USC forward Darion Clark isn't cleared for contact quite yet. He had surgery on his labrum and a rotator cuff back in January. Right now, he's just trying to get back to where he was before the surgery.
"Right now, I'm just trying to get it stronger and get my full range of motion back," Clark said. "I had surgery back in January and my recovery was six months. I'll be ready to go full force in August. So right now I'm doing individual stuff with no contact."
The 6-foot-7 redshirt sophomore might be two months away from getting physical in the paint again. But as he watches practice in their temporary home at the Physical Education building, Clark almost feels strong enough now.
"I feel like I'm almost there," Clark said. "I haven't had any pain in a while, just a little soreness from rehab. For the most part, I feel much better than I did before."
But when the team gets together for a live scrimmage, Clark spends his time watching and waiting for his chance to make an impact.
He's gotten used to that. After transferring from Charlotte, he watched the Trojans win just 11 games. Things could have gone much differently for that team if they had an athletic big man in the paint. Clark feels like they could have used his leadership as well.
"Watching from the sideline last year, I knew I could step into a leadership role right away," Clark said. "Leadership is very important to a team and I feel like I've been enough places and I've had enough experience to take on that role. There's a lot of stuff I have to learn as a player and as a leader but I can roll with the punches and learn it as I go."
Clark has been one of the players leading the way to organize team workouts.
"I've been organizing some gym workouts and trying to get guys to work around our schedules," Clark said. "A lot of our schedules conflict with one another."
With the NCAA's restrictions on required practices, the voluntary workouts are key to retaining what the coaches are teaching and the coaches expect these kids to retain quite a bit.
The Trojans have just started their summer workouts and there's quite a bit to cover. The coaches have isolated some problem areas and are working on them quite a bit.
"We've done a couple of team workouts and this week it's been more individual as far as positions," Clark said. "In the team workouts, we've been focusing on the basics of the offense like pick and roll and shooting. We've also working on rip through moves from the wing and finishing at the rim. We struggled with that last year. As far as individuals, the bigs have been working on hook shots and doing different moves in the post. But we're primarily working at finishing around the rim."
There's already been improvement in those problem areas.
"I think we've definitely gotten a lot better," Clark said. "We understand some different techniques now and different ways of doing stuff. We're focusing more on the task at hand and what we're doing. We have a different focus than last year."
That's a little surprising. Many people expect this team to be better, but probably not the team that's currently practicing. Jordan McLaughlin is out recovering from a surgery similar to Clark's. Elijah Stewart and Malik Marquetti aren't even on campus yet.
The team on the floor is basically last year's team (minus transfers and graduates), plus Katin Reinhardt and Malik Price-Martin.
But there's a big difference between this team and last year's team that has nothing to do with talent.
"Our work ethic has improved," Clark said. "We had a lot of talent last year and we have a lot of talent this year. The difference is that the guys this year want to learn. We're all young, were eager to get better and we want to win. That's the bottom line. Watching our team last year, I questioned whether we wanted to win or not. At times we just didn't play hard. For the most part, we have guys that are going to work hard everyday to get better."
If this team wants to win, Clark thinks they can compete this season.
"We can definitely be competitive," Clark said. "We have a lot of talent, we're just young. There's a lot of stuff young guys don't understand. When I came into Charlotte as a freshman there was a lot of stuff I didn't understand that once I got some experience, made sense to me. As far as talent, I don't think it'll be a problem. It's just understanding the game, thinking about the game and being college players rather than being high school superstars. It's another level but I think we'll be able to compete."
The type of talent of this team has Clark dreaming of big things.
"As far as the team, we're young and talented but we have to work hard," Clark said. "I don't think it'll be a problem with this team. We all have goals we're trying to reach whether individually or together. We want to be better and leave our mark on USC basketball. I think we have a chance because it's been a while since they've been really good. With the recruiting class, which I think is the best since '07, and coach (Andy) Enfield' system, it's exciting to think about this season. There's a big opportunity for us, we just have to take advantage."
While he hasn't gotten to see to much of the new freshmen, he's impressed so far.
"I've watched video of the new guys," Clark said. "Malik (Price-Martin) and I work out all the time and I know that Jordan (McLaughlin) is really good. As far as I know, they're very talented. And if they're here, they have to be. The Pac-12 is not an an easy conference to play in and all the schools that were recruiting them are good schools."
He just hopes it isn't another year of wasted talent, like last season was.
"It's definitely a positive thing but at the end of the day, it's a recruiting class," Clark said. "No disrespect to any recruiting classes and if you do look, it seems like good classes correlate to how teams perform but we still have to work hard. We had a lot of talent and players last year but we didn't work hard. Our record reflected that. I'm excited about our recruiting class, it's a positive for 'SC basketball but at the same time, we have a lot of work to be done."