May 23, 2024

Isaiah Collier came to USC’s campus early last spring. It was May, and most of his basketball teammates had yet to arrive. But Collier, the top-rated point guard prospect in the nation, wanted a head start on the season. He wasn’t the only one.

Boogie Ellis hadn’t planned to still be at USC as a fifth-year senior. He’d dipped his toes in the NBA draft waters after his junior season, then again last spring. In between, he’d emerged as a more complete player, a floor general who could do far more than just score. But when the time came to decide on his future, he came back for one final season, knowing he’d have a new backcourt mate.

The two talented guards were totally different players. Ellis was a natural scorer, already nipping at the heels of USC’s all-time scoring list after two seasons. Collier was a crafty distributor, a five-star prospect in the conversation to be the next No. 1 NBA draft pick. But last May, when they first started working out together, it felt right away as if the two were always destined to meet.

Now they barely spend any time apart.

“We got real tight,” Collier said.

“That’s like my best friend,” Ellis added. “We’re together all the time.”

Their backcourt chemistry could help power a special season for USC, if all goes as hoped for the Trojans. After a summer of pushing each other during early morning workouts, the guards say they’ve helped each unlock the best version of the other, a notion that should send shivers to the rest of the Pac-12 Conference.

At USC, it’s no secret that this season, which tips off Monday against Kansas State in Las Vegas, runs through the Trojans’ talented backcourt.

“Our backcourt is very dynamic with the basketball,” coach Andy Enfield said. “They can score. They can pass it.”

And they can do it all at light speed. At least, that’s the intent.

“Having two elite guards that both score and pass, being able to get downhill, we’re playing a lot faster with us two on the court,” Ellis said. “It’s like a track meet.”

Collier and Ellis won’t always play alongside each other, but when they do, no one at USC seems to have any concern about fit. With Collier playing more of a traditional point, Ellis has been able to work more off-the-ball, coming off screens for catch-and-shoot opportunities. Not to mention he’ll deal with fewer double teams.

“That’s going to take a lot of pressure off of me,” Ellis said. “It’s going to be scary [for defenses].”

Collier, meanwhile, comes to USC as the most touted point guard of Enfield’s tenure but won’t have the pressure to shoulder the scoring load that prospects of his caliber often do. He has told teammates more than once that he hopes to lead the nation in assists, rather than scoring.

USC guard Boogie Ellis drives against Arizona State forward Jamiya Neal.

USC guard Boogie Ellis, right, drives against Arizona State forward Jamiya Neal, left, during the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals in Las Vegas.

(David Becker / Associated Press)

That hasn’t stopped the freshman from working relentlessly on his jumper, which has been a relative weakness in his game. Ellis says he has seen an improvement — and jokes that it’s because he has rubbed off on Collier.

“I feel like I’ve come a long way,” Collier said of his shooting. “I work on it every day.”

Where Collier might be lacking on the perimeter, though, the freshman has proven elite in the lane. His ability to drive to the basket is unlike any USC point guard in recent memory.

“His body control, his center of gravity, you can’t teach that,” said DJ Rodman, USC’s transfer wing. “It’s really something to marvel at. I’ve never played with a player like that. Just someone who gets downhill and can get whatever he wants.”

Collier’s development is likely to determine the direction of the Trojans’ season, but Rodman could also play a key role in unlocking the offense. A versatile, 6-foot-6 puzzle piece who shot 38% from three-point range last season, Rodman said he came to USC intent on “scoring in a variety of ways”.

But most of all, he said, “I wanted to come to a winner.”

USC hasn’t won a conference title in 40 years. It has advanced past the Sweet 16 only once in 23 seasons. But a pair of best friends in USC’s backcourt have the Trojans feeling on track for both as this season starts Monday.

Asked how far Collier could help take them, Ellis chuckled.

“I just feel like y’all are gonna see how good he actually is,” he said, shaking his head.

His eyes got wide.

“You’ll see,” he said. “You’ll see.”

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