COLUMBIA — June 20 was a banner night for South Carolina. A state 40th in the country in square mileage produced the first two names in the NBA Draft.
Two more joined within the next 48 picks. South Carolina had four NBA Draft selections, and if all of them take just one dribble during the next season, they will be Nos. 41-44 on a list of NBA players who are from the Palmetto State.
Yet none of those four played college ball for the biggest university in the state. And while there are reasons for all of them going where they went, it’s aggravating and frustrating for USC fans to see four South Carolinians proceed to the highest perch of basketball without any of them representing the South Carolina Gamecocks.
“This has happened before,” USC coach Frank Martin said before the draft. “Kevin Garnett was a pretty high draft pick, Stanley Roberts was a pretty high draft pick. Ray Allen, I don’t remember where he went, but pretty high draft pick. Anyone can interview them from any country in this world, and the first thing that comes out of those kids’ mouths, is how much they love South Carolina.”
When he arrived seven years ago, Martin found out what a lot of USC coaches did before him. With the Gamecocks’ spotty history of college basketball success, it’s like climbing Everest in terms of convincing homegrown talent to stay home. The entrenched system of prep and AAU basketball often seems geared toward pushing players out of state.
Zion Williamson and Ja Morant played on the same AAU team. Williamson prepped at Spartanburg Day School before heading to Duke. Morant, from Sumter and Crestwood High, had serious interest from USC but chose Murray State.
“It’s not only good for me and Zion, it’s good for the state of South Carolina,” Morant said in April when he returned to Crestwood. “It puts South Carolina on the map, and we have the opportunity to do that, possibly going one and two in the draft.”
They did go first and second, to New Orleans and Memphis, respectively. Nic Claxton (Greenville’s Legacy Charter) attended Georgia and was the No. 31 pick by Brooklyn. Jarrell Brantley (Columbia’s Ridge View before going to Maryland’s Montrose Christian, the same school that produced USC’s Michael Carrera) went to College of Charleston and was the 50th pick by Utah.
It’s a familiar story, as Martin mentioned. Garnett, from Mauldin, transferred to Chicago’s Farragut Academy for his senior year, went to the NBA directly from high school and was a No. 5 pick. Stanley Roberts (Lower Richland High) went to LSU and was a No. 23 NBA pick. Ray Allen (Hillcrest High in Dalzell) went to Connecticut and was also a No. 5 NBA pick.
There was also Raymond Felton, from tiny Latta, who went to North Carolina and then became a No. 5 NBA pick, the last South Carolinian to go in the first round until this year.
As with Williamson and Morant, there were reasons why they didn’t come to USC. Allen was leery of USC’s stability as he was leaving high school during the Steve Newton-Bobby Cremins-Eddie Fogler coaching carousel. Felton grew up a Tar Heel fan and once he got his UNC offer, he would entertain no others.
USC hasn’t been shut out from in-state talent, historically or under Martin. Alex English is a Columbia native, played for the Gamecocks and led the NBA in scoring in the 1980s (ahead of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan). Sindarius Thornwell (Lancaster) and P.J. Dozier (Columbia) led Martin’s fifth USC team to the program’s greatest moment when it reached the 2017 Final Four.
It’s never been a popular move for big-time talent to come to USC to play basketball. It’s an uphill battle that continues to be fought.
Seventh Woods grew up a UNC fan and while his decision between USC and UNC came down to the final hours, he followed his heart. After three years as a Tar Heel, he transferred back home and will play for Martin in 2020-21.
And it isn’t like the Gamecocks have to depend on Palmetto State talent, either. Martin welcomed sophomore guard A.J. Lawson back to his team this year after Lawson tested the NBA Draft waters and decided it would be better for him to return to school. Some project him as a first-round NBA pick in 2020.
Lawson is from Canada.