Meet Jordan McLaughlin, the Heart of USC Basketball’s Turnaround

The highly sought-after recruit saw potential in the Trojans when few others did.

February 28, 2018 Mike Piellucci

For the last three years, Jordan McLaughlin started the school year with a pair of lists. He wrote one; his father penned the other. Together, they comprised the goals that USC’s 6-foot-1 point guard would carry into the upcoming season.

This year, however, McLaughlin decided to forgo writing his half— his father’s was lofty enough to leave no stone unturned. Among the benchmarks: First Team All-Pac-12. Pac-12 All-Defensive Team. Multiple triple-doubles. Lead the conference in assists. Lead the nation in assists.

“He gave me some good goals and some stretch goals to push myself to that limit,” says McLaughlin, a team co-captain.

Some of those seem implausible, but McLaughlin’s legacy at USC is marked by a drive to achieve what conventional wisdom says cannot be done. It’s how he wound up at Troy in the first place.

Raised in Rancho Cucamonga, California, McLaughlin committed to USC just prior to the arrival of head coach Andy Enfield. It did not deter him that the Trojans had won only 20 games over the past two years combined. Nor did he waver when the Trojans finished the 2014 campaign dead last in the Pac-12.

McLaughlin has become the team’s heartbeat, its steadfast leader. He’s the one who shows up early and stays late.

“I believed in the coaches’ vision,” McLaughlin says matter-of-factly.

And he was not the only recruit to do so that year. His backcourt-mate Elijah Stewart joined up that spring, along with since-transferred forwards Malik Marquetti and Malik Martin. Each one was highly regarded. But McLaughlin was something else entirely: a top point guard on the West Coast with offers from storied basketball stalwarts including Kansas, Indiana and UCLA.

“Those are the guys that change your program around,” says Jason Hart, the team’s assistant coach.

The prospect of someone of McLaughlin’s caliber signing on at the program’s nadir was so significant that the late Bill Sharman ’63, a legendary shooting guard for the Trojans and Boston Celtics, volunteered to un-retire his No. 11 jersey as an extra inducement.

And gradually, changes started—though it was slow going at first. Despite his heralded arrival for the 2014-2015 season, the Trojans only improved their record by one game. That offseason, McLaughlin underwent surgery on both shoulders. There were murmurs that, after back-to-back finishes in the Pac-12 basement, perhaps the Trojans were going backward instead of forward.

Yet the point guard never lost faith. He notes that out of the Trojans’ 20 losses during his freshman year, seven were decided by two possessions or fewer. Once again, he saw what others didn’t.

“I tell everybody, ‘When you look at it, we weren’t getting blown out,’” McLaughlin says. “We learned from it. That’s what we’re supposed to do, learn from mistakes and learn from losses and turn them into wins.”

The next season, USC vaulted to 21-13 and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. Last year, the Trojans took an even bigger step, posting 26 wins—a program record— and advancing to the second round of the tournament for the first time since 2009.

Knowing that he was here influenced my decision to come here. …He started it all.

Bennie Boatwright, junior forward

McLaughlin has become the team’s heartbeat, its steadfast leader. He’s the one who shows up early and stays late. The one who never complains about extra work. The one who graduated in three years with his sociology degree and is earning a master’s in communication management. “He’s a great individual,” Hart says. “His mom and dad should be proud, because they raised a tremendous young man. Hopefully my wife and I can raise our kids exactly how they did theirs. I wouldn’t change one thing.”

McLaughlin is quick to point out that this revitalized era of Trojan basketball is “because of the hard work that’s been put into the program by the coaches and the players.” Yet those same coaches and players credit him with helping USC become a basketball destination once again.

“For him to believe in us and really come when our program was below sea level was really, really huge for us,” Hart says. “He is the reason why we are who we are today.”

“He was the first big recruit,” echoes junior forward Bennie Boatwright, a fellow co-captain. “Knowing that he was here influenced my decision to come here. …He started it all.”

Meanwhile, McLaughlin is looking ahead to check items off his list. If he’s lucky, the school might even re-retire his number 11 jersey, sliding his name into the rafters alongside Sharman’s. But he’ll settle for being regarded as someone who helped make things better in his own backyard.

“Just being a hometown hero right down the street,” he says,“and building something special.”