Reese Dixon-Waters was out of his depth. In any normal year, he would’ve been finishing his senior season at St. Bernard’s, leading the way as one of the state’s most dynamic scorers.
But the pandemic sank those plans. So Dixon-Waters hit fast forward on his development, graduating early, skipping his final high school season and making the leap last December to USC, where, in those first few weeks of his Trojan tenure, he could barely keep his head above water.
“When I first got here, it was definitely confusing,” Dixon-Waters said this week. “It was hard learning all the plays and gaining the trust of my coaches.”
It didn’t help he’d been thrust into a season already in progress and a backcourt loaded with experience. Dixon-Waters scored five points in his first appearance, then didn’t score the rest of the season. His slow start, considering the circumstances, was no surprise to USC’s staff which preached patience.
“To come as a high school player on an Elite Eight team with a lot of veterans, it’s an exciting opportunity, but he just wasn’t ready to contribute,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “Understandably so.”
A year later, Dixon-Waters is leaving no doubt about whether he’s ready for a role at USC. As the Trojans work to recapture their rhythm in the wake of last month’s lengthy COVID-19 layoff, the freshman has played a crucial role as a reserve in recent games, earning minutes in a rotation that’s even more experienced than it was last season.
On Monday, against Arizona State, it was Dixon-Waters who jump-started USC’s offense after a sputtering start. With the Trojans trailing by 10 and shooting less than 20% from the floor, Dixon-Waters hit one three, then another to finally get USC’s offense going. It took just over two minutes for the Trojans to overtake Arizona State from there.
Enfield points to that extra year of experience as essential in Dixon-Waters’ development this season. But it was a difficult wait for the freshman, who admits he struggled to cope in a limited role. Offense had always come naturally to him, but it took time to understand how much effort Enfield expected on the defensive end.
“Reese has done a nice job of elevating his game on the defensive end, realizing how hard he has to play and also offensively, he’s made big improvements with his decision making, his shooting,” Enfield said.
“Defense,” Dixon-Waters added, “is fun for me now.”
For Kobe Johnson, another of USC’s emerging freshmen, defense has never been a question. The Milwaukee native arrived in L.A. understanding it would be his path to early playing time.
That part was no problem. The concern was his 170-pound frame getting pushed around.
So Johnson put on 20 pounds and focused on his physicality. Over the past five games, it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Everything is starting to fall into place,” Johnson said.
As Dixon-Waters sparked the offense Monday, Johnson took care of the little things, dishing out five assists and reeling in five rebounds, while adding a block, a steal and a charge.
“He does a little bit of everything,” Enfield said. “Reese and Kobe are very good complements to our upperclassmen because they move the basketball. They’ve very good passers. They see the floor. They’re willing passers. They don’t need to dribble the ball one, two, three, four, five, six times before they make a play.”
And if their current trajectory continues, there should be plenty of plays still left to be made for the two Trojans freshmen this season.