• Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

Bronny James, the high hopes and the many lows of USC Trojans’ basketball season


Jan 19, 2024 #Sports


TUCSON, Ariz. — Andy Enfield, back in May, marveled at all he achieved as he prepared to coach a USC Trojans team led by top NBA prospect Isaiah Collier, Bronny James and a fleet of returning veterans during the 2023-24 season.

That day, Enfield stood on the back deck of his home, tucked into a luxurious stretch near Manhattan Beach, and looked toward the Pacific Ocean. Then, he paused and took a deep breath.

“Yeah, it’s beautiful out here,” he told ESPN.

The man who spent his greatest coaching years at Florida Gulf Coast (2011-2013) and now lives oceanside in Southern California has certainly picked the right locations in his career. And, in that moment, he seemed to recognize the fortuitous path he’d taken to reach that point. Entering the 2023-24 season, it appeared, his team had the tools to make a run at the Pac-12 title.

Then it all fell apart.

With his team spiraling after its 82-67 loss at No. 12 Arizona Wildcats on Thursday — USC’s fifth loss in its past seven games — Enfield searched for answers. Three of his starters — Boogie Ellis, Joshua Morgan and Collier — have missed significant time with injuries. And the scrutiny around James, who finished with 11 points and six assists in the loss, has only intensified the responsibilities of his job.

“We’ve had some highs and some lows during this season, just over halfway through the season,” Enfield said.

Enfield said he’s never experienced anything like this current season in his coaching career.

James suffered cardiac arrest during a team workout in July, jeopardizing more than just his basketball future, a year after Vincent Iwuchukwu had also suffered cardiac arrest during a Trojans team workout.

With his team shorthanded at the start of this season, Enfield had to modify practices because James and others were unable to participate. Ellis, Kobe Johnson and DJ Rodman had all wrestled with injuries in November. Iwuchukwu had also missed significant time with a back issue. Two months later, the injury bug is back for USC (8-10, 2-5 in Pac-12), a team that’s gone from fighting to achieve its NCAA tournament dreams to battling to avoid a finish at the bottom of the Pac-12 standings.

“Our practices were pretty tough because we only had seven guys that were healthy [in November],” Enfield said. “I really give our team a ton of credit. They have a tremendous attitude. They practice hard every day. For the most part, we’ve played hard in our games.”

The team’s struggles have been magnified by the spotlight around James, the son of NBA legend LeBron James, who is averaging 7.0 PPG and connecting on 28% of his shots from beyond the arc.

Enfield said he’s not worried about the freshman’s development. He said his critics have not acknowledged that James, who played in just his 10th collegiate game, missed all of the preseason buildup to prepare for his first year of college basketball.

“Players go through stretches during seasons where they shoot a very high percentage and sometimes, it goes the other way where they struggle for a few games,” Enfield said about James. “That’s true for all players and all sports as well. Everybody has their highs and lows throughout the season. He’s improved a lot. But he’s only been playing for a month. He works very hard and he’s had really good practices.”

On Wednesday, Arizona fans booed James when he touched the ball. His father told reporters recently that his eldest son could play with an NBA team right now. But James has shown a lack of assertiveness, at times, and an inconsistent offensive rhythm. Those hurdles aren’t abnormal for a freshman. For the son of one of the greatest players of all time, however, it has brought more attention to both James and his teammates. Enfield said, however, that James has handled his first season of college basketball with class and maturity.

“He’s a typical freshman, where there’s a lot of improvement and development that has to be done,” Enfield said. “He’s done a great job of trying to become a better player and he has become a better player. As we go through the season, we expect him to keep being productive and help us.”

While challenges and injuries have complicated USC’s season, Enfield said he told his team that it can’t focus on the obstacles. Yes, the team’s issues are real but they’re also not excuses, Enfield said he told his players.

“At this level, we don’t make excuses,” Enfield said. “We have to go out and compete. Whoever is on our roster, whoever is healthy has to go and play as hard as they can. We’re not looking for sympathy and all that stuff about having guys out because no one really cares. That’s what we tell them.”

Six months ago, Enfield — who has five NCAA tournament appearances at USC — prepared for one of the most promising seasons of his coaching career. He could have never imagined his team would be in its current situation.

Beyond the losses and injuries, he’s also a coach who has endured two near-death experiences with members of his team over the past year. The weight of it all, he admits, is something he casts aside. There are other things that demand his attention, he said.

“This position, sometimes you just forget about yourself,” Enfield said of the stressors of the season. “It’s all about other people. You have your players and your coaching staff that you care about. Then, you have your own family at home and everybody else, all the stakeholders around campus.”

“Sometimes, you wake up and you’re not feeling the best or you’re a little stressed,” he said. “Sometimes, you just need to take a deep breath and relax and go get a workout in and get away from it all, as best you can, for an hour or two because there is not much time in a day that goes by where you’re not being pulled in some direction.”

USC plays at Arizona State at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday.


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