CLEMSON — Three weeks ago, Sam Perry’s career looked destined for anonymity.
Over his first three seasons, Clemson’s senior forward started 62 of the 100 games he played in, including 28 as a junior.
But the emergence of younger players and an injured knee relegated him to the Tigers’ bench, turning his famed energetic contributions mostly of the vocal variety.
If you wrote him off, though, look again. Thanks to a healthier knee, Perry has regained a prominent reserve role as a jumping, dunking, athletic defensive whiz for the Tigers (15-5, 3-3 ACC) who are enjoying a mid-week break until Saturday’s 8 p.m. home game with Boston College.
Perry is back in the spotlight — and his trademark smile is as wide as ever.
“I feel springy, rejuvenated, so to speak,” he said last week. “My body’s feeling good, and I’m also realizing this is it. I’m giving it all I’ve got. I’m looking OK right now.”
That wasn’t the case over the season’s first half. As a junior, Perry started until late February, when he lost his role to emerging scorer K.C. Rivers. After playing 61 minutes in his last three starts, he got just 60 minutes in the Tigers’ final nine games, and his scoring average slipped from 6.3 points per game as a sophomore to 3.6.
This season looked no better. Perry played just two games before having arthroscopic surgery to remove a cyst from knee cartilage, missing six games while recovering.
When he returned, playing time was sporadic, thanks to the play of fellow reserves David Potter, Terrence Oglesby and Raymond Sykes.
Perry was frustrated — but not about his minutes. He kept smiling, laughing and encouraging on the bench.
“I understand the situation,” he said. “David Potter and the other guys were playing well, and did well while I was out. I wasn’t frustrated with that. I wasn’t healthy. I had to take care of my part and get healthy.”
Two weeks ago, his knee reached a turning point. He started practicing without leg fatigue, and finger-rolls turned into dunks. He contributed at Duke — scoring three points, grabbing three rebounds and dishing out two assists in 12 minutes — but Perry’s real coming-out party came three nights later at home against Wake Forest.
He did a little of everything in the Tigers’ 80-75 overtime win, scoring a season-high 10 points, grabbing a season-high five rebounds and making two steals in 13 minutes.
Littlejohn’s raucous crowd recognized the moment, showering him with cheers.
“To hear the fans say that, it’s the best moment since I’ve been here personally,” he said. “To hear the fans say that was rewarding.”
Perry followed his breakout night with a solid effort in Sunday’s 75-72 loss at Miami, scoring five points and grabbing three rebounds in 13 minutes, including a steal that led to a breakaway dunk.
His role could increase even more thanks to another injury: sophomore center Trevor Booker’s left ankle sprain might leave a hole in the rotation in the immediate future.
Clemson coach Oliver Purnell is happy to have the old Perry back.
“He’s given us a spark defensively, more than anything, yet at the same time he helps us off the glass with his quickness, which is a big help as well,” Purnell said. “Combine that with the fact that he’s had great leadership all season long whether he’s playing or not playing. He’s giving us leadership with a defensive spark and a threat to go off the glass when we’re not rebounding well right now — we need that.”
And it couldn’t have come at a better time for Perry, who knows his college career is winding down.
“I think about it all the time,” he said. “One full month left with February, and then March is tournament time.”
He’s determined to make the most of what he has left.
“I remember freshman year, playing those Maryland games (and beating the Terps three times), and now I’m a senior,” he said. “They said time was going to fly by quick, and you say, ‘All right.’ But until you actually experience it, you don’t really appreciate how it goes.”