The initial Sunday practice was sleepy, with both the boys and the girls shaking off some rust and adjusting to the level of competition and new teammates. Monday's morning practice showed us more about the quartet of future Cardinal ballers in San Diego.
Brook Lopez - As skilled and athletic as ever, with some added meat and muscle to benefit him as he moves to a more physical level of basketball. He is still an interesting case study as a post player in his inside/outside identity. He has the touch and shooting range to move out to the three-point line, and he is a big match-up problem for big men who try to come out to defend him - as he can take them off the dribble with a good handle and great footwork. He is most successful when he initiates his offense inside 12 feet, however. And though he plays like a 'four' man in how he faces the basket, Brook has a nice array of back-to-the basket moves and a great feel for how to score under the basket. One area of quiet concern is Brook's proclivity for picking up fouls. Even in a five-on-five environment in practice, he picks up more than his share of whistles. He will need to be smarter about his blocked shot attempts. The problem is not his timing, but rather his judgment and execution.
Robin Lopez - The 'five' man of the twin towers has made more noticeable changes in his game this year. Robin remains behind Brook in his offensive skill level, while maintaining a decisive edge as the defensive enforcer in the middle. Robin has made a concerted effort to develop his face-up offensive game. He has a nice little shot out to 8-10 feet when he faces the basket, though the size his tool belt by which he can score the ball remains a project. This is the best I have seen him to date in taking defenders off the dribble, and he is slowly making progress toward those skills Brook possesses. The glaring weakness, however, for Robin is still his hands. Too many times when he is fed the ball in the post, he never gets into his offense because he does not cleanly field the pass. He needs to work with Mitch Johnson this summer for hours and hours on receiving post feeds, catching, and then making his move.
Jayne Appel - She is the most skilled post operator among the girls in San Diego, bar none. Appel is known for her 84-inch wingspan, mammoth hands and size 12 (boys) feet. However, she has a comfort playing with her back to the basket unlike any other girl her age. She catches the ball at any number of spots around the basket and can attack a defender three different ways in three straight possessions, smooth each time. Her shot-blocking ability even against this most elite level of competition is still formidable. Though most often described as a center, Appel has a nice face-up game and shooting touch. The most underrated part of Jayne Appel is her passing - great vision, instincts and touch. How to improve the #1 center in the nation? Appel is leaner up close than I had previously observed on television or in limited in-person opportunities. She can stand to become a lot stronger and fill out a wide frame. I think she can and should look a lot different physically in three or four years than she looks today. A second area for some improvement is explosiveness and lateral quickness. I watch her lay-ups and feel they could be quicker and more fluid.
Michelle Harrison - The 6'2" wing is the best player ever to come out of Utah, and there might have been some questions about whether her high school competitive level was going to handicap her effectiveness in this arena. How she plays Wednesday night remains to be seen, but Harrison has been impressive in practice. To see her handle the ball, shoot the ball and run the floor the way she does - it hits home how talented she is, while also a reminder that despite her size she truly is a wing. The dilemma for the West coaching staff this week is matching up Harrison against an East roster that is incredibly stacked with size. Harrison is having to juggle roles as both a guard and a post in practice, which is a challenge. Whatever the match-ups, Harrison can shoot the basketball and that is where she has her chance to make an impact in the game Wednesday night.
On both the men's and women's side here in San Diego, there is strong Pac-10 representation. That could fuel some rivalries and internal competition within the West squads, but instead we have seen a high degree of camaraderie across battle lines. Brook and Robin Lopez seem to get along very well with Spencer Hawes, who picked against Stanford in his final college decision to attend rival Washington. James Keefe headed to UCLA and Chase Budinger headed to Arizona are chummy with the trio, as well.
After Monday's practice, Brook Lopez sat and talked at length with future USC women's standout Jacki Gemelos. In the Team Ball competition part of the JamFest last night, Stanford-bound Michelle Harrison and Jayne Appel were paired Keefe and Hawes, respectively.
The bond that brings these players together is more than just a team ethic and desire for the West squad to win Wednesday night. There is an "us against the world" mentality for future Pac-10 players that has been a constant topic of conversation this week.
"We're happy that UCLA is in the Final Four right now, even though we're going to Stanford and Spencer is going to Washington," Robin Lopez explains. "But we're happy that UCLA is in the Final Four because West Coast basketball kind of gets the short shrift."
Air Harrison gets grounded
Michelle Harrison signed up for and was slated to compete in the Slam Dunk competition in last night's JamFest. However, she learned Monday morning that she was bumped from the field, as the organizers decided against any girls in the traditionally male-dominated competition. Candace Parker made headlines when she won this very event two years ago, the first time any girl had thrown down in the McDonald's All-American special event. The novelty and surprise of that dunk handed her the hardware, but dunk purists challenge that the style and magnificence of a girl's dunk - at least today - cannot hold a candle to the aerial acrobatics that the boys deliver.
Frankly, a 6'2" while girl from Utah throwing down would have been a great crowd-pleaser. Not just a girl able to get the ball over the rim, she had been practicing a reverse jam. Harrison was understandably miffed Monday morning when she was told after practice that she was not allowed into the dunk contest that night.
"I had been practicing my dunks a lot," she said shaking her head. "I'm pretty upset."
"I guess I'll just have to do it in the game," Harrison added with a laugh.
The Stanford-bound wing could have competed in and made noise in all three events in the JamFest. But she limited herself to just two of the competitions for focus. When she was taken out of the Slam Dunk field, that left her only with the Team Ball competition. Harrison took that opportunity to put on a show, winning the event with UCLA-bound James Keefe.
In Team Ball, a girl and boy are paired together and alternate shots from one of a variety of spots on the floor, with greater distances awarding greater points. The duo faced a challenge in the first round when an audio difficulty negated their 60 seconds of shooting, and they were asked to immediately compete all over. Their 42 points tied atop the standings in the opening round and sent them to the finals, where they won with 41 points. In both rounds, Harrison carried Keefe with the majority of made shots and points scored... despite shooting with the boys' larger basketball.
Harrison could very well have won the Three-Point Shootout as well, with her shooting form markedly superior to most if not all of the girls in the long-range competition. She is athletic and can drive to the basket, but the super-sized Stanford wing is one sweet shooter and will make an impact in the Pac-10.
On the subject of the Slam Dunk contest, the field was overall disappointing with their inability to finish the dunks they attempted. In the "final" round, all of the competitors failed to make a dunk in their two tries, which forced a redo of the finals. I wonder if ESPN will gloss over that when they air the contest and other JamFest events Wednesday night tape-delayed after the boys game. The unquestioned highlights came in the opening round, when Chase Budinger delivered both of the best dunks of the day - big hang time and thundering finishes.. The hometown crowd played a small role, but his explosiveness and athleticism make him a perfect fit for these contests. We will have video of his two top dunks later, along with the two Team Ball rounds from Michelle Harrison.
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