USC's Damien Leonard takes cues from teammate's experience
COLUMBIA -- Anthony Gill lives next door to his South Carolina basketball teammate Damien Leonard. They are close friends and have spent countless hours around each other -- on the court and off it -- since arriving in Columbia together last summer.
Few people understand Leonard's up-and-down first-year experience better than Gill. And as Gill knows, preparing to play a significant role as a freshman also means understanding you're going to struggle at times.
"You can tell yourself that and you can work hard in the offseason," said Gill, USC's starting power forward. "Mentally, you can definitely prepare yourself. But just physically, when you get out here, it's a lot tougher. You've just got to keep working hard and don't let the little things get you down and just keep fighting."
That's what Leonard, a shooting guard, is trying to do now. He started the season's first seven games and could get precious few shots to fall. He came off the bench for the next 11 games and performed better. Tonight at Florida, he will start again for the third straight game -- and try to break out of another shooting funk that came with his return to the starting lineup.
It might just be a statistical coincidence, but Leonard has shot the ball much better as a reserve. In nine games as a starter, during which he played 24.4 minutes per game, he is 18 of 86 from the field (20.9 percent), including 15 of 67 on 3-pointers (22.4 percent), for 6.3 points per game. In 11 as a reserve, during which he got 14.6 minutes, he is 23 of 49 (46.9 percent), including 18 of 37 on 3s (48.6 percent), for 6.3 points per game.
So he has scored just as much as a reserve despite playing 10 fewer minutes per game. Another measure of his effectiveness off the bench: As a reserve, he is averaging 1.3 points every time he attempts a shot from the floor. As a starter, he is averaging .59. In short, he has been twice as efficient offensively as a reserve.
It's important to remember that Leonard started the first seven games, and freshmen often struggle early. But he sputtered again in the past two games. In a win over Alabama, he played 30 minutes, shot 2 of 11 (2 of 10 on 3s) and scored six points. In Saturday's loss at Mississippi, he played just 17 minutes (compared to 27 for reserve Brenton Williams), shot 1 of 8 (1 of 7 on 3s) and scored three points.
USC coach Darrin Horn said the roots of Leonard's shooting issues are more complex than whether he starts or not.
"I think the biggest thing is, let's not forget that he's a freshman, first of all, and there's going to be a continual growth process with him," Horn said. "I thought Saturday, maybe he rushed a little bit, wasn't quite as ready to shoot on some shots. A simple thing is stay in space. We had a couple times where he didn't space well offensively and it led to him not being in the right position to be able to really be set and step in and shoot that basketball. Those are all things that are a learning process that he'll continue to get better at."
Leonard dismissed the notion that it is harder for him to find a shooting rhythm as a starter.
"Not really," he said. "I'm taking good shots. I know I'm not taking bad shots, because I know (Horn) will take me out."
He feels encouraged that Horn will start him again, even as Williams comes off his best game of the season (15 points on 5-of-9 shooting). Leonard and Williams are Horn's two best guards right now other than point guard Bruce Ellington. Sophomore guards Brian Richardson and Eric Smith, who has started 13 games this year, haven't even played in the past two contests.
"It's good that he believes in me because I believe in him," Leonard said. "And I know that my shots will start falling because I'm still confident in my shot."