The USC basketball team’s first road trip in Pac-12 Conference play has brought back Kevin Porter Jr.
After missing nine of the previous 10 games with a bruised thigh, Porter made his anticipated return for the Trojans during Thursday’s 79-74 overtime loss at Oregon State, first stepping onto the floor following the first media timeout nearly six minutes into the game.
It took little time for people to notice why the freshman guard is seen as a possible one-and-done prospect and lottery pick come the NBA draft in June.
To begin his third offensive possession, Porter, after grabbing a rebound, dribbled down the court before pulling up and making a step-back 3-pointer, as he would score five quick points.
But after a hot start, Porter missed his final five shots, including a potential tying layup in overtime that was blocked, as he went scoreless for the rest of the game.
“He gave good effort, but Kevin’s game was basically like the rest of our team,” Trojans coach Andy Enfield said. “There were some really good moments and some moments we need to learn from.”
The Trojans largely expect some sort of period of acclimatization for Porter in his return to the court. He missed much of nonconference play, as well as the first two conference games, while recovering from injury.
Porter did not return to a starting role against Oregon State and was on a minutes restriction of about 20 minutes — though he did surpass it in overtime and ultimately logged 25 minutes. Enfield said Friday that Porter was expected to have a similar minutes restriction when the Trojans, at 9-7 overall and 2-1 in the Pac-12, visit Oregon on Sunday night.
As Porter is reintegrated into the rotation, it is likely his scoring will pick up sooner than later and would be the biggest benefit for the Trojans. He averaged 14 points in his first five games before bruising his thigh against Missouri State two days before Thanksgiving, and his ability as a shot creator is what intrigues NBA teams. Of his 30 baskets this season, 23 have been unassisted.
Against Oregon State, several of the Trojans’ scorers took a back seat to Bennie Boatwright, who had a career night, finishing with 37 points, the most by a USC player in a game since O.J. Mayo in 2008.
Enfield remarked that the bigger learning curve for Porter involved his defense.
“The biggest thing is on the defensive end, to just get the game experience of playing defense on the ball and defense off the ball on help side, to be able to rebound and run the floor,” Enfield said. “He’ll probably be better in a few weeks than he is right now. But he’s learning and trying his best.”
In certain moments Thursday, Porter was out of position on defense. Before Oregon State’s tying basket at end of regulation, he attempted to steal the ball from Ethan Thompson, lunging forward as the guard drove through the lane. Instead of poking it loose, Porter missed and ended up out of position, near the top of the 3-point arc. After Thompson had dumped off a pass, he rebounded the missed shot, having in effect boxed out Porter, and converted the layup to force overtime.
There is a belief Porter can make strides, as he is inexperienced but talented. In addition to missing most of the past seven weeks with a thigh bruise, Porter was sidelined for three weeks of preseason practices in October after he broke his hand, limiting repetitions in scrimmages.
“Every player develops at their own rate,” Enfield said. “We hope it’s sooner than later because whoever we put on the floor needs to be productive on the defensive end for us to keep competing.”
The adjustments and development from Porter will be worth watching Sunday and in the following weeks.
Not only is USC’s next game against Oregon (9-6, 0-2), the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12, but its ensuing stretch features some of the better teams in the conference that will go a long way toward determining whether the Trojans can win the regular-season title for the first time in three-plus decades.
After visiting the Ducks, they face UCLA on Jan. 19, followed by a homestand against the Arizona schools and a visit to Washington.
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