Eight of our most informed and hoops-savvy basketball staffers logged their votes for their top three players on the team who have shown the most improvement during the season. Though you might expect a jumbled result, there was a clear order with five players receiving multiple votes and no ties among that top five...
#1 - Julius Barnes - Barnes worked the off-season with the mentality of being primarily a shooting guard, then started the season as a point guard, then prepared to move back to the off-guard, only to return for the entirety of the season as the main man at the point. Given the depth of differences between the responsibilities at the two positions, this senior leader deserves a world of credit for how he has handled himself. Though Barnes struggled with the identity of his role within the team through the first half or two-thirds of the season, he just plain looks like a mature and skilled point guard now. Ignore his shooting percentage in the Arizona game, which is going to happen from time to time for shooters, but instead look at his vastly improved perimeter shot selection. And how much more damage Barnes is doing driving through defenses to the basket. "I don't think I'm pressing as much as early in the season," he says. "I'm letting the game come to me now. And as I've really settled into the point guard role, I'm also feeling more comfortable with my teammates and my position on the floor."
#2 - Nick Robinson - Robinson has earned so many more minutes than what he played in his first season, that it almost distorts his improvement during this season. In his first year, he played just 102 minutes and scored just six field goals, while this year he will clear more than 7x the minutes and scored as many field goals in the first three games of the season. But Robinson made two big jumps during this season. The first came in November when he transformed himself from a skittish and awkward participant in the exhibition opener to someone who settled down to play important minutes in the preseason NIT games. Then when Justin Davis went down, Robinson very successfully made the leap to a starting role where he had to play big minutes (including an average of 33.7 in his first six starts). Though mature by age, his maturation in his comfort level on the floor was remarkable. As part of that growth, his offensive assertiveness has risen. Robinson's best move is his drive to the basket just along the edge of the key, though we saw some hesitation still remaining in his perimeter jumper late in the Arizona game. "I do think I'm more consistent offensively now," the combo forward reveals. "I'm not turning the ball over, and I'm handling the ball at the high post much more relaxed. When I catch the ball in the low post, I used to rush the shot, now I am taking my time. Defensively I'm better adjusted to big guys and switching on wings."
#3 - Justin Davis - The once-again exciting power forward has made his way onto this list largely because of the two demonstrations of improvement he has shown on either side of his injury. Davis started the year much improved, but it was his play at the end of December that was rising to new levels and portended of Pac-10 dominance. Then he suffers a month-long setback with his knee sprain, which still forces him to wear a sleeve for support. On the road back from that injury, Davis recorded back-to-back 20-point games and has regained his rebounding form with four double-digit games in his last five. He's back.
#4 - Matt Lottich - Someone who is known as a 'shooter' and who lives through hot and cold streaks, Lottich has made big contributions in games even when his shot hasn't gone down. He has greatly strengthened his role as a passer, and found teammates for open looks when defenders race at him. As a result, we've seen three or more assists from the junior in each of his last eight games. "I've become confident handling the ball, become a distributor. Before, I thought my passing was shaky," the Chicago native admits.
#5 - Matt Haryasz - Unlike the four players above, Haryasz has not been a starter this year and still earns sparing minutes. But if you've watched closely you have seen something click with the 6'10" freshman, whereby he now understands where to be on the floor most of the time. He showed a few flashes early in the year, but was suffering from paralysis by analysis as he adjusted to a far more complex level of basketball than what he saw in Page, Arizona. Now he gets it, for the most part, and unsurprisingly is making plays when he touches the ball on offense. Defensively, Haryasz has figured out not to swat at so many shot blocks, which is keeping him more foul-free when he does play in games. That is a huge development for this team that will help if and when Stanford's starting big men get in foul trouble in the post-season. "A lot of it just has to do with being more comfortable - with how this team works and with college basketball," Haryasz echoes. "My confidence is sky high right now. I'm playing really well in practices, plus getting more minutes and making plays in games."
Also receiving a vote: Joe Kirchofer - Showed a stretch in recent weeks where his offensive game has come more naturally to him, scoring on putbacks and even taking midrange jumpers... Jason Haas - A very strong candidate on the topic of in-season improvement, and it's a little surprising he didn't get more than one vote. He is handling the ball with great consistency, and is increasingly capable of bring the ball up against tight defensive pressure... Josh Childress - Though consistently excellent through the entire season, and thus not needing a lot of in-season improvement, he gets a vote here from one staffer who feels that the super sophomore raised his game to another level when Justin Davis went down... Dan Grunfeld - Again, not an obvious choice because of his offensive slump of five consecutive games without a field goal, but gets a nod playing through that and still maintaining his level of offensive aggression. Also, Grunfeld has shown in Pac-10 play that he has made serious strides on defense, particularly sealing off players near the baseline.
All four coaches voted for the players they felt have shown the most improvements during the course of the season, and for so few voters there was a surprising spread in their selections. No player received three votes...
Receiving two votes:
Julius Barnes - The coaches feel like the marked change in Barnes' control and savvy in games over the last month has been a turning point for this entire team. Says head coach Mike Montgomery, "I think he's playing better. Julius still occasionally goes off on a tangent in games, but he settles down. In the second half versus UCLA, he took great shots and was pushing the ball. He's now figured out if his shot doesn't go down, that's the end of it. He is becoming very smart at seeing what works for him in each given game."
Josh Childress - Childress gets more love from the coaches than from observers for two reasons. First, he has become a game-controlling player on defensive and the boards, particularly responding to the bell when Davis was lost to injury. Averaging 7.2 rebounds per game in his first 13 games through that fateful day at Berkeley, Childress has since averaged 8.8 boards per game. He's just playing tougher and more aggressively inside. On the offensive end, you could see in the Arizona game that he may have proven himself the most dangerous attacking player on this team. Not to mention the most versatile.
Matt Lottich - Montgomery feels that Lottich has improved so much not because of his shooting and confidence, but for another area that has helped the offense and Julius Barnes. "Just look at his assist-to-turnover ratio, which I think is second in the conference," the coach says. "Ballhandling was never his forté, but now he's become an important handler for us. He's also hit a lot of clutch shots for us." The coaches also love how tough he's played regardless of his shooting on a given night.
Nick Robinson - The coaches are happy that this redshirt sophomore has found the confidence to do the things on offense needed of him, as noted above, but they are more likely going to talk about his defense. They still rave about what he did to Luke Jackson in Maples in January, and when they craft gameplans they now look at Robinson as a defensive stopper against forwards who might present some defensive mismatches for Justin Davis or Josh Childress. Robinson deserves a lot of praise for his leading off-season role in the weight room, which has allowed him to play and push around some players two or three inches bigger than him, but there is a change in mindset that has also catalyzed his growth during this season. Says one coach, "Nick thought he was a [small forward] last year who was forced to play big, but to his credit he has understood this year that he really can play at the [power forward]. His improvement stems from that acceptance and confidence in his ability to play with bigger guys."
Receiving one vote:
Jason Haas - You might think Haas' role would become increasingly unimportant as Barnes has matured in the point guard role this year, but quite the opposite is true. To help Barnes stay on the floor for the 37 minutes a game that Stanford needs today, some of those minutes need to come away from the point to rest him a bit. Haas has earned several double-digit minute games in recent weeks, and that is an important part of Barnes' and the team's success. In his last eight games, Haas has turned the ball over just five times while recording 16 assists. In his previous 20 games he had notched just 11 assists versus 20 turnovers. And by all rights, the defenders he has seen in Pac-10 play are tougher than some of his foes in the preseason.
Matt Haryasz - Though he received one vote from a coach, I know another coach who agonized and wanted to give Haryasz a vote as well. Several coaches share the perception that the frosh big man is "getting it" and can be depended upon for minutes in big situations in big games. The coaches all wish he could get a big body as soon as possible, but adding weight really can't come until the off-season. But they are pretty excited about this kid's maturation, which was not a given coming from such a small town environment into the pressures of basketball and academics that Stanford freshmen face.
Rob Little - Perhaps the recipient in this coaches' voting that will most surprise Stanford fans. His offense has only had a few breakout games this year, and he has yet to match his Florida performance. But at least one coach thinks that Little's defense has made strides and has helped to shut down a lot of big men in the Pac-10. The offense has been comfortable as well, though his one great bugaboo continues to be the decisions that cost him fouls and take him out of the game. And though you might think this vote is coming from Eric Reveno, who works with the post players on the team and has made his coaching name on big men, I'll tell you that Little's vote did not come from Reveno. In fact, the former Stanford big man gave two of his three votes to players shorter than him.
No Justin Davis? He is the biggest disparity between votes from Bootleg staffers and the coaches, in this admittedly limited sample size. But as one coach said, "We saw from day one in the fall that Justin was dominating in practices. We haven't been surprised by what he's done this year the way people on the outside are. In season, he started off strong right away, and his recent improvements have come as he has recovered from his injury to get back to his fall form."