benefit of sitting out is getting a feel for Coach Martin’s offense,” Bolden said. “He has a particular style that he likes to play and then there’s a particular style he coaches. I think learning him and learning the offense and the defense and the system in general, getting used to how he’s going to be on you and how he coaches, it instills confidence in yourself. I think that’s what was most beneficial for me in that sit-out year.”
4. Enjoy the Lawson-Couisnard duo while you can
Whether Couisnard starts or comes off the bench, he’ll get minutes. Remember, this is a program that boasts a couple SEC Sixth Man of the Year awards since 2016.
No matter the role, Couisnard will share ample court time with Lawson. The two pack a scoring punch that former Gamecock great Sindarius Thornwell noticed quickly when playing pick-up in the Carolina Coliseum this summer.
“I,” Thornwell said, “told A.J. and Jermaine one time, ‘Why are y’all on the same team? Y’all need to be guarding each other and making each other better. Not playing with each other and winning six games. Guard each other and make each other work every time y’all out here so y’all can get the best out of each other. So when the season comes through, it’ll be easier for each other.’ ”
Lawson, who is resting this week after a busy couple months, might only be in garnet and black for one more season. He’s eager to see what he gets out of it with Couisnard as his sidekick.
“We can do amazing things,” Lawson said.
5. While prepping for what’s ahead, the bigs are smaller
Alanzo Frink has dropped weight, Maik Kotsar is more toned and Wildens Leveque looks in ideal shape for an incoming freshman center.
South Carolina’s guards and wings — Justin Minaya and Keyshawn Bryant included — make the headlines on this team, but the bigs are hugely important to success as they’re collectively trying to replace Chris Silva. Without Silva, a a four-year rock in the middle, Martin has already admitted these Gamecocks will play differently than past teams. They’ll run — and everyone has to keep up.
Kotsar, a senior and projected starting center, is well-aware.
“I expect to play outside a little bit more and move around a little bit more,” said Kotsar, who is averaging 10.7 points and 4.3 rebounds in the Pro-Am, “and move around a little bit more. Which I’m perfectly fine with. Over the summer, I’ve slimmed down a little bit, tried to get leaner, get myself more explosive, more fast.
“I feel like that’s going to help me a lot.”