Inside Look at Hoops Practice

With basketball practice closed to the public and the media, here's some inside buzz on how it's been going after the first week. The freshmen look stellar, and there is competition at many positions for playing time...

Basketball practices are closed to the public and the media.

But we've accumulated a few opinions of some respectable individuals who happened to witness a few practices in the first week.

So, here's what we've heard:

Dijon Thompson, the 6-7 senior small forward, cut his hand in a practice last Wednesday and had to get four stitches, which will be removed November 1st.  He has been practicing, but not shooting since the injury.

Previous to the injury, the reports out of practice indicated that Thompson looked very good. He is still pretty thin, even a bit thinner than he was last season, but his skills have improved to a degree. With the competition around him at the wing positions, he's also stepped up his effort as a senior.  He's bought into Head Coach Ben Howland's system.

Arron Afflalo, the 6-5 freshman shooting guard, has also been an early standout.  Afflalo has such a great body and is so strong that many times he's too tough to defend, especially by smaller wings like Brian Morrison.  Afflalo is playing exceptionally hard in practice. His shot has been hot and cold - one day shooting really well, the next not.  But he's so advanced for a freshman in his knowledge of the game, he's been well coached, he's physically so strong, and his effort level is so high that he has easily been one of the best players on the team in the first week in practice.  It's almost certain he'll start. 

Jordan Farmar, the 6-1 freshman point guard, has brought a new dimension to the roster - that of a true point guard.  Farmar has been stellar in running the offense, and getting the ball to his teammates in good scoring position. His shooting has also been hot and cold, but overall he brings a vastly improved shooting ability to the point guard spot. Farmar is also a hoops junkie who can't soak up enough basketball. He has the UCLA basketball video guys supplying him video of many hours of NBA and college games.

Cedric Bozeman, the 6-6 senior point guard and wing, has looked particularly good so far.  There was a great deal of speculation that there'd be some animosity between the veterans and the freshmen, but there truly hasn't been, and Bozeman has really been good in assisting with that chemistry transition. He's also played very well as a wing, mostly as a small forward. He is the team's best perimeter, on-the-ball defender, easily, and offensively he's been effective. His shot has improved; it's not lights out, but he has a quicker, smoother release, and it goes down more often.  With him on the wing, it provides a great play-making ability, especially in transition.  Whether he plays at point guard or at the wing, you can probably expect Bozeman to see the floor quite a bit.

6-2 senior guard Brian Morrison is one of the team's best outside shooters.  He still struggles with decision-making at times, penetrating and dribbling too much and with shot selection, but when he's coming off a pick and gets a Farmar dish, he's looked really good in knocking down the shot.

6-11 junior center Michael Fey could be the team's most improved player.  Yes, you might have heard this before about Fey, but he has definitely improved.  He has improved his body, now up to about 270 with considerably more strength.  His offensive repetoire has gotten more varied, with some nice jump hooks. He's very accurate with his face-up jumper from anywhere within 15 feet.  He needs to continue to learn to slow down when he gets the ball. He's now bigger and stronger than anyone else on the court, and no one is going to really physically be able to stop him in the block, so he has to learn that there's no reason to rush.  Defensively and in rebounding, he's gotten a bit better as his strength has improved, but nothing too drastic.

Perhaps the surprise so far in the first week of practice is the fact that Matt McKinney, the 6-8 sophomore, is pushing for serious playing time at power forward. As McKinney said at Media Day, he knows that if he plays defense, sets picks and rebounds he'll get on the floor, and that's what he's been doing - exactly what Howland has asked of him. There's a definite chance that McKinney could start at the power forward position over 6-11 junior Ryan Hollins. Hollins is rusty, due to the recovery from the injury, but he also still was the rawest among the returning players and had the furthest to go in his development anyway.  He'll have another month or so before the opening game of the season, and that could be enough for Hollins to pull back ahead of McKinney. 

Behind Fey at center is 6-9 freshman Lorenzo Mata. Mata epitomizes rawness, but his improvement is perceivable in every practice. From different reports, you can see him not only getting better from the beginning of practice to the end of practice, but from the beginning of a drill to the end of it.  He can do basic things athletically that no one else on the team can - primarily being able to get off the floor so quickly, especially on the second jump. He's still learning how to play in the post. But he's good enough naturally and is getting so much better so quickly that he'll easily see the floor in significant back-up minutes immediately.

Janou Rubin, the senior wing, is showing his experience, playing smart and knocking down available shots.  He and 6-5 freshman Josh Shipp will compete for back-up minutes at the wing spots. Shipp has looked okay, having to step up his intensity a notch, but has good shooting skills from deep and medium-range.  While you might think about redshirting Shipp, you really need him to get some game experience this year since next year they'll lose quite a few wings and he'll definitely be needed to play significant minutes.

Josiah Johnson, the 6-7 senior, has slimmed down quite a bit, having lost probably 25 pounds, which has helped his mobility. He's behind McKinney and Hollins at the four position.

From a playing time standpoint, reports indicate that it's probable Farmar will be seeing the most minutes at the point guard position. Bozeman will play the point and probably either wing position, and get significant minutes.  Afflalo has been so good he'll probably start at the shooting guard position, with Thompson at the three.  Morrison will get significant minutes off the bench, and then you'll see Rubin and Shipp.  McKinney, as of right now, could have the edge for the starting position at the four, with Hollins behind him, and Johnson. At center, there's Fey, with Mata off the bench.

Recruiting Note: Patrick Christopher, a 6-4 junior shooting guard from Lakewood (Calif.) Mayfair attended a practice recently.

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