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USC's freshman guard quickly rises to the challenge

USC's freshman guard quickly rises to the challenge
USC freshman guard De'Anthony Melton, shown taking a shot during a game against Omaha, has averaged 10 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals per game. (Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

USC was clinging to a one-point lead at Texas A&M earlier this month when Coach Andy Enfield called on his two point guards to execute a half-court trap. Jordan McLaughlin and De’Anthony Melton converged where the half-court line met the boundary. Seeing this, the Aggies' guard turned his back to separate and get more time.

The instant the guard turned his head, Melton burst forward like a horse from the starting gate and swiped the ball from behind. He made one of two foul shots and USC stole a road upset.

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It was this type of anticipation, in just Melton's third college game, that signaled to Enfield that his young point guard may not require much an adjustment period.

"He can see things happening and then put himself in a position to get a deflection or a steal," Enfield said. "He's reacting as the play is happening. He just has an ability to get a lot of deflections."

USC had recruited Melton thinking he would sit and learn behind USC's two talented point guards, Jordan McLaughlin and Julian Jacobs. Melton said he anticipated watching them run the offense and "then next year hopefully be ready to play."

Then Jacobs was a surprise entrant in the NBA Draft, "so our plans quickly changed," Enfield said.

Melton has been one of the major reasons USC (6-0) hasn't yet experienced a significant dropoff. Coming off the bench, he has averaged 10 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals per game — best in the Pac-12. He has also averaged 24 minutes, enough to give McLaughlin rest or allow USC to run the two-point guard system it ran effectively a season ago.

"It's similar but it's not the same," Enfield said. "Julian had three years of experience and two years playing with Jordan. So they were able to play off of each other last year at a high level most of the season. This year, De'Anthony is learning."

Melton said the chemistry between the two guards was improving, but "we have to find that happy medium of who's passing first, who's ready to score."

But Melton brings other flourishes.

Enfield said that Melton has learned USC's system quickly and said he's an unusually smart player. He can defend all three guard positions and is equally strong off the ball or on.

"And he's a terrific rebounder for a guard, one of the best I've seen," Enfield said.

Melton won two straight state titles at Encino Crespi. In the title game last season, he had 24 points, 18 rebounds, four assists and two blocks. He was the leading scorer in school history.

"I can't remember a time that our staff ever saw De'Anthony play a high school or AAU game where he didn't play well and fill up the stat sheet," Enfield said. "We did not recruit him as a scorer, we recruited him as an all-around basketball player."

Vote of confidence

USC's 6-0 start is the program's best since the 2000-01 season, when it began 8-0.

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The Trojans received one point in this week's Coaches Poll, meaning one coach had USC No. 25 on his ballot. The voter was not Enfield. He is not among the pool of coaches who vote each week, though were he, USC would've had at least one more point.

"I would vote for USC," he said. "But I'm biased."

UP NEXT 

VS. SAN DIEGO

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Where: Jenny Craig Pavilion.

On the air: Radio: 830.

Update: The last time the Trojans were 6-0 to start the season, they finished 24-10 and reached the regional finals of the NCAA tournament.

Point guard Jordan McLaughlin's scoring is down almost three points per game from last season, but he is distributing the ball more effectively. He is averaging more than five assists per game. Six Trojans are averaging at least 9.7 points.

In its last contest, USC made 14 three-pointers, the most in a game since 2013, in a 96-72 win over UC Santa Barbara. Bennie Boatwright, who has found a rhythm after missing time with back spasms and a torn labrum in his hip, led USC with 21 points.

San Diego (2-4) defeated New Mexico State, 56-51, on Saturday. USC defeated the Toreros, 83-45, in last season's opener.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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