Brian Dutcher’s instilling confidence in USC transfer Reese Waters

Graphic on the left (credit: X @USC_Hoops) Photo on the right (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Reese Waters shot over 50% from inside three a year ago. (Credit: John McGillen/USC Athletics)

Reese Waters has never lacked confidence.

A top-five recruit in California in the class of 2020, Waters has carried with him the high expectations that society places on all prodigies. Blessed with great height (6-foot-6), length (near 7-foot wingspan), and size (212 lbs), most predict an NBA career in his future.

Bearing the weight of great potential gracefully, Waters has thrived. He chose USC out of high school, with SDSU a close second. He improved each season with the Trojans, moving from a role player to a centerpiece. Waters earned Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year a year ago.

“I’m a scorer that can also facilitate,” Waters said on Episode 92 of The SDSU Podcast when asked to describe his game. “I like to get my teammates involved a lot. That’s how I grew up playing the game. That’s how I was taught to play the game. But I also am starting to really enjoy defense. Not saying I didn’t play it (before), but it’s a different style of defense (at SDSU).”

Taking extra classes as a freshman in high school allowed him to enroll early at USC. He graduated on December 9, 2020, and played his first game with the Trojans 20 days later. With two years of eligibility remaining, but in his fourth year of college basketball, Waters’ experience matches his skill. He is poised for a breakout season with the Aztecs.

Speaking with Waters, his belief in his game is apparent. He possesses confidence commensurate with his ability. But, when the ultimate goal is to compete with Kawhi Leonard and Lebron James, there is always room for growth.

Enter SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher.

“It’s been a pretty cool experience,” Waters said about playing under coach Dutcher. “Just to see the confidence that he has in every player and how much confidence he has in me, it’s pretty eye-opening. It’s kind of crazy how much confidence he has in me.”

Brian Dutcher laughs with the media after the team returned home following the Elite Eight. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Among college basketball coaches, Dutcher is uniquely qualified to instill confidence in his players. One of the architects of the Fab Five, Dutcher, helped guide a squad led by true freshmen to believe in themselves in the face of a worldwide storm of naysayers. Along with Steve Fisher, he was one of two people anywhere to see the vast potential of Aztec basketball. For nearly 25 years, he has shared his vision of SDSU with recruits, giving them the confidence to build the program with him.

Last year, Dutcher experienced the culmination of what he always believed would take place for the Aztecs. If anything, SDSU’s Final Four run came later than its head coach anticipated.

In the admirable way he carries himself, delegates to his assistants, teaches defense at a professional level, and gives freedom to his players on the offensive end, Dutcher has built a one-of-a-kind program at SDSU. He had the confidence to do so without the authority his resume now possesses.

Waters said Dutcher communicates his confidence by how hard his head coach is on him on the defensive end. When Waters misses an off-ball rotation or one of the many subtleties SDSU’s staff demands their players master, Dutcher flatly tells him that he won’t see the court unless he improves.

Tough love is exactly what top competitors like Waters covet. Dutcher’s conviction is that Waters can be an elite defender, or he would not coach him so hard.

Offensively, Dutcher is unswayed by Waters’ missed shots. He believes the next one will go in. Scoring is hard enough without the added pressure of playing time hinging on shooting percentages. With Dutcher’s support, Waters is freed to allow the skill he’s honed his whole life to take over.

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Dutcher’s message resonates because he is not just regurgitating techniques he learned in a coaching clinic or read in a book. From the way Dutcher greets him every day to the small talk on the side of the court, Waters is appreciated and known as an individual.

“(Coach Dutcher) wants the best for everybody,” Waters explained. “He’s not going to lie to you. There is no scam to get you here. It’s very real and authentic. And the way he is, he’s not going to portray a picture and then act a certain type of way. He’s exactly who people say that he is. His reputation speaks for itself.”

Last April, Waters’ opinion of Dutcher and the program solidified as Matt Bradley gave his departing thoughts to the 2022-2023 season at the Final Four. He pointed to Bradley’s emotional speech as the reason he chose SDSU over UCLA and Texas.

Building a new identity

Three seasons ago, Malachi Flynn showed the immediate impact a transfer can have on the program. Flynn’s excellence raised the expectations for subsequent transfers.

None that followed, however, adjusted to SDSU as quickly. It took the better part of an entire season for Bradley, Jaedon LeDee, Micah Parrish, and Darrion Trammel to acclimate.

Reese Waters’ three-point percentage dropped last year due to an injury, but is expected to rebound with the Aztecs. (Credit: John McGillen/USC Athletics)

Predicting how soon Waters and fellow transfer Jay Pal will gel with their teammates is challenging, but this year’s Aztecs resemble Flynn’s team more than the past two seasons in one key area. Heading into the offseason, the identity of the 2023-2024 Aztecs is unknown.

When Flynn and Wetzell entered the lineup, SDSU lost three players who accounted for 53% of the team’s minutes the previous year. This season, Waters and Pal became Aztecs as the team is replacing 52% of its minutes from the Final Four run.

Contrast that with the seasons in between, and hope that this year’s transfers will acclimate faster comes into focus.

In Bradley’s first year on the Mesa, 60% of the minutes from the 2020-2021 squad returned. As an incoming player, Bradley had to learn how to play with teammates who already had established roles with the Aztecs. Last season, SDSU only had to replace 33% of the minutes it lost from 2021-2022. This forced LeDee, Trammell, and Parish to adjust their games for the good of the whole.

“It’s definitely interesting because I’ve never been a part of transferring or moving from one team to another where I’ve got to adapt, especially in … college basketball,” Waters said. “This isn’t easy. We have really good players, and everyone’s committed … it’s cool to see that we’re building, and slowly but surely, we are progressing, getting better offensively. And then, defensively, we’re trying to perfect that because obviously that’s the mantra here, and that’s what everyone knows San Diego State for.”

Aside from the roster composition before their first seasons on the court at SDSU, Flynn and Waters share another trait. They are both first-round NBA talents.

Flynn actualized his potential in a magical season that ended too soon.

Waters’ journey is just beginning.

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