The Bench Bounces Back

Last week's Arizona/ASU games were best remembered for Chris Hernandez' back injury and subsequent return, as well as the dazzling performances by Dan Grunfeld. That duo indeed deserved attention, but the real news flash was the surge made by a pair of reserve players. A point guard and a center are playing their best basketball and giving the Card a big lift.

It was a rough start to the year for Jason Haas.  The results in the win/loss column were not too pleasing while the Cardinal played on the road, but the junior point guard was particularly pained by his stats that at one point showed him with zero assists and 10 turnovers.

"That was awful," Haas exclaims.  "I didn't even do that my freshman year."

This past week against Arizona State and Arizona, the reserve floor general made a giant leap forward with 10 assists versus three turnovers in the two games to raise his season assist-to-turnover ratio to unity at 18:18.  Against the Sun Devils, Haas made his first start of the year, with Chris Hernandez out injured.  Interestingly, it was Haas' first career start last year versus UNLV where he gained the most confidence that season, and it was the game at UNLV his freshman year when Julius Barnes was on the bench with big foul trouble that Haas played his best.

In this Arizona State game, the junior guard started and played a career-high 36 minutes.  His stat line showed five assists, one turnover, three rebounds, and six points on 2-of-3 shooting.

"That was as confident as I've seen him," offers Cardinal head coach Trent Johnson on the performance.  "That was his best game of the year, and I'm not the only one who thinks so.  Coach [Tony] Fuller and Coach [Reveno] said it was the best they've seen him since UNLV last year."

It is not likely a coincidence that the most confidence-building games in Haas' Cardinal career have come when he has started or played major minutes.  In brief relief roles, he has more often underperformed the abilities he frequently shows in practices.  That is a mystery beyond the scope of this article, but the key for Haas' and Stanford's success is to somehow maximize his contributions when he plays in his normal role off the bench.  Hernandez needs to get breathers, either resting on the bench of lessening his workload playing at the shooting guard position for stretches, and Haas has to keep the engine running when he takes the point.

To start this year, the engine was grinding and sputtering when Haas took the floor.  Unforced turnovers included dribbling the ball off his leg or tripping in the open court.  He was playing to try to survive, and he was not enabling the offense with any efficacy.  Moreover, Haas was failing miserably at scoring the ball - either passing wide open shots or misfiring on the few he took.

"I think it was not only me personally, but also the whole team wasn't playing or scoring aggressively in game times," the Pennsylvanian posits.  "We prepared in practices, but in games we were all a little hesitant about who should score, and how and where.  I just feel a lot of guys were struggling.  As time when on, we as a team have become more comfortable.  I've become more comfortable, and last week it showed."

Haas has not simply risen with the team tide.  His improvement, slow and steady, has come through deliberate efforts by the player and the coaching staff.

"I've watched a lot of film and seen where I should score more and take shots," he explains.  "For us to play well, we need another perimeter threat - especially with Tim [Morris] gone."

Sometimes an assistant coach will make a certain player his project, if there are areas of acute need.  But in this case, it has been a focus of the entire staff to hammer into Haas to score.

"Honestly they all gang up on me.  There isn't a day that goes by that a coach doesn't say something to me about it," he says with a smile.  "All the guys say it's a player's dream - to have coaches tell you to shoot more.  I have a green light.  Go for it."

He smiles now, but for a third-year player to be ridden every day of every week about his scoring, it can break him down.  So associate head coach Eric Reveno tries to infuse some off-color humor in practices, and when he talks with Haas on the bench in games.

"We want him to recognize open shots and scoring opportunities," Reveno offers.  "He's driven and really hard on himself, so sometimes you want to lighten it up with him.  I've told him that I'm going to take him to a back room and beat him up.  I've described an electric prod I'd hook up to his butt and shock him when he has a shot.  We laugh about it, and that keeps it positive for him."

When Hernandez went down with back spasms last Thursday, it was no laughing matter, however.  Haas had to take the reigns of the team, and he played all but four minutes in the game.  The assist-to-turnover ratio was excellent, but more observers noticed the offense Haas initiated for himself.  He drove to the basket and he nailed a pull-up three-point shot, as well as getting to the free throw line.  Two days later against Arizona, Haas returned to the bench but still played 16 minutes.  The three-pointer did not fall on that Saturday, but he did make an excellent drive through the Wildcat defense in the second half that surprised all in attendance.

"It's one thing for the coaches to tell me what to do in practices; it's another for me to actually do it.  It was such a big confidence builder to run plays against Arizona like I did," Haas beams.  He did not score prolifically against the 'Cats, but he did help others put it in the hoop.  The junior dished out five assists in the first half, including four dishes in a span of three and a half minutes.  Haas helped ignite a 19-7 run that turned an early 16-11 advantage for Arizona into a 30-23 lead for Stanford.

13 of Haas' 16 minutes in the game were spent playing on the floor with Hernandez.  That dual-point backcourt is something we have seen a lot this year, and the Arizona game was its best success to date.  Hernandez was coming off painful back spasms less than 48 hours old, but he could scarcely afford to be off the floor.  Playing Hernandez at the off-guard position while Haas handles more ballhandling responsibilities lightens the load for Hernandez, who leads all Cardinal players at 34.4 minutes per game.

"When he is in there with Chris, we need Jason to be Jason and distribute the ball with confidence," remarks Trent Johnson.  "It gives us another ballhandler on the floor to put Chris at the shooting guard, and then play Danny Grunfeld at the three and Nick Robinson at the four.  That lets us have four ballhandlers on the floor sometimes, which helps our assist-to-turnover ratio.  We get the ball out of Chris' hands a little and let him relax."

"Not only does it give Chris a rest when he doesn't have to bring the ball up and start the offense, but it also helps me because defenses are going to be keyed on Chris," Haas points out.

While Haas is finally giving Stanford some good minutes off the bench in the backcourt, the frontcourt has had wild inconsistency and has been searching for their own answers.  Early in the season, freshman forward Taj Finger was one of the first substitutes off the bench and was the primary rotation for either Matt Haryasz or Rob Little in the post.  Finger has taken a step back lately with his decision-making and confidence, however, and played just 10 minutes through Stanford's first four conference games.  Classmate Peter Prowitt had a visibly slow and difficult start to the year, while Finger was enjoying some success, as the big center struggled to adjust to the college game.

"It's starting to slow down for me now, but the first few weeks, I was blown away," Prowitt admits.  "I was just totally lost out there sometimes."

As thin as this year's roster may be, his problems were big enough that Prowitt was held out of five of Stanford's first 12 games this year - never left the bench.  That should have shattered the freshman's confidence, but he has instead redoubled his efforts and fought to improve himself.

"Peter has never doubted his ability," Johnson asserts.  "He has remained confident and aggressive... I think confidence is a wonderful thing.  The more confidence you have, the better chance you have of staying successful."

Johnson has kept practices shorter in recent weeks, as his starters have played long minutes and his short-handed roster has not had a lot of depth.  But Prowitt has logged extra hours with the coaches after practices to work on his game.

"It's not just one or two things for me.  I need to get smarter and better at everything," the 6'10" center describes.  "I work with Coach Rev whenever I can after practice.  We work on trying to catch and finish in an explosive position.  We work a lot on finishing around the basket.  And post defense is a big thing."

"The focus has been on post play fundamentals," Reveno echoes.  "Get a go-to move in the jump hook, which was pretty good when he came in.  He just needed time to adjust to the college game with bigger and faster bodies."

Last week Prowitt played his toughest competition of the year and came through with his best results.  Against Ike Diogu, a national Player of the Year candidate, Prowitt defended well both in the paint and (for the first time this year) away from the basket.  He picked up fouls, though at least one was a clean block that drew an anticipatory whistle, but he showed that he belonged on the same floor.  Offensively he showed scoring touch with his jump hook, hitting 2-of-4 from the floor and adding another two points at the free throw line.

Against Channing Frye in the Arizona game, Prowitt only scored one basket but delivered on the defensive end.  In both the first half and the second half, he came in and blocked a shot right after substituting into the game.  He finished the game with three blocks and was brimming with confidence and activity.

"Last week was definitely a confidence builder for me," the center smiles.  "I've had the chance to play against some pretty good players already: Diogu, Frye and [Michigan State's] Paul Davis.  Maybe I belong at this level."

While Haas has the experience and ability to have statistically bigger games and bigger minutes, Prowitt's continued improvement is critical for the Card.  He does not suffer from physical deficiencies of strength or size to the same extent that most freshman big men do, and that means he should be able to rebound and defend.

"I just try to help any way I can.  I'm not the most athletic guy, but I have long arms and can help," he opines.

"The wall is still there," Reveno chimes in.  "He hasn't broken through it.  But he's pushing it back.  He's got a lot of potential, and that's exciting.  He's just scratched the surface.  He's working really hard and willing to do the things to get there.  His worth ethic is above average, and his attitude is exceptional."

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