From his itinerant high school career to his infamous college self-recruitment to the years of hype that accompanied him, nothing about O.J. Mayo's arrival to the college game was simple. So why should an evaluation of his on-court contributions for USC this season be any different?
You can make a case so far that he's overrated. You can also make a case that he has excelled. It's a classic case of objective versus subjective, of concrete versus context. Whatever the answer is, whether there's a right one or not, to describe the first 19 games of his college career, the most important part is this: Those two worlds of promise and production are starting to converge, and that could mean big things for the Trojans.
First, the hard numbers. Statistically speaking, Mayo is incredibly unique. He almost never leaves the court, and he uses his team's possessions (accounting for shots, free throws, assists and turnovers) at an extremely high rate. The combination means he may have more direct impact on his team's fortunes than any other major-conference player in the country.
As such, it's extremely hard to find comparable players for comparison. As the chart shows, three of the four best are not even guards. Tellingly, though, the three closest ones are not superstars, either.
Kansas State's Michael Beasley is in a category by himself, with numbers even superior to Kevin Durant's from last season. Mayo's figures fit more snugly aside those of two talented-but-limited big men and a guard who, unlike Mayo, never gets mentioned as a lottery pick. It's also worth noting that Virginia's Sean Singletary, the only guard comparable, also averages 6.7 assists per game and has a 1.5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio on a team with less talented players. Mayo averages just 3.2 assists and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.8:1. He's also shooting just 44.1 percent from the field.
Given his megastar billing, those numbers suggest Mayo hasn't lived up to expectations.
But then listen to coaches who have faced the Trojans this season. After a four-point win at USC on Dec. 2, Kansas coach Bill Self told the Lawrence Journal-World that Mayo was possibly the most talented player he had ever faced. Reached by phone this week, Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery, whose Salukis lost 70-45 to USC in Anaheim on Nov. 25, said that Mayo's IQ was as good as any player he'd ever seen.
"He's very capable of doing it himself and going off, but he's also capable of being a good teammate, too," Lowery said. "In our game, he played as a good teammate, because it was the other guys who went off on us."
Mayo hasn't done that enough for much of the season, especially when the games got bigger. But was that on him? Or was it by design?
"He does what we ask him to do, and that's the bottom line," USC head coach Tim Floyd said. "He's extremely coachable. He basically takes what games give him, and he's capable of going and getting his shot whenever he wants to get his shot. That's the beauty in having a guy with his talent, but that's not what he wants to do or what we ask him to do unless games dictate that."
How many times has Floyd asked Mayo to take over a game this season? "Five or six," he said.
Therein lies the secret to interpreting Mayo. Until recently, Floyd needed him to carry the team, numbers be damned.
There are a number of reasons why Floyd felt that way:
• Mayo can get his own shot more or less whenever he wants.
• Early-season injuries that led to missed practices and games made continuity difficult.
• The current rotation is essentially three freshmen and three sophomores, so there's little stabilizing upper-class presence.
• The Trojans get almost nothing from their bench, which creates fatigue and scoring issues, especially against elite opposition.
• They also lack a legit catch-and-shoot guy on the perimeter, leaving Mayo to either create his own shots at the point or take them at the 2.
It wasn't necessarily a great plan, though. Witness Mayo's combined 12-for-41 shooting in close losses to unbeatens Kansas and Memphis.
"I put him in a compromising situation by asking him to play 40 minutes when he probably wasn't ready to play 40 minutes, and asking him to take a lot of shots late when he probably wasn't ready to do that at that time of the year, given where he was," Floyd said.
Recently, though, there's been a shift away from that thinking, and that provides context for the good things that have been happening lately for the Trojans. The chart shows Mayo's numbers from the current four-game winning streak over Washington, UCLA, Oregon State and Oregon against his numbers from all of USC's wins and losses this season:
While quality of opponent clearly is a factor in the splits, they look relevant in the sense that Mayo clearly tried to do too much -- or was asked to -- in USC's six losses, in which he averaged 20.8 shots per game and had almost two turnovers for every assist. Tellingly, the highest number of shots he's taken during the four-game winning streak is 16, and that was in Saturday's overtime win at Oregon. And while Mayo's possession usage in those games is above his rate for all of USC's wins, it's being driven by more assists and more trips to the free-throw line, not by missing a lot of shots and committing turnovers.
While the upset of UCLA got more national buzz, the perception of Mayo himself might have changed for good in that win at Oregon. It was the first time he had a big night in a win against a top-50 opponent. Mayo poured in 25 points (on only 16 shots) while also chipping in eight rebounds and three assists. Just as important, he committed no turnovers for the first time in his college career (and did it all while suffering through leg cramps). His more diversified, patient approach also helps explain Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis combining for 50 points in that win.
So what is USC's upside now? Despite Mayo's growth, Floyd said he thinks there's still a limit to how much better this team can get offensively. Principally, that's because of the lack of scoring options off the bench. The Trojans don't need to improve that much, though, to become a serious threat. They play good defense, currently ranking seventh in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency and in the top 40 in defending both 2-point and 3-point attempts. It's no coincidence that the current winning streak has run in tandem with a stretch of four straight better-than-average offensive efficiency nights. That's only the second time that's happened this season.
So, with a more balanced attack and now a favorable schedule (seven of the last 11 Pac-10 games are at home), USC looks poised to surprise. Of course, how much they do will depend heavily on Mayo's continued development, but the recent evidence looks positive. If the UCLA upset showed he could defer and win, the Oregon victory proved, finally, that he could do it as a star. That could be a dangerous discovery for the rest of the Pac-10 and beyond.
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.