Monty's Men Open Season

You've probably taken a peek at some preseason publication and seen Stanford Men's Basketball receiving lofty praise and expectations heading into the 2003-04 season. Though games will not come for another month, the season tipped off Saturday with the first official practice of the year. We have notes on the team, down to every man on the roster. Read on for several changes and surprises, all of which have us excited.

Several things stood out about the team as a whole during the Cardinal's first practice. 

1. The team is in extraordinary physical condition considering it is only mid-October.  As described below in my comments about individual players, several team members have made significant gains in muscle and/or have shed excess pounds around the middle.  But to a man, everyone appeared to have hit the weights hard in the off-season and everyone had good wind.  I can recall the first practices from several years past in which a number of players were doubled over or were gasping for air by the middle of practice.  That didn't happen Saturday.  The guys were all ready to roll.

2. With only two new players on the floor (Tim Morris and Fred Washington), players knew the drills well and rarely got out of position.  When Morris got lost on a couple of occasions, Chris Hernandez was quick to correct the freshman's mistakes and explain the proper positioning. 

3. This year's team has less reliable outside shooting than just about any Stanford team during the Montgomery era.  Dan Grunfeld and Matt Lottich looked like the only outside threats with any consistency. 

4. As expected, team chemistry looks great, with lots of encouragement shared among the players.  It is obvious that no one player is going to dominate the ball on this team, even though Josh Childress is a national awards candidate. 

5. As is often the case with the first practice of the season, fast break drills were prominent.  The number and quality of our finishers really stands out in comparison to many past Cardinal squads.  Childress, Washington, Morris, Justin Davis and Matt Haryasz and all take it strong to the bucket and finish with authority almost every time.

6. The team spent some time practicing zone defense in an unusual manner – by playing four on four.  Given the strengths and weaknesses of our personnel, I would expect Mike Montgomery to employ zone defenses liberally this season.

Here are my comments on the performances of individual players:

Point Guards

Jason Haas:  Haas appears to have added some muscle in the off-season.  He handled well and looked comfortable despite the recent elbow surgery.  Jason was reluctant to shoot during drills; it's not clear whether his hesitancy was due to the elbow or not.  He did remove a wrap from his right arm about midway through practice, an encouraging sign.

Chris Hernandez:  Hernandez went full speed in practice, even participating in 2-on-1 drills in which the defender is supposed to attempt to draw a charging call.  Bodies were flying throughout the drill, but Chris didn't hesitate to mix it up like everyone else.  Anyone unfamiliar with Chris' history of foot and back injuries wouldn't have had any idea that Chris was coming off such ailments.  As always, Chris looked most comfortable pushing the ball in fast break drills.  His outside shot looked okay, but it's far too early to get a read on whether his shot will be good enough to force defenders to pay constant attention to him on the perimeter, or whether they'll be able to cheat off him a little and play help defense.

Carlton Weatherby:  Looks more comfortable and looks like he belongs.  He has improved his handle and looks to have added some good weight.  He'll be a valuable practice player and might be ready to contribute a couple of minutes in a game in a pinch.

Wings

Josh Childress:  Childress looked much as he did late last season, which is mostly good news.  He may have added a few pounds of muscle, but unlike several other Cardinal players, his physique hasn't changed much.  I had heard some rumblings during the off-season about the possibility of tweaking Josh's shooting mechanics, but I couldn't discern any change in form.  The results were about as you would expect – solid, no better or worse.  Nothing I saw on Saturday has changed my outlook for Josh this season.  He should be an all Pac-10 player with a shot at Player of the Year unless Ike Diogu averages 20 and 10 to run away with the award.

Dan Grunfeld:  Grunfeld was a very pleasant surprise on Saturday.  Frankly, I've doubted in the past whether Dan has much upside, but he may well prove me wrong this season.  He has made noticeable progress in improving his explosiveness.  Dan took it hard to the rack a number of times on Saturday and had one of the most impressive plays of the afternoon.  During the 2-on-1 drill, Dan and a teammate went up against Childress, whose task was to attempt to draw a charge and prevent a basket.  Dan swooped in from the right wing as Childress slid over to cut off the angle and block the shot.  Josh seemed to time the play well, and I fully expected the taller, more athletic Childress to swat the ball out of bounds.  But Dan elevated powerfully and stuffed it right in Josh's grill.  Grunfeld's throw-down drew bunches of comments from the fans in attendance, and some atta-boys from his teammates.  Dan gave Josh a good-natured stare after the deuce, but Dan wasn't smiling.  Grunfeld was easily the most consistent shooter on the squad Saturday, burying everything from mid-range jumpers to threes throughout practice.

Matt Lottich:  Lotty looked very much like he did last year after breaking out of his mid-season shooting slump.  The one slight difference in Lottich's game is that he appears to have made marginal improvements in his quickness and jumping ability.  Matt looked to have better wind than he did during the first practices of each of the past couple of seasons.  He clearly worked extremely hard on his conditioning in the off-season.

Tim Morris:  The first thing that jumps out about Morris is his explosiveness.  He attacks the basket aggressively and gets up so well that he'll be a terrific finisher if he can manage to penetrate or get the ball out on the wing on fast break opportunities.  My one concern about Morris is his outside shot, which is not bad, but is clearly a notch below those of many of the freshmen shooting guards that have entered the program in the last dozen years or so (e.g. Cross, Weems, Moseley, Jacobsen, Lottich).  Tim handles it well and has good quicks.  Based on his physical attributes and basketball skills, I think Tim is capable of playing the point guard position down the road if needed.  However, he will face a steep learning curve if he attempts to learn the one in addition to the two. 

Nick Robinson:  I didn't notice much change in Robinson's physical condition or his game from last season, although it appears he has made a marginal improvement in the quickness of his release on his jumper.  Nick looks poised yet again to be an extremely valuable utility player with diverse skills.  If he demonstrates a greater willingness to shoot when open (I still have nightmares about his hesitating to shoot a wide open three against Arizona at Maples), Nick could become the most valuable sixth man in the conference.

Fred Washington:  It's obvious from watching even a few minutes of Fred's play that he is an exceptional athlete.  His quickness and jumping ability are outstanding and are among the most impressive I've seen from a Stanford wing.  Only Lichti, Barnes and Morris come to mind as having similar explosiveness.  What I and everybody else at practice wanted to know about Washington was whether he has an outside shot.  Even after watching him shoot quite a bit, it's not an easy question to answer.  Fred's form is certainly unorthodox, and his stroke is almost a "double-clutch," even from three.  Although his shot is a little flat, he has nice rotation on the ball.  Fred displayed a solid handle and delivered quick, crisp passes.  He obviously works hard and hustles all the time.  Fred is destined to be a fan favorite from the get-go.  It's far too early to tell what Fred's role on this year's team will be, but I can see a range of possibilities.  One is that Fred plays this year and serves as a role player, coming off the bench to provide solid defense against opposing wings whom we have trouble stopping.  Another possibility is that Fred redshirts this season and concentrates on reworking his shot.  This would represent a significant sacrifice, as Fred's defensive abilities could come in handy at times this season.  On the other hand, it might be worthwhile to sit Washington if revamping his shot is something he's willing and able to do; Fred's upside is so significant that I could see him becoming an excellent all-around wing player for us down the road if his shot improves. 

Post Players

Justin Davis:  Davis sported an odd look during practice, wearing a long sleeve shirt under his uniform jersey.  Justin looked rock solid on the boards and on the low block.  Unfortunately, I didn't see him shoot many mid-range or longer jumpers, so I can't comment on any improvement in those areas.  I noted that his free throw shooting has continued to progress, and although his motion is still a bit on the quick side, it is quite solid in terms of mechanics.  I would be surprised if Davis doesn't add at least 5 if not 10 points to his free throw shooting percentage this season.

Matt Haryasz:  Haryasz showed more improvement than any other player on the Stanford roster.  He has added quite a bit of muscle (I'm guessing a minimum of 15-20 pounds) since the spring and while lean, he no longer looks skinny to the point where he'll get pushed around.  The added size and strength paid obvious dividends on the boards, where Matt battled hard for rebounds and was able to hold onto the ball and even rip it away from others on a couple of occasions.  Matt's mobility has not suffered at all as a result of the added weight, and he got up quickly to block a few shots.  His outside stroke is on the verge of being a very serious weapon.  I'm going to predict right now (yes, based on just one practice) that Matt turns out to be the most improved Stanford player this year and commands no less than 15 minutes of playing time per game.  By the time games start in about a month, he should be ahead of Kirchofer in the rotation.  Given Haryasz' combination of size, athleticism and ability to hit the medium range jumper, I think he can play alongside either Rob or Justin, giving Mike Montgomery the option to employ a three man rotation at the 4 and 5 spots against tough opponents. 

Rob Little:  Little is in fantastic shape, and looks ripped up.  A fellow Bootie whose opinion I respect commented at one point that Rob's physique is pretty close to Nick's right now, and I am inclined to agree with the comparison.  At one point, Rob took of his shirt, revealing a six pack worthy of an infomercial.  As a result of his weight loss, Little looked quicker and lighter on his feet than he did much of last season, and executed his post moves a split second faster.  There was some speculation among observers that Rob's decreased weight and improved quickness might have some benefit in terms of reducing his propensity for getting into foul trouble.  Of course, Booties may recall that Rob began last preseason in excellent shape only to gain at least a couple dozen pounds during the season.  If Rob can keep off the weight this campaign, he'll easily be better than he was last season.  If he cannot, he'll lose minutes to the rapidly improving Haryasz.

Joe Kirchofer.  Kirchofer looked almost exactly the same to me as he did last season, both physically and in terms of his game, except that he seemed to have better wind than he did at the inception of practices last season.  That's either good news or bad news depending on whether you are a fan of his game.  As usual, Joe buried tons of short baby hooks with both hands throughout practice.  My take is that Kirchofer is ready to contribute maybe five or six minutes per game, but that he is likely to be behind Haryasz in the post rotation. 


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