At South Carolina, P.J. Dozier’s transition to college basketball well underway

Columbia's P.J. Dozier is the first South Carolina signee named to the McDonald's All-American team since 2000. (File/Noah Feit/Aiken Standard)

COLUMBIA — P.J. Dozier’s transition to college basketball began with conditioning sessions in the South Carolina weight room. But not every piece of equipment favored by the incoming freshman had a metal plate attached.

“He and the garbage can became best friends that first week,” USC men’s coach Frank Martin said Monday during one of his summer camps. “Every time I turned around, his head was inside of it.”

Dozier, a star at Columbia’s Spring Valley High School and son of former Gamecocks player Perry Dozier, is the highest-rated recruit to choose South Carolina, not just during Martin’s three-season tenure, but in years. The 6-6 guard was just the fourth USC signee named to the McDonald’s All-American team, and the first since Rolando Howell in 2000.

Now he’s on campus — suffering through strength coach Scott Greenawalt’s summer conditioning sessions — and appears poised to play a key role on a 2015-16 Gamecocks squad which will feature a mixture of old and new. USC lost just one player off last year’s team, senior guard Tyrone Johnson, but said goodbye to three others via transfer, and welcomed five new signees for the coming season.

Dozier and 6-9 forward Chris Silva have been on campus during USC’s first summer session. Eric Cobb, a 6-10 forward, and Raymond Doby, a 6-7 forward, are scheduled to arrive in Columbia on Thursday. Jamall Gregory, a 6-4 guard, has recently completed some necessary coursework, Marin said, and if his grade is cleared by the NCAA could be at USC as soon as this weekend.

Together they comprise “a group of freshman that we think is the most talented that we’ve recruited,” Martin said. The centerpiece is Dozier, ranked the No. 21 recruit nationally by ESPN, who played 20 minutes and scored 14 points in the McDonald’s All-American Game against high school stars headed for the likes of Duke and Kentucky.

“After seven practices, they started P.J., and P.J. played the majority of the minutes,” Martin said. “That kind of shows who he is and how good he is as a person and as a player, the way he was receptive to whatever instructions were given at that game. His ability to coexist with other real, real good players, it’s a big part of who he is, and I do think we — myself included — kind of take that for granted a little bit when it comes to P.J. Dozier.”

Dozier, whose father Perry Sr. played at USC from 1986-88, chose the Gamecocks over Michigan, Louisville, North Carolina and Georgetown. USC has a number of backcourt pieces in returning guards Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice and Marcus Stroman. Asked where Dozier might play, Martin referenced Jacob Pullen — one of his stars at Kansas State, who played off the ball for two seasons before moving to point guard as a senior.

“Good players adapt,” Martin said. “And as coaches, it’s our jobs to find out who plays well with who, and different things we can do to take advantage of the talent level of your team.”

Three other incoming freshmen — Silva, Cobb and Doby — bolster the front line of a USC team that has historically lacked size, now particularly since 6-9 forward Demetrius Henry has left the program. At 6-11, rising senior Laimonas Chatkevicius is the Gamecocks’ lone returning player taller than 6-7.

“My first year, we go play at Kentucky, our starting five — 5-10, 5-11, 5-11, 6-4, Michael Carrera at center at 6-5. I look out on the court, and Kentucky’s starting guards are 6-4 and 6-5. I said to myself, ‘This might be a problem.’ You’ve got to have size,” Martin said.

“In the SEC, the Kentuckys and Floridas, the two schools that have been dominant for X number of years, (it’s) size — their ability to get on the glass, their ability to post up, their ability to protect the rim. They just beat on you and beat on you. And if you’ve got one big kid, you can hold the fort down for six, seven minutes. But when you put your subs in, they just beat you up with their size off the bench. So that’s something we have to get better at.”

— Martin said redshirt freshman TeMarcus Blanton, who suffered a hip dislocation last year in practice which some compared to the injury that ended Bo Jackson’s football career, is recovering ahead of schedule and has been cleared by doctors. Blanton and Thornwell, who had surgery after last season to help with tendinitis in his knees, are both being held out of live competition during the summer.

Blanton “was supposed to be doing the stuff he’s doing now in August, so he’s about two months ahead of schedule,” Martin said. “As far as sprinting, running, cutting, jumping — he does everything in the weight room and conditioning and agilities when we’re on the court with the exception of competing. We’re not allowing him to get in live competition yet, neither him nor Sindarius. But they do everything else. We don’t need to overload them, either one. We don’t have a game next week.”