Of course, there were two very important prospects on their official visits to UCLA, Chase Budinger, the 6-7 small forward from Encinitas (Calif.) La Costa Canyon, and James Keefe, the 6-8 power forward from Rancho Santa Margarita (Calif.) Santa Margarita.
There were also some interesting ringers playing. A couple of very notable high school sophomores participated, in Alex Jacobson, the 6-11 center from Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, and Chace Stanback, the 6-5 wing from Los Angeles (Calif.) Fairfax,. 6-3 Fairfax shooting guard, Jerren Shipp (Josh's little brother), also played.
Showing up late but playing was UCLA's incoming point guard, Darren Collison, from Etiwanda.
J.R. Smith, the rookie with the New Orleans Hornets who went pro right out of high school last year, also stopped by to play.
As I said, it made for an interesting afternoon.
First, the prospects on their visits:
Budinger played particularly well, and it wasn't just random luck that he played on Jordan Farmar's team in every game. Farmar was out to set up Budinger, and he did, with some nice open looks from the outside and with some great, needle-threading passes that Budinger finished inside. Budinger hit every spot-up outside jumper I saw, on one coming around a screen quickly to receive a Farmar pass and nailing a three. He was great in transition and was good around the basket rebounding and with put-backs. In other words, a very typical outing for Budinger. He also looked particularly comfortable receiving dimes from Farmar.
Keefe started out slowly, seemingly with his shot a bit flat. But a couple of games into it, he really came on – and his shot starting dropping. In one game, being left open from the outside, he drained three threes in a row, and also a 15-footer. He had a nice put-back slam, and a few nice rebounds. It was, of course, tough for him to guard someone like Mike Fey, but he used his quickness quite often to go around defenders easily. Keefe was measured at 6-7 ¾ in bare feet, and weighed 212 pounds. UCLA's goal for Keefe is to finish his senior year at 220 pounds, and he just gained about 8 pounds since the end of his junior season, so it looks like he'll be able to meet UCLA's goal for him.
Together the two juniors were very impressive.
The current players:
Across the board, everyone looks physically bigger. Farmar has gained a lot of muscle, particularly in his shoulders and just carries himself more solidly. Farmar played fine, his shot not necessarily falling, but he made up for it with his passing, and he seemed to have a newfound vigor for defense, since he now has some muscle to throw around.
Josh Shipp looks particularly bigger in his arms and shoulders, and has trimmed down the rest of his body. His shooting stroke has shortened up also, with him taking less time to get it off. He didn't have a great afternoon, but it's generally accepted that in the team workouts for the last month Shipp has been outstanding, quite possibly the team's best player.
The guy who looks really physically huge is Lorenzo Mata. His arms and shoulders are monstrous. And he used them very effectively. On one rebound he went up, came back down, bumped a couple of defenders out of his way before going back up for a baseline slam. On one fast break, Farmar hit him at the free throw line, and he took two quick steps and threw down the ball with some considerable, not-seen-before ferocity. Like Farmar, he looks far more solid on the floor with the added muscle.
Ryan Hollins has also gotten noticeably bigger in his upper body, and his game looks like it's improved. It is, after all, the first summer in two years he's been able to work on basketball, and reportedly he really has dedicated himself. All of last season it seemed like he was still slowed a bit by the knee injury from the previous season. But it now looks like it doesn't limit him at all, returning to his hyper-bouncy self. And he does look like he's improved as a basketball player. Even though this was just a pick-up game, and we've gotten into trouble before by talking about a player who "improved" when we saw him in a summer game, Hollins did appear like he's gotten better. He had two catches in the post, with a turn and a jump hook, and didn't shuffle his feet. He appears to be far more comfortable with his back to the basket. He also made a couple of outside jumpers with more confidence.
We had reported that Mike Fey had gained some unwanted weight during the spring, which was true. He's now back down to about 270, and looking fit. He looked about the same as he did last season, with a nice face-up shot, and probably too much finesse in finishing around the basket. He is, though, again, so huge. It wasn't exactly fair when Keefe had to guard him.
Arron Afflalo's shot has improved, and he obviously has more confidence in it. He forced the action a little too much, probably challenged by playing against J.R. Smith.
Walk-on DeAundre Robinson doesn't look like he's bought into the weight training like the rest of the team, but looked far more comfortable than we've ever seen him at UCLA, hitting a couple of threes.
Darren Collison came late, so he was a bit tentative in the couple of games I saw him play. But when he started to get comfortable, his quickness on the court was unique.
Chace Stanback is a player. He is very skilled and has a great natural feel for the game as a sophomore. He made a couple of very nice plays, hit some shots, but showed great awareness in passing the ball. Jacobson held his own fairly well, bodying up against the likes of Fey, who must outweigh him by 50 pounds, at least. But he played aggressively, rebounded well, and blocked a dunk. Jerren Shipp, as a junior, would be a great walk-on at UCLA, with a very nice outside jumper, and an improving body, but he'll probably go Big West level.
Overall it was a good, interesting afternoon. Some word among a few onlookers was that UCLA was doing very well with Budinger on his visit, especially with Keefe, a good friend, on his official visit with Budinger, and Keefe's parents spending time with Budinger's parents. It was also good to see Jacobson's father in attendance.