How transfers can help South Carolina WBB navigate loss of generational class

Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard/Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s not exactly a secret. South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley doesn’t shy away from it. There’s outside chatter. It’s impossible to really ignore.

How will the Gamecocks replace their generational 2019 class?

Staley isn’t one for comparisons. She understands that folks will make conjectures about her squad that fell to Iowa in the Final Four this past year and the new-look Gamecocks who will take the floor this winter. She gets it. Losing players like Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Victaria Saxton and Laeticia Amehere isn’t a talent drain most program’s can survive year to year.

South Carolina also isn’t most programs.

“I don’t really like to compare any teams to any other teams because they all so fresh and new,” Staley said in late May at the SEC’s spring meetings. “I want them to make their own mark on where they fit in with our team. It’ll be different.”

Comparisons and prognostications aside, Oregon transfer Te-Hina Paopao and junior college import Sakima Walker sit near the top of USC’s list when it comes to mitigating the roster losses of a group that included three first-round picks in the 2023 WNBA Draft.

It’s not a perfect transition, but Paopao ought to slide into the back court and fill the shooting void notably vacated by Cooke. The California native is a shooter by nature. Her career 3-point percentage hovers right at 38%. She’s also coming off a season in which she converted 81 of her 191 attempts from behind the arc.

Compare that with Cooke’s numbers from last year and you can see why Staley might be excited about what Paopao brings. Cooke hit 62 of her 183 3-point attempts (35%). No other Gamecock attempted anywhere close to that many shots behind the line. Only Beal, who hit 38 of 100 3-point tries, attempted triple-digits. No one else on the roster tried more than 65 such shots.

That’s why Paopao’s addition matters. The Gamecocks didn’t so much struggle from behind the arc as they lacked options. That led to a team-wide clip of 31.5% from 3-point range — tied for the sixth-best mark in the Southeastern Conference.

On a team that had Boston in the middle to occupy attention and score 13 points per game, that’s fine. But now sans Boston (albeit with Kamilla Cardoso and Walker now in the mix up front, among others), Paopao fills a need.

“Her ability to shoot from the outside and be a playmaker — she can flat out add to some of the things that I just thought we lacked,” Staley said. “I think we are better passing team just because we have Te-hina on the team. We’re a better 3-point shooting team because we have Te-hina.

Where the void Paopao fills is perhaps obvious, it’s impossible to add Walker to the equation and not at least think about Boston. Fair or not, any prominent post player who signs with the Gamecocks over the coming years might receive that treatment.

But they’re different players, Staley noted. Walker is closer to a power forward than the true center/power forward combo Boston played in spurts. Walker will hammer the boards and create mismatches in the post, sure. That said, there’s still a progression to be made to be able to flash the versatility of what Boston brought throughout her career.

“She has some Aliyah-like qualities,” Staley said. “But what we got from Aliyah is four years of incredible basketball. It’ll take Sakima a little bit of time to make that adjustment from where she came from to where we’re trying to go.”

Make no mistake, losing Boston hurts. That will happen when a generational player departs a program. But the pieces are there to mitigate that departure, at least in spurts.

Walker provides experience and a scoring ability from her time at Northwest Florida State College, where she poured in 19.6 points and collected 8.3 rebounds per game, while shooting 66.2% in conference play. Her two years at Rutgers prior to that, too, giver her high-major experience as she links up with one of nation’s most recognizable programs.

Cardoso ought to have a bigger role this winter, as well. The one-time Syracuse import was a force off the bench for the Gamecocks in their run to the Final Four. More extended playing time and a chance to cement herself as a go-to option feel like the next steps in her progression.

That’s not to mention the Gamecocks return forward Ashlyn Watkins (No. 12 player in the 2022 class) and 6-foot-2 forward Chloe Kitts (No. 17 player in the 2023 class), both of whom were on campus this past season.

“We’re super talented. Like, we don’t lack talent at all,” Staley said. “We may lack a little bit of experience, but I think the core of players that are returning, they have played enough high level games and practices that I hope we could just hit the ground running and not feel so much of not being the team that we’ve been in the past.”

South Carolina’s path in the SEC won’t be easier in 2023-24. Defending national champion LSU returns superstar Angel Reese and adds coveted DePaul transfer Aneesah Morrow and Hailey van Lith via Louisville. Tennessee, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Ole Miss should also all be improved and/or in the mix again.

The Gamecocks have ample talent — a product of Staley and her staff’s unprecedented work on the recruiting trail over the years. The transfers are part of that. As are a young core.

But, again, this is a new team. Comparisons can be a fickle thing.