"It would be nice if I could come in and help."
Daniel Hackett was only halfway kidding when he first made that remark. Coach Tim Floyd wasn't so sure.
Sitting in the USC basketball office last spring, the high school junior and his future college coach laughed somewhat awkwardly at the thought.
The Trojans could certainly use the help -- their starting point guard, Ryan Francis, had just been fatally shot -- but Floyd wasn't about to ask a star recruit to forgo his senior year of high school and everything it entailed.
"I said, 'You'll be here before you know it,' " Floyd recalled. "And he said, 'No, Coach, I'm serious, I want to try to graduate this summer.' "
Thus began a series of 14- and 16-hour workdays for Hackett involving the same monotonous routine:
* Wake up.
* Hit the weight room and the gym.
* Study some more.
Basketball took a backseat to books in this new world order. Hackett had to cancel a trip to the prestigious ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., and could squeeze in only one practice a week with his summer traveling team, the Southern California All-Stars.
He took four courses -- English, government, economics and math -- online and at a junior college, telling himself that the challenge would eventually pay off.
Consider last Saturday the first payday.
Hackett sparked USC to an electric comeback victory over George Washington in the Wooden Classic, scoring all of his career-high 18 points in the second half as the Trojans overcame a 20-point deficit in the final 18 minutes of a 74-65 triumph at the Honda Center.
"It wasn't about me," the freshman point guard insisted afterward. "I stepped up, but I just had to do what I had to do. The rest of the team did the same. It was about everybody."
Perhaps, but USC certainly wouldn't be 6-2 heading into a game tonight against Bethune-Cookman at the Galen Center without Hackett, who became even more invaluable when junior guard Gabe Pruitt was declared academically ineligible for the first semester, leaving the Trojans without an experienced ballhandler.
Hackett, who has started every game, has been steady running the point, a position he had never played exclusively before this season. His ballhandling statistics aren't exceptional -- he has 26 turnovers and 25 assists -- but considering he's still 18 and once expected to play a schedule that included Santa Ana Mater Dei High instead of Kansas, he's doing just fine.
"There's things I still have to work on, like handling the ball," said Hackett, who is averaging seven points and 3.3 rebounds in 27.9 minutes a game. "Coach wants me to go out there and create, and I'm going to make mistakes because handling the ball so much you're not going to be perfect every time. But there's time to work on it."
If there's one aspect of Hackett's game that doesn't need work, it's making free throws. He converted all 11 attempts against George Washington and is shooting 90% from the line.
The fiery Hackett has displayed the leadership of a veteran, calling together the Trojans during lulls in the action and offering encouragement to older teammates.
"He's been handling it pretty well," Pruitt said. "It's a good sign for us."
At 6 feet 5 and 205 pounds, Hackett's biggest challenge continues to be defending the small, quick guards that Floyd constantly refers to as "jets." South Carolina's Tre' Kelly, a 6-1 whirlwind, victimized Hackett in the Trojans' opener by continually driving past him for baskets.
"That's going to be very difficult for him all year long, and it has more to do with 6-5 guarding 5-11 than anything else," Floyd said.
Adapting to change has been a recent theme for Hackett, who spent most of an idyllic childhood in Pesaro, Italy, along the Adriatic Sea and still speaks with a thick Italian accent. His father, Rudy, was a professional player and coach in Italy who had been a standout forward on Syracuse's 1975 Final Four team.
Rather than follow the European model in which many players skip college to focus on their professional careers, Rudy thought his son would benefit from the college experience. So he moved back to the United States three years ago and Daniel enrolled at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower.
Rudy served as an assistant coach and dean of discipline at St. John Bosco until Floyd hired him as the Trojans' strength and conditioning manager before last season. When Daniel wanted to join his father at USC a year ahead of schedule, he didn't have to seek permission.
"I never really had any reservations," the elder Hackett said. "I thought he could come in and help us out."
Hackett considered all the things he would miss by skipping his senior year of high school -- time with friends, the prom, the chance to be a McDonald's All-American -- and decided to push ahead.
"It was some sad times, but I just kept telling myself that I had to do it and that it's going to be better times," he said. "Now I'm here and we played at Kansas on national TV. That's a big chance that I have right there to take the next step."
Not everyone agreed with Hackett's decision. Some of his former high school classmates thought it was selfish to walk out on friends on the eve of his senior year.
But those closest to Hackett realized he was just trying to help his new school. And he has won a new set of admirers along the way.
"It makes him different," Floyd said. "It makes him goal-oriented, it makes him driven, it makes him probably a little more mature than most people are at that age. He's a self-starter and a bright guy."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The game-by-game performance of Daniel Hackett, USC's 18-year-old freshman guard:
*--* Opponent MP TP A Rb TO South Carolina 32 13 3 7 3 St. Mary's 26 0 2 1 2 The Citadel 23 4 2 6 4 Long Beach State 23 1 6 4 2 Miss. Valley State 27 4 2 2 2 Loyola Marymount 24 7 3 1 5 Kansas 35 9 3 2 5 George Washington 33 18 4 4 3