With 11 minutes left in the first half on Saturday against Maine, San Francisco Dons guard Charles Minlend sprinted past half court on the break, pulled up at NBA 3-point distance and hoisted a jumper. It hit nothing but net.
It had been just over 21 months since Minlend last suited up for a regular-season game at War Memorial Gym. After a breakout freshman campaign, Minlend injured his shoulder during summer workouts, and missed all of last season with labrum surgery.
In an otherwise ho-hum 93-50 win over the team picked to finish last in the American East, a game in which five Dons finished in double figures, Minlend scored a career-high 22 and looked every bit the game-changer that could give the Dons’ three Pac-12 opponents fits this year.
Minlend exited with 14:36 to go after going 6-of-10 shooting, and 5-of-6 from 3-point range, with six rebounds and three assists.
“It was the first game back after I was hurt, so there were definitely a lot of jitters,” Minlend said.
He got rid of those quickly, hitting a three to open the game and spark a 10-0 run. The run-up trey was his second.
“I didn’t hit a three the last game, so that wasn’t really one of my focuses, but it felt good to knock some of those shots down,” he said. “My teammates were looking for me, and we played really well together, as a whole.”
Minlend was the first player recruited by San Francisco head coach Kyle Smith when he came to the City from Columbia. Minlend, who attended North Fork Military Academy for a prep year, had offers from over 10 schools when he graduated normal high school at the age of 17 — plus attention from Harvard and Yale — but his parents felt he needed another year of seasoning.
Smith and the Dons were the first school where he truly felt comfortable, so he chose to come all the way west from North Carolina, over offers from George Washington, Murray State and Western Kentucky. He was one of the big reasons the Dons went 20-13 in Smith’s debut season on the Hilltop.
“Charles was almost too good to be true,” Smith said.
A West Coast Conference All-Freshman selection, Minlend averaged 10.0 points per game as a true freshman, and before his sophomore campaign, he was named preseason all-conference. His last game at home: a 2-for-12 shooting performance in a 68-52 loss to BYU.
Then, during a Monday max workout in June of 2017 — the last week of summer training — he tried to bench press 225 pounds. He had tried unsuccessfully twice, and felt he almost had it. So, he tried a third. He heard a pop. The weight fell on his chest. Two days later, the MRI showed a torn right labrum.
Minlend — who followed his father across the pro basketball leagues of France, Israel, South Korea and the Ukraine as a child — grew up sleeping with a basketball in his arms. As a natural introvert, and the only English-speaking kid in many of the towns in which his father played, basketball— Minlend said — “felt like my best friend.”
“I’ve always had so much fun just playing, and not being able to play for an entire year was really, really hard for me,” Minlend said.
There were setbacks. Minlend had hoped to start shooting by November, but couldn’t get shots up even by January. It wasn’t until April that he finally took a hit in a practice session, and then another the next day, and felt like his old self.
Without him, San Francisco went 22-17 last season, and a pedestrian 9-9 in the WCC.
“We had to struggle to find where our baskets were going to come from,” Smith said.
The Dons reached the CBI, where, in the first game against North Texas, they also had five double-digit scorers — the last time they accomplished that feat until Saturday afternoon.
With Minlend back, there may be a few more of those games this season.
After a 16-point, 7-for-11 season debut in the opener against UC Davis, Minlend was even better in his return to the Sobrato Center.
Against the Black Bears, the 6-foot-4 Minlend played like he was 6-foot-8, lowering his shoulder and bullying opposing defenders, drawing contact and finishing at the rim. He hit four of his first seven shots, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range, keying the 10-0 run for the Dons to start the game.
After Maine came back with a 10-5 run of its own to get things close, junior Jordan Ratinho — USF’s second all-freshman selection in 2016-17 — nailed a three off the break.
Minlend followed by escaping a trio of Black Bears underneath to put up a lay-up and draw a foul. He hit both. Minlend had 13 points in the first 10 minutes.
Despite the fact that they shot a dismal 36.7 percent from the field, the Dons (2-0) held a 44-20 halftime edge, in large part thanks to the 16 points in 16 minutes from Minlend, who also threw in six boards before the break.
Minlend — who hit 4-of-8 from the field before halftime — helped draw defenders off of Ratinho — who scored 9 of his 12 points in the first half, going 3-of-7 from three — and point guard Frankie Ferrari, who dished out just one assist, but pulled down four rebounds and scored seven of his 13 points in his first 14 minutes.
“Every team has a triangle of scorers. Charles is definitely, even as a freshman, he was one of those guys, you look at usage, he was a high-usage guy,” Smith said. “Opposing coaches, they have to deal with those guys.”
San Francisco upped the lead to 64-24 by hitting eight of its first nine shots out of halftime, while the Black Bears went 1-of-2 with five turnovers in that same span.
As Jimbo Lull drove home the first of his back-to-back dunks during the 20-4 run out of the break, Minlend — so long an introvert — ran back up the court and let out a roar.
“He came out of his shell somewhere,” Smith smirked.
Then, on the Dons’ next trip down, Minlend pulled up from the right side and let fly with a gooseneck three. Before the ball hit the bottom of the net for his career-high 22nd point of the night, he turned around, faced the crowd and smiled.
“For that to happen in the first game back at home, that was a surreal feeling,” Minlend said. “… Having that back, even every practice, is so much fun. Even if we start off a little bit slow, I just try to get us going.”