COLUMBIA — Frank Martin doesn’t name captains. He prefers those leadership roles to develop and be taken, rather than assigned.
That spot is wide-open going into his eighth season.
“People always get worried about replacing points and rebounds, we’re worried about replacing the voices that are willing to take ownership,” Martin said on the SEC summer teleconference last week. “Trying to find that is something that’s not appointed, it’s something that people embrace.”
Martin is fond of telling the tales of former SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell, the beating heart of the 2017 Final Four team, who took on a leadership role the day he arrived on campus. There was a guy in practice screwing up the rotation, not doing what Martin needed to be done, Thornwell cut short his already-short rest-and-water period to get back on the floor and show them how they should play.
That was a four-year captaincy, although Thornwell never had a “C” on his jersey. As Martin likes, Thornwell never had to have an official ceremony to bestow that role on him.
He just took it.
Last year’s team had several voices, who filled the spot in different ways. Chris Silva and Hassani Gravett, from having been at USC a combined seven years, led by example. Tre Campbell, even as a first-year guy, was the point guard and a large part of those 11 SEC wins.
It took some trial and error, Martin even apologizing for Silva’s rough start (which played into USC’s rough start to the season) because he asked him to do too much. He couldn’t put Thornwell attitude into a player that wasn’t Thornwell; Silva didn’t duck responsibility but had to have his own way to lead.
With summer workouts already underway and the S.C. Pro-Am pickup games beckoning in three weeks, Martin’s 2019-20 team is almost intact (Tennessee Tech transfer Micaiah Henry is finishing one class before he can arrive in late July). Skills are getting tightened and chemistry is being constructed.
Leadership, Martin believes, will be evident the first day the Gamecocks show up for a full team practice.
“I think A.J. Lawson, because of his success, just the fact that he’s 18 years old now,” Martin said. “He’s more comfortable with expressing what he thinks and comfortable with who he is.”
The flashy guard who turned down the NBA for his sophomore season has been labeled by some a first-rounder in next year’s draft. He’s helping Team Canada at the under-19 World Cup right now, but he’s a guy who will undoubtedly be USC’s best player and naturally its go-to man for points and words.
“Maik Kotsar, even though he did not play as well as he, me, or anyone else wanted him to play coming down the stretch last year, Maik brings an unbelievable enthusiasm for work and toughness about him that he’s willing to take on that role,” Martin said of his only returning senior. The Gamecocks’ incumbent starting power forward fought his production last year, but his practice habits kept him in the starting lineup.
Martin also mentioned George Washington transfer Jair Bolden, a practice player last season as he sat out following his departure who was a great behind-the-scenes presence. Justin Minaya, held to five games last year after injuring his knee, has been credited in the past as a voice much more heeded than his sophomore status would suggest.
“We’ve got different guys, and that’s one thing that we got to sit back and see who’s going to take on those roles,” Martin said.
Taken, not given.