Aaron brought a basketball to the post-game news conference, an unusual prop. He said he was planning to work on his shooting, and that’s exactly what he did.
Maybe he needed it before Wednesday. It had been more than a month since Aaron made more than two field goals in a game. It had been longer since he scored 10 points or more. Once a starter, his playing time declined steadily, from 25 minutes per game during the nonconference schedule to 20 during Pac-12 Conference play.
But Aaron was a surprise against UCLA. Coming off the bench, he scored a game- and career-high 23 points. He made six of 12 shots and had no turnovers. By the end of the game, shooting guard Elijah Stewart, also shooting well, was passing up open three-pointers to find Aaron.
“I just thought he played a great game,” USC Coach Andy Enfield said.
Aaron’s breakout was a perk in one of the biggest wins during Enfield’s tenure. USC has jumped out to its best start in years, with an 18-4 record, 5-4 in Pac-12 play. It has done so without forward Bennie Boatwright, who has played in just four full games, and without Aaron finding consistency.
Now, Boatwright could return as soon as USC’s next game, against Washington on Feb. 1. And Aaron has rediscovered his shooting touch.
“He started out the year pretty well. He started a lot of games for us. Then he went on a little shooting slump,” Enfield said. “It was just a matter of time before some of the shots started falling for him.”
Aaron, who is playing his first season for the Trojans after transferring from Louisville two years ago, figured to be one of USC’s key pieces. He was expected to fill the vacancy left by point guard Julian Jacobs, one of USC’s offensive leaders, who declared for the NBA draft.
Jordan McLaughlin assumed full point guard responsibilities. Aaron needed to score. At 6 feet 7, he added much-needed length. He was a hybrid who could play guard or forward on a team with plenty of guards but little frontcourt depth.
But Aaron was languishing by the middle of the season. His performance Wednesday boosted modest totals: He is averaging 9.4 points per game and 3.8 rebounds. Freshman De’Anthony Melton supplanted him in the starting lineup. More recently, so did Jonah Mathews, another freshman.
“But he just made his mind up to start playing harder, to affect the game with his defense, his rebounding, his energy, his long arms,” Enfield said. “We try to tell our players you don’t have to score to have an impact on the game.”
Aaron said he’d always felt comfortable in Enfield’s system. “But some games, shots weren’t falling,” he said. “But I keep shooting."
He then left the news conference, ascended a flight of stairs, and shot some more.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand