Mayo impresses with maturity, game in debut in Mexico
MAZATLAN, Mexico -- This is what we do know about O.J. Mayo: He would rather sleep away an off day than bodysurf or jump into a pool.
When USC's exhibition games were canceled Sunday in Mexico, Mayo was the only player who decided against partaking in a rare day on the beach at the conclusion of the team's 48-hour trip.
But Mayo was hardly loafing on this sojourn.
In the team's lone game of the trip, Mayo proved he is worth the hype. He exhibits as much leadership ability as any freshman (although he will turn 20 in November) who has come through during this golden age of hyped high school talents. He jump-started the Trojans -- albeit against a lower-level Mexican professional team -- with his passing, ball fakes, quick power dribble moves, 3-point shooting and ability to get to the basket with relative ease. He broke up a potential scuffle between teammate Marcus Simmons and the Caballeros' Lamont Roland.
And, make no mistake, the hype is following him wherever he goes, even in Mexico.
Mayo has been the subject of twice weekly requests for interviews of all sorts, according to USC's sports information director David Tuttle. Mayo's name was the only one on the Trojans talented roster that Caballeros players Roland (formerly of LSU) and fellow American Cedric Patton (Georgia State) knew. Passengers on Alaska Airlines Flight 210 from Los Angeles to Mazatlan wanted Mayo's autograph as they were waiting for their luggage in Mexico.
Yet, with all of this, there is no question that Mayo was polite, cordial and respectful during his two days in Mexico.
It's easy to paint Mayo in a negative light. He has been hyped since the eighth grade. He was accused of an assault, along with then-teammate Bill Walker while at North College Hill High in Cincinnati. He was suspended two games last season for his supposed chest bump of an official (but if you saw the video, you saw the referee Michael Lazo go into a full-fledged flop). The suspension was ultimately overturned by a court injunction. There was also a marijuana citation against him that was ultimately dismissed.
What has been the most misunderstood thing for Mayo?
"Where do I start? I don't know man. That's life and you learn. There's misunderstanding. Maybe get to know me and that may change," said Mayo, who has an infectious smile when he lets his guard down.
"The thing that bothered me the most was the marijuana thing because I kind of grew up in a rough neighborhood, rough area," Mayo said. "My friends chose a different lifestyle and that's just what comes with it sometimes. And now every article, you have maybe a positive article, and at the end, it says something about the marijuana thing. But nothing really happened with me. I didn't get charged. I didn't put in handcuffs, didn't go to jail, nothing happened and it still comes up. Maybe when I have the opportunity to sit in the [NBA draft] greenroom, it will probably still come up."
Mayo's handlers throughout his high school career kept him close and didn't allow many media interviews with him. USC coach Tim Floyd says that lack of access is the reason Mayo is so misunderstood.
I chose USC because I like coach Floyd a lot. He's a great coach. I think he's my kind of coach. He wants to win. He's real hungry, watching last year how he pushed the guys to another limit and pushed them towards a whole nother level. I don't think no one really expected SC to get to the Sweet 16 last year.
Floyd said when Mayo arrived on campus, he was the player who organized the workouts and knocked on his teammates' doors in the early-morning hours to make sure they made the workouts. And Floyd said he heard nothing but good things from the professors (he took two summer classes) and administrators.
The reasons Mayo chose USC -- he actually started the recruitment -- have been well-documented. Mayo's confidant Rodney Guillory, who has been dubbed a runner for agents in numerous reports in NCAA-related stories, was Mayo's connection to USC at first. One day, Guillory walked into Floyd's office and said Mayo wanted to come to USC.
Floyd said he wasn't thinking about approaching Mayo until Guillory came to his office. But Guillory said Mayo wanted to go to USC because it was in the major market of Los Angeles, he knew about the history of the athletic department and wanted to go to school that didn't have an established tradition.
"He wanted to transition to an NBA city," Floyd said. "He happened to like the weather in Los Angeles. He'd heard that they'd had more high profile athletes than any other school in America, [so it] might be able to handle him. The staff had coached in the NBA. Great academic school. Great weather. Where else would a guy want to go?"
Why not SC? That was the continuing theme throughout the weekend. Why wouldn't Mayo want to come to L.A.? He'll get plenty of exposure this season with games on multiple networks against potential Final Four teams Memphis (in New York City), UCLA (home and home) and Kansas (home).
Mayo talked about his decision to attend USC at length during an interview Sunday. He said he's likely playing basketball only until he's 35 years old, and, if that's the case, he better be well-schooled and savvy to the marketing world.
Floyd doesn't want to hear about Mayo's being perceived as a prima donna. He's earned that reputation -- warranted or not. He traveled the country as a high school star. He was courted by multiple sneaker companies that wanted him to attend their summer camps, and even had a perceived handler at major summer events. During the recruiting process, Mayo kept in touch with coaches only by calling them. He said he thought recruits should have the control in the recruiting process, not the coaches. Of course, very few players can have that kind of power.
Still, regardless of who started the recruiting and who called whom, Mayo is playing at USC.
"I chose USC because I like coach Floyd a lot," Mayo said. "He's a great coach. I think he's my kind of coach. He wants to win. He's real hungry, watching last year how he pushed the guys to another limit and pushed them towards a whole nother level. I don't think no one really expected SC to get to the Sweet 16 last year."
Floyd said that he can already tell that Mayo is better than the straight-out-of-high-school Baby Bulls, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, he had in Chicago. He said Jeff Van Gundy, who went to watch USC's practice last week, said Mayo could play in the NBA right now. Mayo would likely be playing in the league now if the NBA hadn't instituted the new rule requiring entrants to be one year out of high school.
"He's unselfish, and a great teammate," Floyd said. "It's not like he's an island walking in the gym. He's involved."
A year ago, Texas coach Rick Barnes didn't shy away from heaping on the preseason hype by saying Durant was the best freshman and best player in the country. Floyd is mimicking that stance with Mayo.
Floyd won't hesitate to throw Mayo out to the media just like Barnes didn't last season in bringing Durant to the Big 12 media day. And the USC coach is ready to proclaim Mayo the best freshman in the country. There is plenty of competition with Kevin Love at UCLA, Derrick Rose at Memphis and Eric Gordon at Indiana.
But Mayo is smart. He's shrewd. And he's ready to make his mark on college hoops this season.
"Magic Johnson," Mayo said of his reason for picking No. 32. "That's my favorite player of all time. He was just a great guy. A lot of people liked him. He's a great player. More than anything, he was a winner. I think he's remembered as a winner in a lot of different ways. That's how I want to go out."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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