Davis went further, saying he at once loved and hated to watch him play, the former because he appreciated Usher’s effort, and the latter because it was coming at his team’s expense.
“He competes on both ends of the floor, and he never takes a play off,” said Davis, nine years an assistant to coach Roy Williams before succeeding him this season. “He’s always playing as hard as he can and, just the way he plays, just seems like he just loves to compete and he loves basketball. Even though it’s very tough to play against him, it’s really nice to be able to see that out on the floor, and I think he’s an unbelievable player.”
Usher’s move from forward to center was precipitated by center Rodney Howard’s ankle injury sustained against Georgia State on Dec. 21. Howard practiced full speed Monday, and Pastner was hopeful that, if he practiced pain-free Tuesday, he would be able to return to action for the Jackets’ home game Wednesday against Wake Forest. And while Usher hasn’t been especially keen on defending players taller and bigger than he is, the role has shined a light on his versatility and skill, along with the effort and competitiveness that caught Davis’ notice, even as the Jackets have lost eight of their past 10 games, two to the Tar Heels.
Even a slice of Saturday’s game, an 88-65 loss to the Tar Heels, gave an indicative sample. At about the 15:25 mark of the first half, Usher was guarding 6-foot-10 forward Armando Bacot – a consequence of the Jackets going small is Usher guarding the opposition’s post players – when Bacot received a pass down low.
Bacot had inside position as well as three inches and 20 pounds on Usher, but Usher surrendered nothing. With guard Tristan Maxwell double-teaming, Usher stripped the ball out of Bacot’s hands from behind and went to the floor to recover it for a steal and start a fast break. Despite having to get up off the floor and being the second-to-last player up the floor, Usher hustled to be in position for the rebound when guard Michael Devoe’s reverse layup missed.
On the next trip on defense, Usher switched onto Tar Heels guard Caleb Love, who had an angle on Usher from the left wing and tried to drive to the basket, but Usher’s lateral quickness enabled him to cut off his path, and Love passed to the opposite corner. When a 3-point shot by R.J. Davis air-balled, Usher was under the basket for the rebound.
On Tech’s ensuing possession, Usher, on the right wing in his role as the point center, first screened Davis to get guard Deivon Smith open to receive a pass and then screened him again (possibly illegally) to get Smith open for a successful jump shot from the elbow.
On the next Tar Heels possession, he was switched onto Davis, who tried to take Usher baseline, but Usher’s positioning helped force a turnover on an attempted bounce pass to Bacot. After the steal, Smith led the break for the Jackets and found Usher trailing. He launched a 3-pointer from perhaps three feet beyond the arc that rattled home.
In about 90 seconds of game time, Usher provided three points, a defensive rebound and a steal along with contributing to a second Tar Heels turnover, setting two screens for a basket and hustling to get in position for a put-back.
It’s no surprise, then, that Usher has accumulated one of the more impressive stat lines in the ACC, averaging 15.3 points (14th in the ACC going into Tuesday’s games) and 7.2 rebounds (ninth) while shooting 48.2% from the field (12th). In the ACC, as of Monday, he was one of five players to be averaging at least 15 points, six rebounds and two assists per game, according to sports-reference.com, and one of 14 at a power-conference school.
His 3-point shooting percentage is a healthy 36.2%, well above the 20.5% he shot in 2019-20, his first season with the Jackets after transferring from USC.
“I like the passion, the way he loves to play the game,” Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes said. “He’s a hard matchup because he’s not undersized, but he’s a guy that’s 6-7, got some great skill, can pass it, can dribble it, keep the ball in his hands. He shoots a nice little fadeaway. Team player, competitor, wants to win. There’s a lot of things about him that I like.”
His play is animated with unmistakable passion and joy for the game and his team. His rim-shaking dunk in the final minutes of last year’s ACC Championship game win over Florida State was one of the high moments of the Jackets’ season.
“We get to play basketball,” Usher said last week after the team’s win at Boston College. “We get to play basketball and have fun. And if you’re not excited to play, you shouldn’t be here.”