Look In at Basketball Practice

We got our first look at the 2004-2005 Basketball Bruins Thursday when practice was opened to the media. UCLA is very talented and deep on the perimeter, but still very thin inside. Some of the lineup combinations are interesting...

UCLA basketball opened its doors for the media Thursday.

It's the one glimpse of practice we get all season. So, savor this.

First, some bits of news.  For its second exhibition, UCLA has droped Centro Universitario Mineiro Uberlandia, a team from Brazil.  Apparently there were questions about this team's legitimacy.  Replacing them for the exhibition game November 11th is Monterey Tech, from Mexico. 

UCLA's first exhibition game is against Simon Fraser, located in Burnaby, British Columbia. Nicknamed "the Clan," they will have played nine exhibition games around the country before playing UCLA November 5th.   So far this fall, they've lost to Pacific, 86-58; lost to Kansas State, 80-73; and lost to Western Washington, 87-76, among others.

UCLA currently has 12 players on scholarship, so you would naturally assume there is a scholarship available to award this season. But, in fact, there isn't. When Ryan Walcott announced on September 30th he was leaving the program to transfer to Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona, it was past the time when the NCAA already designated him as a counter for the 2004-2005 season for UCLA. 

Okay, on to the practice...

Even coming off a day of rest Wednesday, the team still is a bit banged up physically.  It was their 11th day of practice.

Dijon Thompson still has four stitches in his shooting hand between two fingers. It was intended that he wouldn't shoot until he got the stitches out on November 1st, but the training staff devised a little pad for him to wear over the stitches that allows him to shoot. He said it does alter his shot.

There are a few players with banged up knees, including Lorenzo Mata. Hollins has been a bit hampered by his surgically-repaired knee.

Brian Morrison wears a brace on his slightly injured elbow.  Cedric Bozeman has his right thumb wrapped.  Jordan Farmar has experienced a little tendinitis. 

Head Coach Ben Howland said there were no serious injuries, though, that he's worried about. "You're always going to have that. It's a typical thing," Howland said. "We have a great trainer in Tony Spino, and he's there at 7 a.m. to lights out, and the kids get in there and spend a lot of time with him. For the most part, we're okay in that respect."

The squad practiced for about 2 hours and 40 minutes.  Most of the drills consisted of different types of scrimmaging, such as 3-on-3, or even 1-on-1. 

Quick initial impressions were how good Arron Afflalo is, how physically strong and skilled he is; how Cedric Bozeman looks good as a wing; and the viability of power forward Matt McKinney.

Afflalo, physically, can be dominant. Many times he's just too strong for someone to defend. He couples that with a great skill level, being able to shoot the ball very well, but also passing the ball and understanding the offensive philosophy. 

Bozeman is playing some point guard, but also getting time on the wing, at either shooting guard or small forward. He is the team's best perimeter, on-the-ball defender, really just about the only guy who consistently defend Afflalo.  His shot is not lights out, but it has improved, smoother and with a more compact motion. He has gotten more aggressive and physical taking the ball to the basket. He had a couple of eye-opening drives to the rim.  The dimension he brings on the wing, too, is intriguing. If Jordan Farmar is playing point guard, with Bozeman at one of the wing positions, there is such an added degree of play-making on the floor.  In transition in practice, it was very noticeable, with Farmar catching an outlet and advancing the ball to a sprinting Bozeman down the court who then is able to pass the ball in transition. 

Cedric Bozeman and Ben Howland.

Matt McKinney has physically gotten bigger, not only in his upper body but throughout his lower body.  He struggled a bit on Thursday, but it was obvious that he'll have an impact on the team this season. He is doing what Howland likes and wants from his four man - playing defense physically, setting screens and rebounding.  While he's not a bad shooter, if he can get his 15-footer automatic, it would greatly enhance his chances to see the floor more often. He does definitely help in the team's rebounding, having good athleticism and decent quickness off the floor.  In one sequence, he had a great board, which he grabbed over a couple of defenders high above the rim, followed by a nice putback.

Jordan Farmar looks very good, in providing the true point guard skills the team has lacked. He runs the team, find opportunities to set up his teammates, looks to get out and run, and passes the ball extremely well.  In one scrimmage, with Bozeman playing alongside him, Farmar found Bozeman in transition with a lob that Bozeman slammed.

Dijon Thompson, as stated above, is hindered in his shooting by the bandage on his hand.  He is playing very well, though, and there is a marked different in his effort level, particulary on defense.

Brian Morrison had the best day shooting, perhaps hitting 70% of his shots and probably about 20 threes during the course of the practice. Without keeping exact stats, it appeared he only missed two outside shots all of practice.  Seemingly every time he had a look at the basket, he made the shot.  He had a couple of nice passes, to go along with a couple of foolish passes, and some over-dribbling.

Michael Fey struggled Thursday.  He had the same trouble as we saw last year catching the ball in the post, and also in finishing strong.  Head Coach Ben Howland later said that it wasn't a great practice for Fey, compared to how well he had been doing in the previous 10 practices. 

Ryan Hollins looks particularly rusty and, actually, like he's been set back a bit by his injury.  He appears less mobile overall, possibly still tentative on the knee, and his skill level in being able to post-up hasn't developed much since last year. If you remember, Hollins looked like he had developed considerably in the second half of last season, but he looks like he isn't at that level now.

Lorenzo Mata, quite simply, is the team's most talented post player. He's so raw that he's still not as effective as others at this point, but it's clear he's the most talented. His ability to get off the floor quickly makes him the team's best natural rebounder. And even though he's so inexperienced, he probably has the best instinctual feel around the basket offensively.  He's still learning how to post up properly, but he looked better by the end of practice than he did at the beginning.

Josh Shipp will get time in the rotation on the wing, but probably not much after Afflalo, Morrison, Thompson, and Bozeman.  He had some good moments Thursday, where he shot the ball pretty well and made some good decisions. He just, right now, doesn't have the intensity to get him on the same level as, say, Afflalo or Morrison. It's critical, though, that Shipp get some experience since next season UCLA will lose Morrison, Thompson and Bozeman and need Shipp on the wing.

An interesting lineup during one scrimmage was Farmar at the point, Bozeman at the two-guard, Thompson at the three, McKinney at power forward and Fey at the five.  With Bozeman at the two, it does give up some shooting ability as opposed to having Afflalo or Morrison, but his play-making ability is very intriguing, especially alongside Farmar.  And, in fact, Farmar's outside shooting makes up for Bozeman's. Defensively it's very good on the perimeter, getting Bozeman's defense on the opposing shooting guard.  Quite plainly, if Bozeman can prove he can shoot the ball decently, he's been so good in practice, including on Thursday, that it would be difficult to keep him off the floor this season. At the same time, the team seems to need Farmar's point guard skills. So putting the two of them on the floor could be one possible solution. If you then need a dose of outside shooting, you have Afflalo and Morrison.

Rebounding looks to still be the team's primary weakness. It still appears that neither Fey nor Hollins are going to be significantly better rebounders this season.  They will, undoubtedly, improve their numbers from last season, but neither shows the capability of really dominating the boards. Mata and McKinney very well could see solid minutes just merely to get some rebounding in the game. 

The perimeter shooting and playmaking, though, on this team looks to be outstanding, with so many weapons from the outside.  It's pretty evident that if UCLA can get some decent, solid play from its interior players, the talent and depth on the perimeter is going to be the catalyst to the season.

Michael Roll, the 6-4 senior wing from Aliso Viejo (Calif.) High, watched practice intently with his father.  He then met with Howland and assistant Kerry Keating after practice where he was offered a scholarship. We'll have some analysis on the implications of offering Roll later today.

All of Howland's post-practice comments are also on the way, along with some comments from Dijon Thompson.

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