Basketball Begins

Hoops has returned!... sort of. It is hard for fans to decide if they can fully engage their emotions with the inception of official basketball practices this week, given that nobody is allowed to actually watch the workouts. This is where we at <i>The Bootleg</i> step in, to slake your thirst with some early news on the first practices, plus updates all over the roster...

While Stanford Basketball has elected in recent history, with the one exception in 1998, to pass on the custom of a "Midnight Madness" celebration and tip-off for the start of official basketball practices, the most rabid of Cardinalmaniacs™ have more than satiated their piqued curiosity each October by sitting in on the early workouts with each new roster.  This month brings a unique and titillating excitement to Stanford hoopaholics, given the beginning of the Trent Johnson Era.  More than ever, we are chomping at the bit to see how differently practices are run, and what that can tell us about the changes to be revealed with the new regime come November.

There is one little wrinkle, however.  Fans and the media are not permitted to attend practices, as Johnson carries over the same practice he instituted during his tenure at Nevada.  Palo Alto isn't exactly Reno, and it remains to be seen how donors, season ticket holders, and the ever-grumbling media will handle the lockout.  While there originally was the intent to close practices for the entire season, Johnson is taking baby steps and has thus far only announced closed practices through November 20 (the day after the regular season opener).  Call it a trial period, after which time the Stanford staff will evaluate if the need remains compelling enough to keep practices out of the public eye.

As fans twiddle their fingers in the interim, practices have been underway since this past Saturday.  We at The Bootleg are in the business of providing you the very best inside information on Stanford Sports, especially tidbits and insights you cannot access from your vantage point.  Here are a few nuggets of news about how things have started so far:

  • The first day taught a difference in approach and style of Stanford Basketball practices, right away.  Mike Montgomery used to conduct a full four-hour workout on the first Saturday of the season, and Trent Johnson also filled four hours with work.  But Johnson split the practice time into two sessions of two hours each.  One early in the morning and one in the late afternoon.  It makes sense to give the kids a break, both physically and mentally.  You hit a wall somewhere during a four-hour stretch.  But Johnson also runs a more intense practice than Montgomery did.  The new head man believes you should learn basketball on the run, literally, and spends less time standing still.  Montgomery would run sprints at the end of practice for conditioning, but Johnson gets all that conditioning - and more - done during the meat of the practice.
  • It is too soon to tell what plays will be run, and how the Cardinal will find points in games.  Fans are hungry for those answers right away, but that instillation will take time.  What we do know is that Johnson is intentionally putting more time into teaching how to execute in transition.  It is to some extent an urban legend that Montgomery did not want his players to run the fast break, but it is true that he did not put the effort and attention into making his players as good as they could be in that area.  How much Stanford "runs" this year will be predicated upon how well they do it, to Johnson's satisfaction.
  • Another burning question I have been asked on- and off-line several times the last few days is the rotation - particularly, at the shooting guard.  The start of a new year brings in new freshmen and sees veterans step into different or expanded roles.  There are not so many permutations for this team, though, given just 10 scholarship players.  And one of them, redshirt junior point guard Chris Hernandez, is limited with a sprained ankle.  Sorry to disappoint, but the team did not start scrimmaging right off the bat.  In fact, there was no semblance of any five-on-five drill until yesterday afternoon.  And even that bit of work was fragmented and short-lived.  By the end of this week, we may see some early scrimmages taking shape... but for now, Trent Johnson is pretty busy installing his fundamentals in his first ever practices with these Stanford players.
  • That all being said, don't count out Dan Grunfeld.  The junior wing was admittedly disappointing with his play last year.  He failed to build on a successful freshman campaign at the level he should have achieved.  His primary competition for the starting shooting guard job is redshirt freshman Tim Morris, who might be the best athlete on the entire team.  Morris impressed the heck out of me this spring, summer and early fall with his improved consistency and offensive decision-making.  Make no mistake, he is still so very far from a finished product and will have some of his own struggles in his first year of college game action.  But Morris is the best replacement available for a slashing and attacking wing after the NBA departure of Josh Childress.  The Georgia native is also an off-scale rebounder (and shot-blocker) for a guard.  BUT, don't count out Grunfeld.  He he has two years under his belt playing in a system that is resoundingly similar to what Trent Johnson will run.  Moreover, Grunfeld is in the best shape of his life.  I know that you can say as much for almost every player every year, as they push themselves to faster and stronger physical levels.  But Grunfeld spent the bulk of his summer with a personal trainer in San Francisco and has players and coaches talking about the results.  One measurable data point was his team-best time in September in running the mile.  He ran a leading 5:04 time, which is four seconds faster than Matt Lottich's team-leading time in 2003.  That's a pretty meaningful and telling comparison.
  • Speaking of Morris, no, he is not playing the point guard thus far in official practices.  He is concentrating fully at this time on the shooting guard role, to give him the best chance to learn and compete at that position.  Even with Hernandez sidelined, the point is being ably manned.  Juniors Jason Haas and Carlton Weatherby are taking the lead as floor generals and performing well enough that the coaching staff have not been tempted to pull Morris into the mix.  Haas, incidentally, is getting a lot of talk from teammates and coaches as the surprise player of the year.  His improvements in his shooting form (which was already quite nice) and confidence have him ready to take a big leap forward this year.
  • I should be careful to not put too much emphasis on the early competition at that SG spot or any other position, however.  The roster is so thin this year that you have to play just about everybody.  If you take the 10 scholarships and lay them out, you have two deep at each of the five positions.  Even when the team is healthy and fouls don't pile up, Trent Johnson will have all those guys in the rotation for meaningful minutes.  Out of pure necessity, I don't think there will be the chance that any of those players will not get "enough PT" on the court.  The deck was so stacked last year, by contrast, that Tim Morris took a redshirt given the dim outlook at shooting guard and Fred Washington played token minutes much of the season at the small forward.  Even in a 30-2 season, grumbling fans wondered aloud how Morris and Washington could have helped in larger roles.  It seems doubtful that anybody will be left on the bench this year, simply due to the low body count.
  • You may be disconsolate from the ankle injury to Hernandez, who has already had more than his share of ailments on The Farm.  He is, simply put, the best player on this basketball team and the engine that makes it run.  But keep in mind that we expect him back very soon.  Moreover, thank your lucky stars that this already small lineup is not further depleted.  Morris suffered through serious pain in one foot early in the summer and had to take himself out of action for the latter half - more than a month.  Washington was hit with a wrist injury that kept him from playing until just recently, while the team's other small forward, Nick Robinson, was also off the floor with an ankle injury in September.  It is good fortune that all three healed up in time to start practices this month.
  • One measure of relief has come in the form of freshman walk-on Kenny Brown.  The 6'1" guard from Southlake Carroll High School in Texas was a shooter and scorer as a prep, but he is broadening his skill set for a greater range of roles at Stanford.  Brown has already played some point guard, shooting guard and small forward for the Card in practices.  The coaching staff is pretty pleased with what they have seen so far, though you can't say they are surprised.  Brown was the only Stanford student to make the cut when a group of anxious applicants competed in a try-out a couple weeks ago.  Brown was head and shoulders above the competition and absolutely earned his spot on the roster.  He will wear the proud #22, which was recently held by Justin Davis and before that by Brevin Knight.  Brown has a nice shot and is a good athlete.  He averaged 20 points and four assists per game as a senior at Southlake Carroll, earning District Offensive Player of the Year honors and Academic All-State recognition.  Brown had his contact with Stanford last winter and spring through assistant coach Russell Turner and then Montgomery.  When both left for the Golden State Warriors, so too departed all the groundwork that had been laid for him to walk on.  He had to start almost back from scratch with Trent Johnson and the rest of the staff, but he is where he wants to be now and grins from ear to ear at his official position within Stanford Basketball.
  • More to come on the other two frosh in this class.  But a quick digest:  6'10" center Peter Prowitt made tremendous strides during the summer and early fall and impressed me greatly in pickup game competition against Rob Little.  Prowitt took a bad beating in the early going from the 260-pound beast, but the freshman soon held his own rebounding and defending.  His ability to finish in traffic in the low post has been inconsistent, but he improved steadily while I watched him through September.  He now has to adjust to the speed and constructs of set offense and defense, which is a non-trivial challenge.  But I'm optimistic on the year and role he will have...  6'8" forward Taj Finger is well behind Prowitt in physical development.  And given the need for Finger to play "big" as a power forward right away behind Matt Haryasz, there is no slack available.  The good news is that Finger is showing himself to be a very underrated athlete, and a crafty playmaker.  He is making a large transition from his high school training as a perimeter skill player to the low post operation needed, but the good news is that he is rapidly learning.  Coaches are praising the job Finger is doing in quickly picking up what they are teaching, and that means we could see some surprises from him come the next few months.

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