Bennie Boatwright keeps in good touch with Chimezie Metu, his former classmate who is playing in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs. Last month, Metu was only a few miles from the USC campus at Staples Center, getting a taste of the big time while Boatwright was busy rehabilitating another knee injury.
“He said LeBron’s unreal,” Boatwright said, “so that’s cool to hear. I ask him for insight all the time, how certain guys are. … Next year I’ll be on the same path.”
As a senior with an NBA body and skill set, Boatwright is a rarity in modern college basketball. But it isn’t exactly like he planned it this way.
After a sophomore season in which he averaged a team-high 15.1 points and helped the Trojans to two wins in the NCAA tournament, the 6-foot-10 forward debated making himself available for the NBA draft but ultimately decided he could use another year to develop and be a part of a much-hyped USC team with his buddy Metu. In mid-February, though, Boatwright suffered another knee injury and sat out the season’s final nine games. He knew he would need surgery, so the NBA was no longer an option.
Boatwright is back for one more go of it at USC, and after logging three years in the program he is in one sense as much of a known commodity as can exist in the one-and-done era. But, factoring in the 30 games he has sat out the last two seasons because of injury, Boatwright remains a tantalizing unknown. The 2018-19 campaign could be his chance to finally answer the question: Just how good could he be if he stays injury-free?
“We all feel for Bennie, what he’s gone through,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “It’s been emotional for him. The biggest key for us is just to get him on the court and get comfortable with his knee and to be able to go out and play injury-free and also mentally not worry about his injury every time down the court. If he can just play stress-free, he’ll have a terrific senior season.”
Boatwright recently returned to practice but had not yet participated in full-court workouts as of Friday. Enfield considers him a game-time decision for the season opener Tuesday against Robert Morris at the Galen Center. It would be a surprise if Boatwright isn’t ready to go for the first real test of the season Sunday against Vanderbilt at the Galen Center.
Already, Boatwright says he is not toting around any mental baggage from his run of bad luck.
“Because it’s done,” Boatwright said. “You can look at Derrick Rose last night. He had 50 points. People said he’s never going to come back. He had surgeries, got waived, came back and had 50. It can be done. If I keep my confidence within myself, I can do anything.”
During the off-season, the Trojans lost program cornerstone seniors Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart, plus Metu and De’Anthony Melton, who did not play last season because of his connection to an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. While ideally Boatwright would have been sound to end last season and help push USC into the NCAA tournament, that scenario probably would have sent Boatwright packing for the NBA. His return is one of the main reasons to think that the Trojans could reach the NCAA tournament this season.
Named to the Naismith Trophy watch list, Boatwright will be joined by a solid nucleus of returners in veteran wings Jonah Matthews and Shaqquan Aaron, big man Nick Rakocevic and point guard Derryck Thornton. Much will be asked of the Trojans’ talented freshman class of point guard Elijah Weaver (who had ankle surgery and should be practicing within a few weeks), wing Kevin Porter Jr. and forward J’Raan Brooks.
Boatwright has proven that he can score, and, given his leadership position he’s thinking more unselfishly about his role this season.
“I have confidence in myself that I can get my shot off pretty much whenever I get the ball in any situation,” Boatwright said. “So getting my teammates involved is going to be big throughout the course of this season.”
“I think I’m playing at the perfect time, because shooters are at a high premium,” Boatwright said. “If you shoot the ball, you’re gonna be on the court. I feel like I’m bred for the NBA.”
Boatwright said he would like to make more than 40% of his three-point shots after making 36.4% and 34.6% the last two seasons.
Enfield is much more concerned with Boatwright’s overall impact on the game.
A big senior year would cement a local talent’s legacy as a Trojan.
“He’s already a part of the winningest three years in USC basketball history, and he has a chance to be a part of the winningest four years,” Enfield said. “That would be quite an accomplishment for a kid from Southern California, something he’ll remember for the rest of his life. He has a chance to be one of the great all-time Trojans.”