Minnesota transfer Ta’Lon Cooper provides South Carolina with a proven veteran guard in Lamont Paris’ second year.
Former Dorman (producer of Myles Tate and PJ Hall as well) product Ta’Lon Cooper is making his return to the Palmetto State in his graduate season.
Hailing from Spartanburg, SC, Cooper spent three years at Morehead State, earning 2021-22 All-OVC honors before spending one year under Ben Johnson at Minnesota.
While Meechie Johnson primarily manned the point last season, he’ll likely slide over to the shooting guard spot with the departure of Chico Carter Jr. to the portal, leaving Cooper the keys to the offense.
Cooper’s numbers did not dip with the move up from OVC to the Big Ten, posting career-highs in assists, steals, points, blocks, and free throws made. While he’s never averaged in double figures, (his career PPG is 8.5) his APG numbers have improved every season, from 3.1 his freshman year at Morehead State, to 6.3 last year with the Gophers of Minnesota. He’s improved as a defender, even with his jump in competition to the Big Ten, putting up 1.1 SPG and 0.9 BPG as a lengthy guard.
What are Ta’Lon Cooper’s strengths?
Cooper can drop dimes like a leaky purse. Check out this mixtape from last year’s Minnesota season.
If Cooper gets in front of his defender, he’s going to the basket. If he stays behind the defender, he’ll find the open man. When he does go to the basket, he can finish nicely against the big trees down low.
As a defender, he’s made strides over his career, improving his SPG and BPG numbers every year, becoming a reliable perimeter defensive presence. On offense, his ability to create separation with hesitation moves and step acceleration is elite.
Make no mistake, however. Cooper’s primary ability and biggest strength is slanging the rock to teammates from all over the court. He’s got great vision and is a true offensive point guard.
How does Ta’Lon Cooper fit with the South Carolina Gamecocks?
Cooper fills the void of a true point guard that Carolina has not had since Hassani Gravett. Blast from the past, ‘Cock fans. For a team that struggled mightily to score last year, Cooper should be a huge addition in getting a stagnant offense rolling.
Coming into his first full season as coach of South Carolina, I don’t think there’s a more perfect first pluck from this year’s portal cycle Lamont Paris could’ve made. Hometown prospect, veteran presence, filling a huge hole for the Gamecocks, exciting to watch. Cooper really checks all the boxes.
Besides Cooper himself, this move also allows Meechie Johnson to be able to thrive as a shooting guard, a role that probably fits him better than what the Gamecocks’ depth issues forced him to be last year. Anytime an addition of a player can fill two spots at once, it’s a great fit.
Cooper isn’t going to have to worry about an SEC learning curve after spending last year in the Big Ten, and will have plenty of backcourt talent to throw some assists too. The Gamecocks’ frontcourt is a bit of a question mark after 4 forwards from last year are expected to either enter the draft, transfer, or graduate. Perhaps this means more of an emphasis on outside shooting next year, (the Gamecocks already heavily relied on the three) but either way Cooper will get his assists in.
Former South Carolina Gamecocks’ player comparison: Duane Notice
Cooper has a few more inches on his frame than 2017 Final Four team member Notice, and Notice was a bit heavier than Cooper is now. But in terms of ability and play style, the two are similar. They can shoot the rock at a high clip, as Cooper’s career 3PT% is 36.9, while Notice finished with a career mark of 36.6%. Despite the success from beyond the arc, neither was or is especially proficient from the stripe, with Notice carrying a 71.8 FT% and Cooper’s mark sitting at 66.1% coming into his final season. Cooper of course has the very high assist mark from last season with the Gophers, but with a more talented squad, his assist numbers will fall slightly.
Notice could dish the rock at a very high level, similar to Cooper, but didn’t have as many assists to show for it, partially because Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier were on the court at the same time. Unless something drastic happens in the portal and Lamont Paris manages to lure a player like Caleb Love to Columbia, Cooper will stay above Notice’s career APG average of 2.6. Both can/could be counted on to crash the boards and grab a rebound when necessary, on the offensive and defensive end.
Notice averaged 8.4 FGA per game in his senior year, and Cooper averaged 8.7 last year for Minnesota. Last year’s usage rate for Cooper (18.9%) is similar to Notice’s career mark as well (19.8%). Another similarity is Notice’s points produced mark in his senior year, as he finished with 368 for the year. Cooper was at 368 for last year’s Gopher squad until he assisted on a 3PT attempt with 2:11 in the Big Ten tournament to end his senior season with 371 points produced. The two also share a very close true shooting %, with Notice’s career mark at 51.5% and Cooper’s at 52.1%.
Cooper is very similar to Notice, but with more of a tendency to drive inside than Notice, as Notice had more of a tendency to stay close to the perimeter. Cooper obviously has higher assist numbers than Notice, and can guard lengthier defenders at a higher level. But if Gamecock fans ask what they’re getting in Cooper, it’s Duane Notice.
Overall Fit Grade & Final Thoughts
The only thing keeping this grade from an A is the emergence of Jacobi Wright at the guard spot as last season came to a close. Not to forget, but former Coastal Carolina transfer Ebrima Dibba also returns after an Achilles injury suffered in last year’s pre-season. Depth, of course, is great. There’s never too much of a good thing, especially after last year’s team finished 11-21.
But after averaging 36 MPG for the Gophers last season, how much will Wright and Dibba cut into Cooper’s minutes? Johnson will almost certainly keep most of his 33.3 MPG as the new shooting guard. Dibba, in his last full season played, averaged 5.4 APG for the Chanticleers in 2021-22. Wright will likely garner minutes at the 1 and 2 spot if last year was any indication. Sophomore guard Zach Davis also should come off the bench early after being a key defensive cog in a solid 1-3-1 zone to end the year.
How much does that leave Ta’Lon? Starter minutes, still, for sure, but likely in the 26-30 MPG mark, rather than the 36 MPG he was getting as the lead handler of a poor Minnesota squad.
Cooper is a special talent, and Paris knows he needed to find a true point guard in the portal after last year’s offense only averaged 11.1 APG, good for 328th in the nation. (Remember Cooper dished out 6.3 APG just by himself for the Gophers last season.) While his role in the offense will change a bit from the Gopher days, it’s still a nice bet that Cooper will be the first Gamecock to average 4+ assists per game since Devan Downey did so in the 2008-2009 season.
It’s a great fit, and Cooper playing so close to home may also help his numbers. (I don’t have any stats or analytics to back that up, and it’s purely speculative.) After last year’s not-so-great season that saw its best player leave for the draft, any portaling is a welcome sight in Columbia. As long as Paris keeps bringing in players like Cooper, the ‘Cocks will be alright.