COLUMBIA — During the summer, new South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin gave point guard Bruce Ellington DVDs to watch, so he could learn at least some of Martin’s system without actually participating in practice.
Ellington was going to spend his second consecutive autumn playing football for the Gamecocks, after playing just basketball in his first year at USC. But this time, it would be no easy task for him to return midseason to a team whose up-tempo defensive approach is a significant departure from last season’s 2-3 matchup zone. This time, Ellington needed to thoroughly prepare himself.
Based on limited action Tuesday in his first basketball practice of the season, he apparently did.
Martin said before the season that Ellington probably wouldn’t join the basketball team until after the football team’s bowl game. But with football taking a break between last Saturday’s regular season finale at Clemson and the pre-bowl practices, Ellington, never one to sit still, wanted to squeeze in some basketball.
After talking with Ellington and football coach Steve Spurrier, Martin is allowing Ellington to practice with the basketball team, but only until pre-bowl practices begin. The opening date for those practices hasn’t been determined yet. When they start, he will work out only with football. During last season’s pre-bowl practices, he split time with basketball and played in games. But for now, Ellington probably will practice for, and be available to play in, the next three basketball games — tonight at St. John’s, Sunday at home against Clemson and next Friday at home against Jacksonville.
Martin referred to a two-week window that Ellington will have with basketball, so he probably will return to football and miss the three games after Jacksonville, then come back to the court Jan. 5 against South Carolina State as a full-time basketball player for the rest of the season.
Ellington has been USC’s starting point guard since he arrived from Berkeley High. He led the Gamecocks with 12.8 points per game as a freshman, and had 97 assists and 87 turnovers. Last season, he ranked second on the team with 11 points per game and had 74 assists and 54 turnovers. Eric Smith has played well at times this season as Ellington’s replacement, but it is clear that Ellington is USC’s best point guard option.
Martin was asked if he saw enough from Ellington in Tuesday’s practice to feel comfortable playing him in the next three games, even though he’s not fully in basketball shape.
“I’ll probably throw him out there,” Martin said. “That all depends on the game and all that. But he brings some natural instincts to the game.”
Martin liked how Ellington stayed in touch with the basketball coaches during football season.
He stopped by Martin’s office at least once a week to talk. He occasionally shot jumpers on his own. And he studied Martin’s system.
“See, if he had never shown up and never really been around and just showed up (Tuesday) and said, ‘Hey, I’m here. Let’s go. I’m Superman,’ I probably wouldn’t be as receptive to him doing this for the next two weeks,” Martin said.
“Watching him go through some of the stuff in practice (Tuesday), it’s obvious that it’s important enough for him to have learned it, because he understood it a little bit better than some of the guys that have been out there every single day for two months.”
Martin has played guys before after limited practice time. He said that in his first year at Kansas State, 2007-08, small forward Dominique Sutton enrolled mid-year, played two days after his first practice, started the game after that and never came out of the starting lineup.
Ellington is returning to a backcourt that must limit its turnovers. Smith has 19 (and 19 assists). Brenton Williams has improved offensively and is averaging 13.5 points, but he has 16 turnovers and nine assists. Still, Martin likes the strides Smith and Williams have made and doesn’t want to immediately dismiss them because Ellington is coming back.
“I told (Ellington) this back in the spring, I told him in the summer and I told him (Tuesday): There are some guys playing now that have busted their humps to grow and accept responsibility and do things a certain way, and have earned my trust,” Martin said. “I’m not going to lose faith in them just because he showed up.”