As official practices get underway and South Carolina women’s basketball buckles down for the grind of the season ahead, Dawn Staley has a roster loaded with 10 former five-star recruits, five McDonald’s All-Americans and the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class.
So even though the Gamecocks have just 12 players, 11 depending on whether one is granted an NCAA waiver, there’s a lot of depth and a lot of players who could arguably start for Staley. Rotations, chemistry, experience and who has the hot hand will likely all play a role, but let’s take an early look at the locks to start, the borderline players and the ones that might come off the bench.
LOCKS TO START: Tyasha Harris, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan
The two seniors for South Carolina both have All-SEC potential and WNBA aspirations. Harris broke into the starting lineup halfway through her freshman year and has been there ever since, and while Herbert Harrigan has dealt with much more inconsistency, she and Staley seem to be working well together as of late and she has all the experience and talent necessary to anchor the frontcourt. Barring injury, they’ll start and lead this team.
LIKELY TO START: Destanni Henderson
Henderson flashed enormous talent last season as a rookie, and Staley has never shied away from playing two point guards at the same time. As an SEC All-Freshman honoree, Henderson is primed to step into a starting role. Her 3-point shooting ability in particular could give her an edge — she shot 37% from beyond the arc last year.
STARTING OR GETTING LOTS OF MINUTES: Victaria Saxton, Aliyah Boston, Brea Beal
Saxton, the oldest of these three, might be more of a lock — she’s considered a team leader and potential captain, and as she continues to gain strength to go with her elite leaping skills and instinctual ability to rebound, she could very well develop into a force, especially on defense.
But if Staley’s looking for a true center, Boston is her surest bet. At 6-foot-4 with size that already compares favorably to anyone on the roster, Boston should be able to hold her own in the low post. She’ll need to develop some strength and get used to a level of play where she can’t impose her will all the time, but her skillset is unique on this team, and that alone makes her valuable.
Speaking of unique skillsets, Beal would fit perfectly at the “three,” a six-foot guard who can rebound off the weakside, stretch the floor to the 3-point line and defend basically every position. Staley has said she is the most physically prepared of the freshmen for the college game, and her versatility gives her an extra edge.
ROTATION: Zia Cooke, LeLe Grissett
Like Henderson a year before her, Cooke enters a crowded backcourt with plenty of options at point guard. She has said she’s willing to play whatever role is necessary for her to get on the floor, but depending on the look Staley’s going for, it might make more sense for her to come off the bench and get minutes as the floor general of the second unit before moving into a more starring role next season. That being said, Henderson carved out a role for herself last year by simply being too good not to play, and Cooke has flashed elite upside and flair.
Grissett is the last member of her recruiting class left at South Carolina, and while she has yet to break into the starting lineup with any consistency, she has been a steady presence off the bench. According to Staley, she’s made some big strides this summer trying to take her game to the next level. Like Beal, she brings a positional versatility that could be valuable — at 6-foot-2, she’s been cited as one of the better ball-handlers on the team. Her experience might give her an early edge in minutes over some freshmen, and she needs to play well enough to force Staley to keep her in.
WAIT AND SEE: Destiny Littleton, Laeticia Amihere
Amihere is coming off two major knee injuries in two years and sported a knee brace at practice on Tuesday. All indications are she’ll be ready to go for the season, and she has been called the most athletically-gifted member of the freshman class. She could make the Gamecock frontcourt into a terrifying group in the future. But as we saw last season, lingering injuries and knee braces can slow players, even just a little, and Amihere has only played a few months of competitive basketball since Oct. 2017. So we’ll have to see how quickly she can play at a collegiate pace and contribute.
Littleton is waiting on an NCAA waiver to grant her immediately eligibility after she transferred from Texas this offseason. If she gets it, it seems likely she’ll work her way into the rotation in some form or fashion — she’s known as a pure scoring threat and could form a three-guard backcourt with Harris and Henderson or help lead the second unit. But given the NCAA’s often arbitrary and slow decision-making process, the Gamecocks can’t count on having her by the start of the season.
MOP-UP DUTY: Elysa Wesolek, Olivia Thompson
Wesolek and Thompson, both in-state products, can carve out the biggest roles possible for themselves with 3-point shooting. Carolina doesn’t have an abundance of sharpshooters, and Staley cited Wesolek and Thompson’s ability to hit from outside as key reasons she wanted them on the team.