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2024 WNBA Draft watch: Te-Hina Paopao proving to be a valuable addition to the new-look South Carolina Gamecocks

Despite losing a massive amount of talent to the WNBA Draft last spring, South Carolina has started the 2023-24 NCAA season looking as dangerous as ever. Give credit to senior point guard Te-Hina Paopao, whose leadership and skillset have kept the Gamecocks from missing a beat.

Maryland v South Carolina
Te-Hina Paopao has been terrific in her first season at South Carolina, both in the box score and beyond.
Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

The South Carolina Gamecocks (7-0) are once again on top of the world of college basketball, with big early-season wins over the Maryland Terrapins and Notre Dame Fighting Irish earning them the top overall spot in the AP rankings.

These aren’t the same Gamecocks that went 129-9 over four seasons, either. South Carolina lost five rotation players—including one of the program’s all-time greats, Aliyah Boston—to the 2023 WNBA Draft, making the overhauled Gamecocks’ immediate success all the more impressive. In roles significantly larger than in previous seasons, sophomore guard Raven Johnson has been a walking highlight reel, while center Kamilla Cardoso ranks in the top-10 in both rebounds and blocks per game.

It’s been senior guard Te-Hina Paopao, though, who has held everything together. Paopao, a 5-foot-9 transfer from Oregon, has made a seamless transition in her first season at South Carolina, bringing much-needed leadership to a program in flux while maintaining the steady play that has made her one of the country’s most reliable point guards.

That reliability, in addition to on-court leadership that has kept the young, new-look Gamecock roster together and a skillset that has allowed South Carolina to lean into a new offensive identity, has made Paopao one of the 2023-24 season’s earliest success stories. We briefly highlighted her as a WNBA Draft-eligible player to watch a few weeks ago, but Paopao’s game deserves a deeper dive.

Honors and statistics

Originally from Oceanside, CA, Paopao was ranked as the No. 11 overall prospect (No. 4 guard) in the 2020 recruiting class by ESPN’s HoopGurlz. She committed to Oregon as part of a highly-touted group of recruits that also included Kylee Watson, Maddie Scherr, Angela Dugalic and Sydney Parrish.

Of the group, Paopao clearly was the most ready for Division I basketball. As a freshman and full-time starter, she averaged 10.2 points, 4.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game, earning All-Pac-12 and Pac-12 All-Freshman honors.

Paopao’s production remained consistent over her next two seasons at Oregon. She averaged better than 13 points, four rebounds, three assists and one steal per game as both a sophomore and junior, and shot 42.4 percent on 3-pointers in her third and final season as a Duck. She was also named to the All-Pac-12 Team two more times, once as a first-teamer and once as an honorable mention.

Internationally, Paopao has been part of Team USA since 2016. She participated in trials for the U17 World Cup Team in 2016 and the U16 National Team in 2017. Her biggest international achievement to date is winning gold in the 2021 FIBA U19 World Cup, when she averaged 9.1 points and 4.6 assists per game for Team USA.

Paopao’s leadership, floor game add new dimensions to South Carolina’s offense

Maryland v South Carolina
Paopao’s steadiness as a ball handler and accuracy as a shooter have opened up new offensive avenues for South Carolina.
Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

As with any good point guard, Paopao’s impact on her team is felt just as strongly in the intangibles as it is in the box score. As one of just three seniors on the team (Cardoso and Sakima Walker are the others), Paopao’s leadership from the position is even more important, and it’s something she relishes. “I came in to lead,” Paopao said before the season began. “I want to win a national championship, but first we’ve got to have that cohesiveness and team chemistry together.”

So far, so good. Through six games, the Gamecocks have the eighth-best offense in Division I and are outscoring their opponents by 53.9 points per 100 possessions (Her Hoop Stats).

Despite South Carolina’s massive margins of victory, though, Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley knows there’s still room to improve, particularly when her veteran guard is off the floor. Paopao missed South Carolina’s recent game against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits and, even though Staley’s squad cruised to a 78-38 victory, the Hall of Famer was quick to point out how much it missed its floor general. “She has a sense of calm to where she’s been in every basketball situation,” Staley said of Paopao after the game, in which the Gamecocks missed all 12 of their 3-point attempts. “I know she would have just been a person out there that would have gotten us all together.”

Paopao has been a difference-maker for the Gamecocks statistically, too, allowing them to effectively change their offensive approach despite an overhauled starting lineup. Last season, South Carolina’s offense was heavily dependent on its unmatched interior presence, recording 12.1 percent of its total offensive possessions on post-ups and 12.5 percent on putbacks from offensive rebounds (Synergy Sports). Only 6.9 percent of the team’s possessions came from a pick and roll ball handler.

While the Gamecocks’ pick and roll frequency hasn’t increased by much, they’re posting up far less in 2023-24 (7.2 percent frequency) and playing much faster—an adjustment that reflects not only the absence of a post-up savant in Boston but also Staley’s trust in her guards to have more on-ball reps. South Carolina is pushing the ball at a breakneck pace, recording 27.1 percent of its possessions in transition, which has been made possible by having several ball handlers in the lineup at any one time.

It’s made South Carolina a more effective spot-up shooting team, too. While Paopao’s floor game has remained excellent (four assists against 1.4 turnovers per game), she’s scorching the nets, too, knocking down 53.6 percent of her 3-point attempts. According to Synergy Sports, 24 of Paopao’s 31 jumpshot attempts have been of the catch and shoot variety; she’s scoring 1.50 points per possession (96th percentile) on those shots.

These numbers would speak for themselves in any situation, but South Carolina’s early-season success as a unit magnifies them. Paopao’s fingerprints are all over the Gamecocks’ updated identity—and the more wins South Carolina racks up, the better it will look for their veteran point guard

Watch her play

As one of the country’s biggest programs, South Carolina has no shortage of nationally-televised games. The Gamecocks will take on the No. 12 Utah Utes on Dec. 10 as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Women’s Showcase (ESPN). They also have a game against the East Carolina Pirates on Dec. 30 (ESPN2).

After that, it’s onto SEC play, when the Gamecocks have several more games on the ESPN family of networks. Highlights include a matchup against the defending national champion LSU Tigers on Jan. 25 (ESPN) and games against the Tennessee Lady Vols on Feb. 15 and March 3 (ESPN). South Carolina also will renew its rivalry with the UConn Huskies on Feb. 11 (ESPN); Paopao’s individual matchup with Huskies guard Paige Buckers will be must-see TV.

All statistics and team records for the 2023-24 NCAA season are current through Dec. 2, 2023.