Editor’s note: This article will appear in the upcoming January Spurs & Feathers magazine. To subscribe to our monthly publication, click here.
By Josh Hyber/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
More than any other moments during non-conference play, Colonial Life Arena crowds became the most excited — and had the most anticipated excitement — whenever Keyshawn Bryant swiped a steal and had nothing but daylight between him and the basket.
Sometimes it was from the 3-point line. Sometimes half-court. But wherever it was from, there was an audible gasp and a you-better-watch-this anticipation.
“The only thing going through my head [during those moments] is to get the basket. But you know me, I like to put on a show,” Bryant, the South Carolina freshman forward, told Spurs & Feathers.
“Every time I’m on the break, it’s just my moment. It’s time to bring the crowd out.”
Bryant, through South Carolina’s non-conference play, was fourth on the team in scoring, third in assists and blocks and tied for fifth in rebounding. Entering Tuesday night’s game against Mississippi State, the 6-6, 175-pound wing is averaging 9.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and multiple highlight-reel plays per game.
Some, though, have labeled Bryant an “athlete,” a term in basketball circles that underscores the fundamental talent and skill a player has.
“I won’t say it’s a negative, but I don’t see myself as just an athlete,” he said. “I feel I have more things that I can do. But people label me as just an athlete, so they really don’t get to see that.
“When they see me doing more stuff than just dunking, they’ll be surprised what I can do.”
Those electrifying dunks, after all, would not be possible if not for Bryant’s ability to read offenses and to know when to jump passing lanes.
“He’s got what I call basketball instincts. Like he knows, he can feel a pass. He kind of knows how to get out in the open court and go get a basket,” Gamecock head coach Frank Martin said. “You know, there are some guys that are faster than him and never get a breakaway.
“But yet he’s got that knack for that breakaway. He’s got those instincts.”
Those instincts, Bryant said, formed during his high school career, and it’s those instincts that have led to the SportsCenter Top 10-worthy dunks. Dunking ability, he noted, that has not been put on full display yet.
“I’ve definitely got a little left,” he said. “I’m holding back a few things. I won’t try them in the games, but I think there’s a few things coming that you’ll be surprised with.”
Entering this season, Bryant was billed as high-energy and high-flying player — a cross between young versions of Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett and someone who shares his surname, Kobe Bryant.
“He tries to dunk on me every single practice,” Chris Silva, the team’s resident high-flier, said in October. “He’s incredible the way he gets up and how quick he gets up.”
Martin, too, praised the freshman, who averaged 22.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.6 blocks as a high school senior. “Key is a dynamic player,” Martin said. “High-flyer. Athletic. Shoots it, but has to learn how to trust his shot.”
Bryant has been as advertised.
The freshman awoke a late-arriving crowd with an emphatic left-handed slam on a drive down the left side of the lane less than five minutes into the season opener. He finished his debut with 21 points and seven rebounds and gave the home crowd an energy boost.
“The big talk coming in was, ‘What would Chris Silva do?’ Well, he got a double-double. But all the talk after tonight will be about what Keyshawn Bryant did,” SEC Network play-by-play man Burch Antley said on the television broadcast after the game.
Gamecock legend and color analyst Alex English followed suit.
“I’ve said from the beginning. I’m excited about this young man,” he said. “He’s very athletic, has a lot of skill and knows how to get to the rim and finish.
“… When he got to the rim, he wanted to finish. He didn’t care if there were two guys there. He went up strong.”
But Bryant wants to be known as more than a dunker. He has focused on practicing his 3-point shot and mid-range game.
Against Florida, who he grew up rooting for as a Winter Haven, Fla. native, Bryant scored two points and turned the ball over seven times in the first half. But he didn’t want to play that way in front of the 40 or so family members who made the 130-mile trek north from his hometown.
He finished with eight points, including six in the second half that came as part of a game-tying 9-0 run.
“I tell you what I learned from him today,” Martin said after the game. “He can take coaching. Because I was on him pretty hard and he never hung his head and was always ready to go. When I called his number, he responded.”
After the season-opener, Martin gave a foreshadowing of the rest of this season and Bryant’s career.
“He’s got a knack to score. Which, some guys can jump and dunk, but they have no feel how to score. He’s got a feel to score,” the coach said. “He’s not a great shooter, but he’s not a bad shooter. He actually makes 3s in practice.
“... I’m telling you, he’s going to be fun.”
And the freshman has goals.
Said Bryant, “Finish the season off right, get an SEC championship, get to that March Madness tournament and get the [win].”