Let’s get this out of the way, first off: 22-year-old USC forward Dewayne Dedmon is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Not necessarily better than anything you’ve ever seen, just different – significantly different.
He’s 7 feet tall, having grown four full inches between ages 18 and 21. He’s 255 pounds, having also gained upwards of 50 pounds in that same span.
And now for the weird but true, in progressive order: He’s the second-fastest player on the USC basketball team, coming in behind only 5-6 point guard Maurice Jones. He can play point guard in a pinch, Trojans coach Kevin O’Neill says. And, maybe the craziest statistic of them all: Counting exhibitions and summer league games and everything with an official and a game clock, he’s played in fewer than 100 organized basketball games in his life.
Truthfully, the last four years of Dedmon’s life – basketball-wise, at least -- have had to take the place of most kids’ entire adolescence, and probably more. He didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was 18 years old, and, even then, he didn’t play much at all until his second year of junior college.
And even then, he broke a bone in his forehead two months into the season and sat out a month. Now, 11 months since he arrived at USC, he’s finally almost fully healthy, having broken a bone in his shooting hand a less than a week into practice this October. He had to wear a gigantic makeshift cast on his right hand to be able to take part in practices until Tuesday of this week, when he had the thing removed once and for all.
He’s not pain-free, but he’s cast-free, and that’s a big step.
“This is how I explain him: He’s 7-foot and he runs like a deer,” says Jio Fontan, the USC basketball team’s captain, likely out for the 2011-2012 season with a torn ACL. “I tell people all the time, if you saw him in jogging pants just walking into the gym and asked him to shoot a jump shot, he’s gonna show you he’s a little different.
“He shoots the ball like a guard, plain and simple. But give him time. Understand that not only has he not played that many years of basketball, but he’s also just coming off sitting a whole year out.
“He’s gonna be special. It’s just gonna take time.”
The thing is, USC doesn’t have any time. Dedmon’s first major college game is Friday at 8 p.m. against Cal State Northridge, the Trojans’ 2011-12 season opener. It’ll be his first real game since February 2010. And O’Neill needs him to be the team’s No. 2 scorer and No. 1 rebounder in order the Trojans to have any real chance of getting back to the NCAA tournament this season.
It’s unlikely, but that’s what everyone said last year at this same time. And USC ended up finishing with 19 wins and sneaking into the First Four of the tourney.
Then the Trojans lost top scorer Nikola Vucevic to the NBA draft, starters Alex Stepheson, Marcus Simmons and Donte Smith to graduation and Fontan to injury. The question now is whether O’Neill can manage his new, similarly patchwork squad to similar heights.
Let’s break it down, splitting it up by backcourt and frontcourt:
Maurice Jones will be the point guard, the driver of the team and, as O’Neill has said more than once this preseason: the only reason to show up to the Galen Center during the Trojans’ games this season.
“If we don't have this guy, it'll be very difficult for us to be competitive in major college games,” O’Neill said at the podium at Pac-12 media day last month. “Don’t come to the games. It’ll be ugly. Don’t show up."
Jones, a sophomore, averaged 9.9 points and 3.2 assists per game a season ago, shooting 35 percent from 3-point range and grabbing two steals a game. At a listed 5-7 and 155 pounds, he’s supremely undersized for the position at the college level but also supremely talented.
Expect him to average roughly 15 points and four assists for the Trojans.
Joining Jones in the backcourt Friday against the Matadors will be senior walk-on Eric Strangis, a transfer from Cal Lutheran who played a total of seven minutes in six appearances for USC last season. He’s fundamentally sound but not a scoring-type and not a guy who’s going to be playing significant minutes this year.
Joining Jones long-term, then, will be a combination of Strangis, juco transfer Greg Allen and freshmen Alexis Moore and Byron Wesley.
When Fontan went down, O’Neill’s first thought was to make Moore the starting point guard and let Jones stay at shooting guard, where he was going to play with a healthy lineup. But he decided shortly afterward that Jones needs the ball in his hands as much as possible for USC to be successful, which, in turn, means that Moore will have to play most of his minutes at shooting guard. He’s capable of that, but he was a pass-first point guard at Long Beach Poly, so, like Dedmon, it’ll take time to adjust.
Allen is a pure shooter, similar in some ways to Smith, who came into his own as a senior for the Trojans as a valuable outside threat. He’s a good candidate to start across from Jones come Pac-12 play in January.
On Friday, the 6-5, 210-pound Wesley will start at small forward, a product of two things: His rapid improvement over the past month and Garrett Jackson’s lack thereof.
Wesley, from nearby Etiwanda High, looks like USC’s No. 3 scoring option. He can put the ball through the hoop in a variety of ways and has range out to near the 3-point line. He’s also the best defender of the Trojans’ wings, and that’s another reason he’s starting.
Jackson, the sophomore from Oregon, has not seized a starting spot like O’Neill and the USC coaches hoped he would this season. But the 6-6, 225-pounder has bulked up since last season and may end up playing more power than small forward, which brings us to the rest of the frontcourt.
Lining up next to Wesley will be Iowa transfer Aaron Fuller and Dedmon. Fuller is the Trojans’ only polished post player, but he’s undersized at 6-6 and 235 pounds and new to the Pac-12.
He’s also been bothered by nagging injuries and did not practice in the two days leading up to Friday’s season opener. But he’ll still start, and, judging off his numbers with the Hawkeyes, he’s a good bet to finish the season with averages of 10 or so points and seven or so rebounds.
Fuller is a crafty scorer who will score despite having few – if any – plays called for him. But that’s still a work in progress. He has not starred in USC’s practices and/or scrimmages yet, and it’s fair to say the Trojans expected a bit more from at this point.
But it’s not because of a lack of trying. It’s more of a lack of understanding – as in, USC doesn’t know how to best utilize him yet.
“I’ve gotta find a way to make Aaron more effective,” O’Neill said this week. “That’s on me to do right now.”
So Fuller’s clearly key, but Dedmon is still the conduit to the team’s overall success.
And, considering his complete and astonishing lack of experience at this level, that’s a scary statement. He will have games where he reaches double-doubles in the first half. He will also have games, as O’Neill has pointed out for quite some time now, where he fouls out without scoring a point.
It’s part of the process, and it’s going to be exceedingly frustrating for the not-incredibly-patient O’Neill, who can get very worked up at his players’ mistakes in practices and game.
But he knows that. He knows coaching Dedmon is going to be a challenge, one of the bigger challenges of his college coaching career.
“I’m sure it will be,” O’Neill said. “But we’re still going to have throw the ball to him. Because he’s our best option down there, and he’s a guy that, with time, will come along.
“I’m telling you, he’s kind of a freak of nature in terms of athletic ability and innate basketball intelligence. He just doesn’t have the experience to put any of those things to use to being a polished-looking player right now.”
Many of the same things can be said about James Blasczyk, USC’s other 7-footer. The 7-1, 260-pound Texas A&M transfer will back up Fuller and Dedmon in the post and play in the range of 15 minutes per game as an energy-booster.
He can pick up scraps, but he’s also got somewhat of a developed shot, and he can run the floor better than the other true centers in the Pac-12. There are some mismatches to be had with him, as there are with most of USC’s talent, really.
It’s O’Neill’s job this season, more than ever, to exploit those mismatches– and not let his team’s negative ones be exploited the other way. Will he use Dedmon as a small forward, as he has said he plans to? Will he play Jones and Moore, the team’s two best ball-handlers, together? Will he play the two 7-footers down low and let one of them power over a player often four or more inches smaller than him?
He has some options, but one thing he’s certainly not going to do is rely too much on his unproven players.
O’Neill is going to ask all of his players to play the same brand of defense that has allowed the Trojans to approach 20 wins in each of the last two seasons. He’s going to ride Wesley, Moore and Dedmon every practice and every game in the hope of fast-tracking their progress. He’s going to hope that the players with college experience, Allen and Fuller, use their experience to play up to potential.
And, maybe most importantly of all, O’Neill is going to play Jones 40 minutes a game, and he’s going to keep the ball in his hands every possession.
“I believe in running the offense through certain guys,” O’Neill said this week. “I don’t believe in equal opportunity.
“I just don’t believe in that.”
He does, however, believe in his team – he says.
Now let’s see who else does.