Andy Enfield followed a narrow path to a court in a small, old auxiliary gym on a local high school campus.
The newly named USC coach situated himself on a set of rickety wooden bleachers to watch Jordan McLaughlin play for a local AAU team in a tournament consolation game.
McLaughlin and his teammates wore mismatched jerseys, but the slender point guard dazzled as he spun through the lane for easy layups, threw no-look passes and made jump shots.
Enfield fixated on McLaughlin and designated him as a top-priority recruit, the first piece to building a fast-paced, high-flying team.
“Watching him play,” Enfield said Thursday after practice, “it just became apparent to all of us that this is the player that we really wanted to run our program, run the point guard position and be the leader. We kind of put all our eggs in one basket.”
McLaughlin will play his final game at Galen Center on Saturday when USC, 21-9 overall and 12-5 in the Pac-12 Conference, hosts UCLA (19-10, 10-7).
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound McLaughlin, from Etiwanda High in Rancho Cucamonga, selected the Trojans over scholarship offers from Kansas and UCLA, determined to build a hometown program that would no longer sit in the Bruins’ shadow or remain an afterthought in college basketball.
USC won 12 games in his freshman season before he led them to 68 victories in the next three seasons, the most in school history in that time frame.
“We’ve built a culture here that it’s a winning program,” McLaughlin said. “I’m very proud of that.”
McLaughlin, who averages 12.3 points and 7.6 assists a game, has helped guarantee the Trojans at least a second-place finish in the Pac-12 for the first time since 2002 and put USC is on the verge of a third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance for the first time since the Trojans reached the tournament three years in a row from 2007 to 2009.
“For our system offensively and defensively, we thought he was the perfect fit,” Enfield said. “And he’s turned out to be a perfect fit.”
McLaughlin also has helped maintain an even keel among teammates as the Trojans have endured a tumultuous season off the court.
An FBI probe into potential bribery in college basketball led to the firing of assistant coach Tony Bland and the season-long benching of De’Anthony Melton. More recently, a Yahoo Sports report linked teammates Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright to improper benefits from an agency — allegations that both players have denied.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” McLaughlin said. “But I would say there has been a lot more ups than downs.”
Through nearly four seasons, McLaughlin has averaged between 12 and 13 points a game, as his number of assists has steadily climbed from 4.5 as a freshman to 7.6 as a senior.
McLaughlin leads the Pac-12 in assist-to-turnovers, averaging 2.2 turnovers a game.
UCLA coach Steve Alford, who also recruited McLaughlin, has been impressed by his development.
“He values possessions and I think he’s just been a really good leader for their teams over the years,” Alford said. “He really stepped into that position as a freshman and you’ve seen him grow each year and I think that’s always the sign of a really good player.”
Perhaps no player has benefited more from McLaughlin’s precision passing than Metu, who averages 15.9 points — many on alley-oop dunks off lobs from McLaughlin.
“He’s one of the reasons I came here,” Metu said. “I wanted to play with a great point guard and he’s been that and a lot more.”
McLaughlin is not listed on most NBA draft boards and is considered a fringe prospect who might have to make a roster via a training camp invitation.
But Pac-12 records show that he should be considered among the best point guards in conference history. McLaughlin is only the sixth player in the Pac-12 to record more than 600 assists and 1,500 points, joining former UCLA guard Tyus Edney, Oregon State guard Gary Payton and Arizona standout Damon Stoudamire, among others.
“Right now it’s a team effort,” McLaughlin said. “When I look back when I’m done playing here, it will hopefully be something special that everyone sees that I’ve done.”
Enfield chuckled when recalling the dilapidated gym where he watched McLaughlin and envisioned him as USC’s future point guard.
McLaughlin laughed too, acknowledging how much time Enfield and his staff dedicated to securing his commitment.
Both said Saturday’s game would be bittersweet.