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Another USC starter is gone after Nikola Jovanovic stays in NBA draft

Nikola Jovanovic
USC’s Nikola Jovanovic looks for a shot while UCLA’s Tony Parker defends.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

At one time, it seemed probable that the USC basketball team would return all five starters after its best season in years. Then came this off-season, which has been close to a worst-case scenario for Coach Andy Enfield and the Trojans.

Forward Nikola Jovanovic, who started all 34 games last season, announced Wednesday that he will keep his name in the NBA draft, forgoing his final season of college eligibility. Jovanovic is the second starter to leave for the draft, joining point guard Julian Jacobs, and the sixth to leave early overall.

“Playing in the NBA has been my dream, and I couldn’t be more excited to have the opportunity to start my professional career,” Jovanovic posted on his Instagram account. “I’m so blessed and thankful for the past 3 years that I have spent at USC.”

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In addition to Jovanovic and Jacobs, USC also has lost four players to transfers. Guard Katin Reinhardt, who started 18 games (though he often served as the sixth man late in the season), transferred to Marquette. Forward Darion Clark, one of the team’s best rebounders, graduated and will not play his final season at USC. Forward Malik Martin and guard Malik Marquetti also transferred.

Even in an era of frequent transfers and high attrition to the draft, USC’s losses are unusual. The university still has a talented roster, but its outlook for next season has dimmed with the departures.

Forward Chimezie Metu, who showed promise as a raw but fearsome athlete as a freshman, will likely take over much of Jovanovic’s minutes. Forward Bennie Boatwright, coming off an impressive freshman season, will take on more responsibility.

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In the backcourt, point guard Jordan McLaughlin will return as a team leader. Guards Elijah Stewart and Shaqquan Aaron, a transfer from Louisville who sat out last season, should round out the top five.

But in Jovanovic, USC loses its leading rebounder and most skilled option inside. And Jacobs was an experienced and emotional leader, besides being an explosive athlete who paced the offense with McLaughlin.

Depth could be an issue for the Trojans. Aside from the five starters, USC’s only other scholarship players are four freshmen. Guard De’Anthony Melton’s defense can play immediately, and shooting guard Jonah Mathews was rated the No. 1 shooting guard in the West by Scout.com

At forward, Harrison Henderson has potential but could use more seasoning. Anticipating depth issues in the frontcourt, USC made a late addition to the class in Nick Rakocevic, a 6-10 forward from Illinois.

Neither Jovanovic nor Jacobs received an invite to the NBA draft combine earlier this month, an indicator that neither is likely to be taken early on, if at all. Last year, five players not invited to the combine were selected in the draft’s two rounds.

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zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow on Twitter @zhelfand


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