South Carolina lost four players to attrition this week, as Damien Leonard, Brian Richardson, Eric Smith, and R.J. Slawson departed for opportunities elsewhere. The college game is a dirty business in many ways, and I won’t preach or defend the choices made here – the rules were followed, and when we hired Frank Martin, we knew attrition would be part of the package (at Kansas State, he lost 12 players from January 2008 until his departure in April of 2012). So here we are.
That said, it seems to me that to make sense of what will happen in the season to come, we should look back at the players we will lose. Our brief retrospective on Lakeem Jackson can be found buried in the post previewing his final game at the Colonial Life Arena, a win over Mississippi State.
So let’s take a moment to reflect on the careers of these four players, without whom the task of re-building the Gamecock program will be made all the more difficult in the near-term, as it leaves South Carolina without a point guard for large parts of the first semester, and as one of the youngest teams in the NCAA in 2013-14.
Damien Leonard joined the Gamecock program as a four-star recruit from Greenville, SC, ranked 22nd at his position and thought to be (along with Anthony Gill) a building block for future success for the Gamecocks under Darrin Horn. With Leonard’s departure, only Brenton Williams remains in Columbia from that class and coaching staff.
Scouts – and Darrin Horn – fell in love with Leonard for his shooting, but in the end, Damien Leonard just wasn’t a particularly great shooter. In 2012, he took over half of his shots from 3PA, yet made a pedestrian 32 percent from long-range. When you’re taking over a quarter of the shots available while you’re on the floor, you need to be burying them at a higher clip than that, especially 3PAs, which are less likely to be rebounded by the offense.
His inability to create opportunities from 2PA (he made 17 2PAs in both 2012 and 2013, on 59 and 49 attempts respectively) and the line (his FTRs were 10.9 and 13.7) meant that Leonard simply was not contributing much in the way of offense as a scorer, despite taking a prolific number of shots in 2012.
Unfortunately, Leonard wasn’t able to otherwise contribute on the offensive end. His assist rate of 4.8 was woeful, and his turnover rate of 17.2 percent was disappointingly high given that he operated primarily as a spot-up shooter, not someone getting to the rim and creating his own shot. He never rebounded on either end, and didn’t contribute defensively in a way that helped him stand out from his teammates.
In 2013, the Frank Martin era began in Columbia, and it seemed a poor fit for Leonard from the start, when he logged only five minutes in the Gamecocks opening win over Western Carolina. In spurts, Leonard accessed substantial minutes, including a stretch in February where he played 29 minutes at Kentucky, 38 minutes versus Tennessee, and 33 minutes against LSU. Unfortunately, his production in those games did not help Carolina to any victories, and he largely disappeared on offense in the latter two contests.
After two straight games where he earned the dubious “DNP – Coach’s Decision,” Leonard returned to the floor and the offense against Missouri, where he acquitted himself quite well, scoring 20 points in a game otherwise remembered for our complete inability to stop the Tigers inside. His decision to use more possessions continued in his final four games in a Carolina uniform, but his production only return in his last game, where he scored 7 points in 14 minutes against Mississippi State.
Overall in 2013, Leonard was unable to adapt his play to Martin’s style. He did take a higher percentage of his shots from 2PA (up to 40 percent, from 26 percent in 2012), but again did not contribute to the team in rebounding, defensively, or ball-handling. His departure should not come as a surprise, though his inability to turn his talent into production at the collegiate level represented a major miss in our recruiting, and a miss that ultimately contributed to the end of the Darrin Horn era in Columbia.
Brian Richardson came to South Carolina as a relatively lightly recruited guard from Wilson, North Carolina. His 2010 class included Bruce Ellington, Damontre Harris, and two other players who now leave with him – R.J. Slawson and Eric Smith. He carried a three-star rating from Rivals.
Richardson came into a South Carolina team replacing Devan Downey and Brandis Raley-Ross, and found minutes as a freshman backing up Ramon Galloway and Bruce Ellington as the primary guard option off the bench. He spent his first season operating primarily as a 3-point specialist, taking 122 shots from downtown and hitting them at a 34 percent clip, while also getting to the free-throw line relatively effectively for a guy shooting that many 3s (he took 44 FTAs on only 36 2PAs).
While he didn’t add much to the team in other areas, it was hoped that he could combine his relatively effective 3-point shooting with other improvements going into the 2012 season, where Carolina needed production to replace the departed Ramon Galloway. However, Richardson never got going from the field, shooting a woeful 23 percent from 3-point land on 14-60 shooting, and failing to find other ways to contribute to make up for that deficiency, including a 40 percent effort on 2PAs (15-37) and a meager 7-11 effort from the free throw line. His minutes primarily went to Damien Leonard, who failed to use them any more effectively than Richardson might have done.
In 2013, Richardson contributed effectively to the Carolina offense, though he never seemed to play the kind of defense that Frank Martin wanted to see from him. His 38 percent shooting from 3-point land, coupled with an increased ability to create and make 2PAs (while he only shot 42 percent, getting inside helped him get more foul shots and left him with better 3PA opportunities). He increased his assist rate to 12.4% while lowering his turnover rate to 16.3%, one of only two players (Brenton Williams) to finish the season with Carolina at a rate of below 20 percent. He also coupled his effective shooting (eFG of 50.2%) with frequent shooting, taking almost 26 percent of the shots available to him, which left his teammates with opportunities to be more selective in their shot taking.
On the defensive end, Richardson simply could not please Frank Martin, and his playing time oscillated wildly as the season went on. After spending most of the non-conference schedule playing approximately 20 minutes a game, he went through an odd stretch in January where his playing time increased and decreased on a game-by-game basis, posting the following minutes played in eight consecutive games: 35, 14, 2, 20, 3, 24, 3, 26. He finished the year playing a combined 11 minutes in our final four games, including a DNP in College Station, and the writing was on the wall that his time in Columbia was drawing to a close.
If you’re looking for a fond memory, I’ll always remember Richardosn throwing the team on his back against Mississippi State in Starkville (20 points) and against Tennessee in Columbia (17 points). Perhaps appropriately, both ended in losses for Carolina.
Frankly, I’m disappointed to see Richardson leave. While he and Williams fought one another for playing time, it was useful to have one another around to push themselves and give Martin options. He regularly contributed on the offensive end and I can’t see a reason he wouldn’t be able to continue doing so next season.
While Carolina clearly needed the bodies it brought in, the departure of Richardson ratchets up the pressure on Sindarius Thornwell to come in and immediately produce, as without Ellington, the only upperclassmen that plays the 1 or 2 will be Brenton Williams.
Smith joined the Gamecocks from Mullins, South Carolina, another lightly recruited guard who represented the first commitment of the Darrin Horn era in Columbia. He departs a flawed player who consistently put forth effort, but never seemed to handle the responsibilities of point guard in a way that could carry the team.
He stepped into the 2011 team as the primary back-up to Bruce Ellington, and consistently posted double-digit minutes once the team reached SEC play. Even then, Smith struggled offensively, unable to find shots for himself, and unable to make those he took (his eFG was a putrid 36.4%).
He posted an assist rate of over 20 percent in his first season, and his seven assists against Mississippi helped the Gamecocks to a 79-73 victory over the Rebels. However, much of this was undercut by a turnover rate of 26.4 percent. To be fair to Smith, that latter number was somewhat inflated because he did not end possessions with shots, and since possessions are the denominator in turnover rate, the failure to use them otherwise results in an increased TO%.
In 2012, Smith played approximately the same amount of minutes, but added shooting to his repertoire as a bona fide skill (let’s all pause a minute and appreciate two SAT words in one sentence – ChickenHoops isn’t just helping you on the math portion of that test). He increased his shot percentage to 18.6 percent and his eFG to 51 percent, which rendered him an effective piece of the Gamecock offense in a year where the offense was anything but.
He continued to shell out assists at about a 20 percent rate, but the turnover bugaboo actually regressed, as his turnover rate increased to 29 percent despite his increase in shots. His playing time steadily decreased as the season wore on and Bruce Ellington returned from the football team.
Even at the beginning of the season, Smith wasn’t trusted to run the point – he did not start at the beginning of the season despite Bruce’s absence, leaving the Gamecocks playing four forwards (Gill, Cooke, Jackson, and Harris) and Leonard, with Jackson trying to run the point. This resulted in Horn’s infamous two losses to start the season against Elon and Tennessee State, followed by a desperation four-point victory over Mississippi Valley State. God, the Darrin Horn era was depressing.
In 2013, Smith started the season as the Gamecocks’ point guard, lined up alongside LaShay Page in the Carolina backcourt. His minutes increased significantly, but his production failed to keep pace – in fact, his offensive woes increased, as his shooting regressed (an eFG of 37%, on 25% 3PA shooting and 36% 2PA shooting). While his assist rate continued to help the team – 22.1% of Carolina baskets scored by his teammates while Smith was playing were assisted by Eric – he continued to turn the ball over at a horrifying clip – 28%. On a team with few places to trust the ball, Eric Smith only contributed to the ball insecurity from his spot at point guard.
As Ellington returned (and Page departed), Smith moved over to the two guard. However, with Ellington around to eat up more possessions, his shooting steadily decreased, and he failed to post more than twelve points in a game after the second outing of the year against Morgan State. His play on offense varied, and his contributions on the defensive end simply failed to merit the playing time he received. Smith played to the exclusion of Williams and Richardson throughout most of the SEC schedule, and the Gamecock offense reflected the weaknesses he brought to that end of the court.
Smith may best be remembered for his contributions to the Gamecocks victory over Ole Miss in 2013, where he posted 12 points in 34 minutes and dished out five assists with only one turnover. That was the high point of Eric Smith’s time in Columbia, and the Gamecocks’ 2013 season. Unfortunately, both of those ended in a whimper.
Slawson arrived in Columbia by way of Fort Dorchester High School, a top 150 prospect with the expectation of anchoring the Gamecock front court.
He arrived at Carolina a 6’8″, 190 pound freshman (that’s still shocking to me) and played sparingly, averaging just over four points a game. Slawson didn’t shoot much and didn’t shoot too often (15% on %Shots) and didn’t do so terribly effectively, posting a 46.6 percent eFG. He did show an ability to contribute on the glass, however, with turnover percentages of 8.9 on offense and 16.5 on defense.
However, Slawson simply did not represent a key member of the 2011 team. He never played more than 15 minutes in a contest until late in the year, where he played 26 minutes against Tennessee in a game where Damontre Harris dealt with foul trouble and Anthony Gill did not dress. Slawson acquitted himself decently by grabbing eight rebounds (four on each side) and scoring 5 points while only turning the ball over once. He also played 21 minutes in Athens that year, but that game represented a debacle where playing time represented more the Gamecocks’ failings than anything Slawson did.
The hope in Columbia was that Slawson could rein in his turnover troubles (over 20 percent playing forward, with a measly 3.1 percent assist rate), add some weight, and improve as a player going into his sophomore season. While he did add minutes – averaging just under 20 minutes a game – he failed to add weight, which leads me to wonder just what kind of weight training program the Gamecocks used during the Darrin Horn era.
Slawson’s productivity increased proportionally with his playing time – he still didn’t shoot too often or too effectively, and still turned the ball over far more than appropriate for a forward. He did contribute effectively on the glass, with his 10.6 percent OReb% and his 17.5% DReb% placing him in the top 500 nationally in both categories. He also began to impact the defensive end, blocking 4.4% of opponents’ shots while on the court while also ending 2.7 percent of their possessions with steals, which helped Carolina to a top 50 turnover percentage defense, the only area where the 2012 team excelled defensively.
As a rebounder, Slawson seemed like he might fit in with Frank Martin, and he added 20 pounds between his sophomore and junior seasons to bulk up in anticipation of carrying a heavier playing time load, especially with the departure of Malik Cooke. However, that plan simply never took off. Slawson continued to not shoot frequently and though his offensive rebounding held steady, his defensive rebounding decreased to just over 13 percent. He continued to turn the ball over too frequently, and while he posted a respectable block percentage of 4.5 percent, he got bossed around on the interior by SEC post players, as the Gamecocks simply couldn’t answer players like Jarnell Stokes of Tennessee or Alex Oriakhi of Missouri.
Slawson had an odd habit of completing disappearing on some nights offensively, playing three SEC games where he played 8 or 9 minutes and failed to record a single used possession. Coupled with his inability to consistently defend interior post players in the SEC, he simply did not bring the type of game needed to succeed under Frank Martin (or any SEC coach, frankly – if you can’t defend in the interior, you need to bring another skill, and Slawson simply didn’t).
While Carolina will continue to hurt for a post presence next season in his absence, the departure of R.J. Slawson likely does not materially impact the outlook for the Gamecocks next season. It does ramp up the timetable for Desmond Ringer and Demetrius Henry to get on the court in Columbia.
The coaching staff clearly decided it needed to turn over the roster this offseason, and instead of holding those scholarships for future classes, went all-in on the 2013 class, bringing in seven players (along with mid-season transfer Tyrone Johnson) who will arrive at Columbia with the expectation of transforming a moribund program.
It will be interesting to see how these four players ultimately complete their collegiate eligibility. Despite whatever differences they might have had with the coaching staff, they put in countless hours of work improving their games and representing the University of South Carolina. For that, they have earned our respect and gratitude. We wish them nothing but the best going forward, and hope that they have their own Ramon Galloway and Murphy Holloway moments ahead of them.