A Look-In at Basketball Practice

As we've said before: It's a whole new world. The media was given access to basketball practice today, and it was an intense, precise affair. All of the players have seemingly improved from just a few weeks ago...

It's amazing the difference a few weeks of practice with a good coach can make.

Throughout August and September, we saw the UCLA players in various pick-up games, and then in October observed them in their individual workouts.

They've now been practicing officially as a team since late October, and the marked improvement from how they looked the last few months to now is considerable.

It's not a stretch to say that every player on the team has improved. And while we don't want this report to sound too much like another infamous practice report, it is also safe to say that the team, under the direction of new Head Coach Ben Howland, could be a bit better than many of us anticipated this season.

Don't tell anyone because we don't want to raise expectations. It's better if the team is picked to finish in the lower tier of the Pac-10 and not have a chance to make a post-season tournament.

So, this is just between us.

Overall the practice was a breath of fresh air. It was two hours of intense instruction by Howland. They simulated games in various ways, with Howland stopping play throughout to give precise instruction. It was less drills, more scrimmage instruction. In the final segment of practice, the projected starters of Michael Fey, Trevor Ariza, Dijon Thompson, Brian Morrison and Cedric Bozeman went up against a rotation of the rest of the roster in a full-court controlled scrimmage. Howland shifted personnel, shifted defenses between man and zone, and called out sets and plays for each squad to run. The players said after practice that they have a huge amount of set plays, and that they're now becoming second nature since, from almost the first moment of the first practice, they've been running them. Trevor Ariza said it was learn or die, essentially, that Howland threw them in and expected them to run the plays immediately.

It's apparent, though, how good Howland is at his job. The extent of his basketball knowledge, just from barking out instructions and corrections, is very evident. He's tough, but he also praises his players. He's as straight-forward with his players as he is to the press – telling them exactly what they did wrong and praising them exactly for what they did correctly. The way he and his coaches work the team is also well-conceived. Howland generally stands at mid-court, while the three assistants surround play, each giving specific instruction. Donny Daniels, who concentrates on the posts, stands under the basket and guides the big men, while Kerry Keating and Ernie Zeigler stand on the wings and concentrate on the perimeter players. There is so much instruction going on, but the coaches are harmonious, never stepping on each other. Howland, at breaks, calls the coaches in and they compare notes for the next segment. It's a well-organized, precise, intense practice atmosphere.

Cedric Bozeman said at Media Day a couple of weeks ago that he believed the two big men – Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins – were the most improved players on the team. And after watching practice today for the first time, we now have some newfound appreciation for Bozeman's evaluation talents.

Fey and Hollins are quite improved, in many different facets. Today, Hollins perhaps had a better practice than Fey, looking more active and effective. Hollins has gotten bigger in his upper body, particularly in his arms. He's more physical and not as easily pushed around as he was last season. He's by no means Tractor Traylor, but he can bang better down low. He flew around like he's known to do, blocking some shots and exploding for some high-flying dunks. But that actually wasn't the most impressive aspect of his practice. His ability to post up has drastically improved, within just a few weeks. He knows how to use his length to get space now, and how to keep his butt down to keep his center of gravity low. He looked quite a bit improved in setting up and catching the ball inside. He showed a couple of nice finishes, mostly short jump hooks. On one he came across the lane with a nice touch. The question, as will be with Michael Fey, is how much further he can develop this year in being able to finish. His footwork has come a long way, but it's still not fluid and assured, nor are his scoring moves.

Fey looks quite a bit quicker off the floor than he did a season ago. He's leaned down and it shows in his athleticism. He's also developed in the post and has a better natural scoring feel around the basket than Hollins. He still, sometimes, hesitates to take it strong to the basket, but his aggressiveness has improved. He, too, needs to get a better go-to type move in which he's confident – and in which it's almost certain to go down every time.

But both Fey and Hollins looked good overall. They're not going to be big, low-post scorers this year, but they're definitely good enough to be a threat and have to draw defenses. Both also showed nice touches to about 15 feet. Fey is an exceptional free-throw shooter.

Fey and Hollins, though, spent a lot of time setting screens in Howland's offense. A lot and often. In fact, the whole team set more screens in one hour of practice than they probably set all of last season. Howland's motion offense is based on screening – and screening and screening. Ball screens, double screens, down screens – there are multiple screens going on at any given moment. Fey and Hollins, while they've improved in their screening technique and are adequate, still are not as effective as they could be – or as they probably will be by the season's end.

Trevor Ariza showed some great versatility. He was able to defend down low fairly well, but step out offensively and shoot. His outside shot has definitely improved, even though it still needs more polish. He, though, is going to be a touch match-up defensively, as defenders will have to step out with him to keep him honest, which will free up room inside, and also give him opportunities to create.

Ariza, also, is an excellent passer. He was in high school, and he showed it again in practice today, and the coaches have commented on it since practice began. He was very effective today away from the basket, drawing his defender, and then finding a cutter with a nice pass. In fact, if there was one aspect of the team that was particularly exception today was the collective passing.

Thompson, in Howland's offense, will get a lot of looks off screens and movement. From today you can tell that he feels very comfortable in the offense, knows where he should be setting up and catching. It's obvious that he'll have the green light to score, and knows the nooks and crannies of the offense to find his shot. Watch for him coming around multiple screens and finding 10-15 footers on the wing and along the baseline, where Thompson loves to shoot.

While Brian Morrison didn't necessarily shoot the ball well today in practice, he was fairly impressive. He played mostly under control, over-penetrating a little and perhaps trying too hard and over-passing at times. Howland reminded him, "You're a good shooter, take that open shot." He's in excellent shape, much better seemingly than he was just a month or so ago. He showed some decent quickness, played well defensively, and on offense looked like he felt very comfortable in the offense and finding his shot. He also passed the ball well.

When Cedric Bozeman said that the two big men could be the most improved, that might be true, but it's also being humble. Bozeman could very well, by the end of the season, be the player that many consider having a break-out season. We don't want to go too overboard here and not blow expectations out of whack, but it's pretty safe to say that Bozeman looked very good in practice today.

To begin with, his size on the perimeter is a tough matchup, both offensively and defensively. On offense, he's so big it's hard to get into his dribble. Ryan Walcott defended him most of the day and couldn't get him off track. A few times, coming off screens he was just too big for the defense to keep away from the basket, easily scoring. He's also so tall he has a great angle in seeing the halfcourt offense unfold, and has very good passing vision as a result. He got off some very pretty, thread-the-needle passes in practice today that drew praise from the coaches. His shot has improved, while it's still a bit awkward. He did hit three 3s, which was encouraging, but looked somewhat tentative. Defensively, Bozeman's a bitch, though. When Howland said that Bozeman was the best on-the-ball defender on the team he wasn't exaggerating. Bozeman, with his length and foot quickness, and defensive smarts, is going to be tough defensively for opposing, smaller guards.

Staying to play for Ben Howland might be the smartest thing that T.J. Cummings ever did. Cummings has some talent, but hasn't ever really had a great natural instinct for the game, or for playing within a team concept. In Howland's offense, you're forced to. In this offense, Cummings will get far less chance to put the ball on the floor, where he tends to get in trouble, but will be rolling off screens for open 15 footers – what he does best. He was also very eager to learn in practice today, and Howland praised him for knowing what he did wrong and correcting it. If and when Cummings returns, he'll help the team's shooting percentage primarily.

Ryan Walcott is another player who will benefit from Howland's system and instruction. Walcott will get the backup minutes at the point, and for those 8-10 minutes a game he needs to play good defense and play solidly on offense. His shot has improved considerably, which is really good news, and will make him so much more effective. He tends to get in trouble when he tries to drive, and overplay, but with his improved shot he'll hopefully now tend to stay on the perimeter and wait for kick outs. The coaches were continually trying to work on his defense against Bozeman, trying to cut off Bozeman's passing vision and beating him to the spot and not reach.

Jon Crispin was perhaps the player most out-of-sync at practice, not quite in the flow of the offense and taking a few badly chosen shots. He still does have a good outside shot, and if Howland can get him to work better within the offense to get better looks than he did today, he could still possibly contribute some outside shooting off the bench.

Janou Rubin has a chance to contribute off the bench. He plays well within the concept of Howland's offense and is a good enough defender. In Howland's offense, with so much screening going on down low, there are plenty of opportunities for open looks out to the three-point line, and Rubin's improved shot could help to take advantage of that, like it did a couple of times today.

The offense generally makes everyone look more polished and more experienced, and it had the same effect for Josiah Johnson. While he probably won't see much time with his limited athleticism, his nice outside shooting touch fits the system well, with him popping out off screens, catching kick outs and hitting a couple of threes today.

The team, offensively, hurried some shots, and at times struggled to finish inside due to a lack of polished scoring moves by its big men. But the activity that set up the looks – the screening and ball movement – was very nice and a complete departure from any recent UCLA team. While they might not have the great shooters or the polished scoring big men to finish, their execution in generating the look was impressive today in practice.

Defensively, the starting team looked better in its man defense than its zone, with its perimeter defenders able to limit guard play considerably. Fey and Hollins are improved presences in the middle, flying around to block shots, particularly Hollins. The technique and effort level on defense, and the players' ability to push through screens and rotate, is quite a bit tighter than it has been. The team defense, still, needs to tighten up more, but the individual on-the-ball defense has improved dramatically from player to player.

Recruit Kevin Langford
Coach Howland came up to a few reporters after practice and asked, "How'd we look?" Anyone who has followed UCLA's basketball team in recent years could only be a bit in shock by the marked difference in the team. Howland did say that the team really wanted to make a great effort today to impress the media, and they succeeded.

ESPN's Jay Bilas watched practice today. ESPN apparently is putting together a segment on Howland, which should air soon. In fact, the reason the practice session was opened to the media was because ESPN wanted access to do this segment, so UCLA had to open practice to all media.

Kevin Langford, the prospect from Texas who is on his official visit to UCLA, watched from the bench. Once he stood up, he looked to be about 6-7ish.

A couple of video interviews and a photo gallery will be coming soon...

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