CJs Corner: The Pac-10 Early View

You may feel like you are just getting your feet wet with this new 2004-05 basketball season, but CJ is already knee-deep in his assessment of the conference. Here he shares with us the best freshmen in the Pac-10 and the most improved players he has seen in the first month of the season.

For the benefit of those who have been victimized by the poor television coverage of the Pac-10, here are some early observations on the most impressive frosh and most improved players I've seen thus far this season. (Thanks to Tivo and Direct TV, I've been fortunate enough to see almost all of our conference foes play, some as many as four times.) These are not intended to be comprehensive lists, just comments on some of the players who have impressed me based on the games I've seen.

Top freshmen:

Gabriel Pruitt (USC): Pruitt has been an excellent pure shooter -- just what USC has been missing the past several years in the backcourt. He's averaging 11 ppg while shooting 60% from the field and over 44% from 3.  He's averaging over 26 minutes per game, effectively cutting way into the Craven twins' playing time. Pruitt has been a disruptive force on defense, using his length and quickness effectively when USC presses and averaging 2.4 steals per game. This guy is going to cause us major headaches when he gains experience.

Jawann McClellan (Arizona): Already seeing big minutes (16 per game) on a loaded Arizona squad. He's the real deal on offense, averaging about 18.5 points per 40 minutes, although he's prone to the usual freshman mistakes and turns it over a lot.

Jordan Farmar (UCLA): Based on his high school press, I expected him to have more impressive physical skills and that he might need to develop a feel for the college game. I think the reality is the reverse of my expectations. He's got decent athleticism, but isn't in the same league as guys like Mustafa Shakur (all around athleticism, with size), Aaron Brooks (quicks) and Nate Robinson (everything but size). However, Farmar's feel for the game is exceptional, especially for a freshman, and his instinctive passing ability is already evident.

DeVon Hardin (Cal): Hardin is a solid defender already and is going to be a tremendous presence on the defensive end down the road. He's put on enough weight early on to be solid on the glass and lead kal in rebounding (despite early reports of his need to bulk up), and his shot blocking instincts and jumping ability are resulting in an unusual number of altered shots considering he's just a frosh. Offense is very limited and he'll get a lot of his points on put backs.

Arron Afflalo (UCLA): Just a very impressive all around player. Solid athleticism, height and strength (already). Good shooter in the half court offense and is comfortable in transition, as well. He's a more effective defender than the typical freshman guard, thanks in part to having far better size and strength than the typical freshman shooting guard.

Josh Shipp (UCLA): Similar to his older brother Joe, Josh simply has a knack for scoring. Average athleticism, but he looks to have grown since his senior year of HS and can score in the paint as well as outside.

Malik Hairston (Oregon): This list was intended to be based on personal observations, but I have to mention Hairston despite not having seen him play yet. He's averaging 27.5 minutes and 12.5 ppg while shooting 54% from the field. He has 14 assists against only 4 turnovers.

Most improved players:

Dan Grunfeld (Stanford). After a disappointing sophomore season, Grunfeld is third among Pac-10 scorers with 19.4 points per game (on better than 51% shooting from the field) and is averaging 6.8 rebounds per game (8th in conference). Granted, Stanford was loaded last year, but in 2003-04, Grunfeld managed only 3.4 ppg (on 35.6% shooting) and 1.4 rpg.

Rodrique Benson (Cal). Benson is exactly the type of player you think of when you consider the "most improved" label. He's gone from being a mediocre bench player to solid starter. He still has flaws that will show up against stronger opponents, but he's averaging 13.3 points on almost 65% shooting from the field.

Nate Robinson (Washington). Robinson is not the kind of player you normally think of for the label "most improved," because he was already good to begin with. But he has continued his remarkably rapid progress as a player. Last year, he started the season without a clear role under Lorenzo Romar (starter or reserve, point guard or shooting guard?).  Romar apparently heeded The Bootleg's suggestion that he turn Robinson loose, and by season's end, the 5-8 sparkplug was playing at close to an all conference level and even flirted with the NBA draft. His improvement has continued on the same trajectory, and he clearly worked hard on his shot in the offseason. The early frontrunner for conference player of the year, despite Ike Diogu's typical dominance.

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