Practice started off with the usual stretching and drills, followed by some 5 on 0 breaks. The 5 on 0 breaks don't offer much insight into the players' skills, but a few things are highlighted, including technique on the initial outlet pass, and footspeed down the floor. As ME-97 mentioned in a post last week, Chris Hernandez gets up and down the floor very well. The usual suspects like Justin Davis and Julius Barnes did as well, but the one surprise to me was Nick Robinson. He's in noticably better shape than he was last year (bigger, stronger and more "cut") and he got up and down the floor very well (he did in the scrimmage too, more on that later).
A few notes from the drills, including the 5 on 0 break session . . . Curtis and Justin really seem to enjoy dunking more than they used to. Curtis in particular is throwing the ball down much more often than I've seen him in the past. As several have mentioned before, he's also bulked up. His added size and strength were noticable later in the scrimmage. Casey had a spectacular follow on a missed three by Tony G. Casey anticipated the rebound and in one motion elevated for the rebound and threw it down with both hands. Curtis spontaneously and loudly blurted out "Oh My God!" An appropriate response to a ridiculously good play, drill or not.
Now, onto the good stuff – the scrimmage. The format was four ten-minute quarters. Real refs were brought in, and Monty encouraged the players beforehand to discuss with the refs any foul calls they disagreed with in order to get a better understanding of what the refs are looking for. Monty shuffled players between the red and white teams liberally, but for those who like to draw inferences from such things, it should be noted that the initial red team consisted of Tony, Julius, Casey, Justin, Curtis, Matt and Nick. (I, for one, wouldn't read too much into it.)
First, the good news. Casey was just ridiculously good. He was draining everything – from 3, from mid-range, slashes to the hoop, you name it. Absolutely everything was going down. To the extent it's possible for Casey to look better than he did as a first team All American last year, he did. The other clear standouts were Curtis and Justin. Curtis was outstanding on the offensive end, burying jumpers and getting some tough baskets inside. He altered several shots on D, and rebounded surprisingly well. Curtis' added bulk and strength have definitely helped him become a better rebounder. I think Stanford fans will be pleasantly surprised in that regard. Justin was a force on defense and on the glass. He made several good defensive plays, including a few steals, and is starting to look like the disruptive force we're all hoping for. On offense, Justin played within himself, and showed off a very nice array of spin moves around the hoop. He looked very much like a player who is going to get his fair share of points just by getting put backs off of offensive rebounds and the occasional play run for him in the post.
While Casey and Curtis were clearly the standouts, with Justin putting in the third best performance in my opinion, a couple of other players deserve special mention for their positive contributions. Matt Lottich was on fire shooting the ball, and he looked infinitely more comfortable than he did last year. It's probably a bad idea to read too much into just a couple of practices, but Matt truly looks poised to be one of the Pac 10's more dangerous threats from deep. His shot has always had textbook form, but he seems more adept now at getting in position to get clean looks and he doesn't hesitate to pull the trigger. Given the way Matt has played in the couple of practices I've seen thus far this year, I would expect to see him get big minutes at the 2, and it wouldn't surprise me to see him stay ahead of Childress on the "depth chart" for a good while. Julius also had a good performance. He shot well, played good D, and generally looked more confident than I've seen him in the past. One word of caution in that regard, however – the offenses were running far fewer "plays" than they would in real game situations, and the action was a little more fast paced, so this format would tend to favor Julius' style of play. Rob Little had a very nice performance, rebounding the ball exceptionally well, and making excellent outlet passes, particularly to Chris. He also showed a bit more on offense than I expected, making a few nice moves in the post against some tough D from The Mantis. Last but not least, Nick Robinson was a pleasant surprise. As mentioned above, he looked very fast, and did a fine job of getting out on the break and finishing. He still looks a bit undersized defending at the 4, but he showed more than I expected on that end of the court as well.
There wasn't much in the way of bad news from this practice. The one player who really seemed to be off today was Josh Childress. His shot was just plain off. I would agree with those who have noted his tendency to shoot it from a little bit low; during drills before the scrimmage, I heard Tony Fuller telling Josh to get his release point up, or something to that effect. Josh is clearly a good shooter who just needs to tweak his shot a little bit over time. Despite having a horrible day shooting, Josh probably had the play of the day. He got the ball on the wing off of a slow-to-develop fast break and despite having a bad angle because he had a defender on his hip, he swooped in for a tomohawk jam. He took off from WAY out and just elevated and used his great wingspan to beat the defender. A thing of absolute beauty. A perfect 10. The few other spectators around me either gasped or made comments to their companions to the effect that THIS is the new Stanford basketball. And the best thing about the play may have been that it was followed up at the other end about 15 seconds later by a huge Justin Davis slam off of a sweet spin move. Love the Q and A. Just love it.
Those are the players that stood out to me as having particularly good or bad practices today. Those that I didn't mention by name were omitted simply because they played just as you would expect based on their performances in games and practices in the past. Tony, Kyle, Joe and Tyler all showed me about what I expected (although Kyle is physically more impressive than he's been in seasons past). There seems to be a real difference of opinion re Tony on the board, and all I want to say on the subject is that Tony has looked similar to the Tony of last year, with perhaps some marginal improvement. Some will think that's good; others will be disappointed, but I'm sure everyone will have a strong opinion. ; )
Lastly, a couple of thoughts on the team as whole. This year's edition looks much, much more ready to run than Stanford teams of the past. When Julius and Justin are on the same 5 together, they're lethal on the break. And when you put those two together with Curtis and Casey forget about it. The only hitch in the plan to run more may be at the point. Julius and Chris are very good at pushing the ball. Tony is much better running the half court sets. IMO, our ability to get out and run will depend a lot on who's running the point at any particular time. Another theme is going to be offensive rebounding. I think we're going to be much better at it than we've ever been in the past. Justin is just a monster on the offensive glass, and Curtis is getting much better at that aspect of his game. Rob Little is pretty darned good on the offensive boards too. We almost certainly won't be as good on the defensive boards as we were the past couple of years, but I think we'll make up for that dropoff at the other end.
All in all, an encouraging day for Stanford hoops fans.