LOS ANGELES — As injuries go, USC’s basketball team has been dealt a bad hand over the first month of the season.
Five of its 11 scholarship players have been sidelined for at least one game, including leading returning scorer Bennie Boatwright and freshman Kevin Porter Jr., a talented guard who is widely viewed as the Trojans’ best NBA prospect, leaving the roster at times in flux.
It’s for that reason the improvement from Nick Rakocevic has been a big benefit.
Rakocevic, a 6-foot-11 junior, has grown from an energetic role player into a dependable veteran, increasing his scoring, effort on the glass and awareness as a rim protector as he has appeared in all eight games during USC’s 5-3 start.
“He’s becoming a guy we can rely on for certain things every night we play,” Coach Andy Enfield said.
As the Trojans prepare to face TCU (6-1) on Friday night at Staples Center in another potential résumé-building matchup, Rakocevic leads the team in points (15.3), rebounds (11.8) and blocked shots (2.8) per game. According to sports-reference.com, he is one of just 23 players in the nation who is averaging a double-double in points and rebounds.
In previous seasons, Rakocevic showed flashes of the scoring ability. He came off the bench as a freshman and put up nine points during a second-half comeback over Providence in an NCAA Tournament play-in game. When he started the final 15 games as a sophomore in place of an injured Boatwright, he averaged 9.7 points and scored a career-high 24 points in an opening-round win in the National Invitation Tournament. He often displayed an eagerness to clean up missed shots around the basket.
But his biggest strides have been as a rebounder, particularly on the defensive end.
After averaging 6.2 rebounds per game last season (3.5 on the defensive end), Rakocevic has averaged 8.6 defensive rebounds to bring his total average to 11.8, the fifth most in the nation and No. 1 in the Pac-12.
“He’s become better with his positioning, his anticipation,” Enfield said. “Sometimes he boxes out more effectively. He’s pursuing the ball much quicker defensively.”
The Trojans need Rakocevic’s presence in the middle in the absence of Chimezie Metu, their leading rebounder last season who bypassed his final season of eligibility to turn pro, leaving little size on the roster. Only four scholarship players are 6-foot-9 or taller, including freshman J’Raan Brooks and sophomore Victor Uyaelunmo, big men who are on the fringe of the rotation.
Rakocevic said he entered the season with greater determination to snag rebounds at both ends of the court.
“Every time I see a ball go up, no matter where it’s at, I try to go get it, I try to grab it,” Rakocevic said.
During the summer months, Rakocevic worked out with USC’s coaches to hone in on his rebounding. They went through assorted drills, lobbing the ball off the backboard and asking him to pull it back down, repeating the routine. He spent time with Eric Mobley, a first-year assistant and former forward at Portland and Cal Poly Pomona who has worked with the frontcourt players. Rakocevic tried to improve on his agility as well through conditioning drills.
The assorted workouts might have helped, though Enfield believes the forward has benefited most from two seasons of college experience.
“It’s different than a skill with a basketball in your hands,” Enfield said. “You can work on your ball-handling, your shooting or your passing with the ball in your hands. And that’s repetition. Defensive rebounding is different every time because the ball comes at different angles, guys on the floor are at different positions. It’s more instinctual and concentration for him to get better.”
The Trojans will need the effort to continue as their injury issues don’t appear to be resolved this week.
Porter, the talented freshman guard who has missed most of the previous three games with a quad contusion, is doubtful to play against TCU, Enfield said, and he has not practiced in recent days.
It leaves them without one of five players who average double-figures in scoring.
But coming off last week’s loss against sixth-ranked Nevada, the latest in a string against potential NCAA Tournament teams, Rakocevic believes the Trojans have little time to sulk about the rash of early-season injuries.
“One or two guys that are out can’t define the whole team’s success,” Rakocevic said. “We have to put it upon us, no matter who gets injured or what happens. We have to adjust, and we have to win games.”
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