UCLA Hoops Players This Summer

While we are wary of drawing conclusions from performances in summer pick-up games and the Say No League, here's a look at how the UCLA basketball players have been developing this summer. Darren Collison might be the most improved among the group, James Keefe is going to get minutes and Nikola Dragovic is intriguing...

I had a chance to watch most of the basketball team over the last couple weeks, either at the Say No league or in pickup games at the UCLA Men's Gym. While I really hesitate to draw any conclusions from these environments, I know fans are anxious to get any bits of impressions on players during the off-season. So keeping in mind that these were not real basketball games, and not necessarily indicative of performance once the season starts, I thought I'd offer some observations gathered over the last couple weeks.

Darren Collison was very impressive in the pickup games I saw, as he shot the ball very well and showed a stronger handle. He's clearly worked on getting his dribble lower and he seemingly got to the basket at will. He has a tendency to over-dribble at times, but he showed improved vision and had several nice passes. Physically, he's filled out a bit through the chest and shoulders. While UCLA would obviously have benefited from Farmar returning for his junior year, the players on the team all have a lot of confidence in Collison. And he seems to have a lot of confidence in himself. He's clearly matured a great deal in the last year and he looks more comfortable running the point than he did last summer.

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is obviously spending a lot of time working on his perimeter skills. His handle is much better and his shot shows improvement in the 15-17 foot range. It looks like defenders will have to at least honor his shot in that range. He's not yet a three-point shooter, but he's making progress. With his improved ball skills, he figures to be a very difficult match up. Power forwards might not be quick enough to stay with him and small forwards won't be strong enough.

Mike Roll looks like he's been working on his body, as he's in very good shape and moving well. He's shooting the ball a little deeper and you can see he's working on his ability to get his own shot. Roll's a very smart player and I expect he'll learn to score in a variety of ways as he grows more comfortable in the college game.

I saw Josh Shipp play one game in the Say No league and it was a mixed bag. His skill level looked fine and he elevated pretty well in transition a couple times. The concern I had was he's not yet back physically to where he was last August before his injury. He's not moving as well laterally and his body isn't as toned as it was last year. However, he still has a few months before the season starts and it's quite conceivable he'll be fine by then.

Nikola Dragovic is just a hair under 6-8 and he's very skilled on the perimeter. Watching him play, I'd guess that his favorite player is Peja Stojakovic. He loves to shoot the three and with good reason. He's got an excellent stroke and deep range. At this point, he looks to be more of a shooter than scorer. In pickup games, he's spent most of his time at the stripe shooting jump shots. There hasn't been much opportunity to see him make plays off the dribble or do anything inside. He looks to be pretty bouncy, but his lateral quickness has been tough to judge. He doesn't look to be your typical freshman, as he's a bit older and he's played against a high level of competition in Europe. He definitely plays with an air of confidence. Just based on the little I've seen, I'd expect him to have an impact at the offensive end. How big his overall impact will be is probably going to be determined by his ability to defend and rebound.

The three returning post players – Lorenzo Mata, Alfred Aboya and Ryan Wright – have each shown slight improvement in the games I've seen, but nothing earth-shattering. Of the three, it looks to me like Mata probably still has the edge. He's a terrific athlete and his shot-blocking/rebounding are more advanced than the other two. Also, Mata has a face-up jumper that the other two don't possess. He's working on a jump hook and you can see it becoming a weapon down the road. Aboya and Wright are both physical and active interior players, but Aboya looks to have a little better feel around the basket and he converts a higher percentage of close opportunities. Wright plays hard and you can see he really wants to make plays when he gets the ball in the post. As a result, he sometimes rushes things and tries to play too quickly. As he grows more comfortable, and the game slows down for him, I expect Wright to be a solid contributor.

James Keefe comes into the UCLA as the prize of the recruiting class and with good reason. He plays the same way in a pickup game as he does in a CIF championship game. Keefe's approach, feel, skill level and athleticism are going to get him major minutes as a freshman. The big advantage he has over the other post players is his ability to make shots. He's becoming very accurate in the 15-18 foot range. When he's squared up, and on balance, he makes a lot of shots. He's got three-point range, but his percentage drops a bit behind the stripe. Keefe is constantly in motion and you will see him make a lot of plays just because he never stops moving or working. He's the fastest big man on the team and he will beat his man down the court to get points in transition. He needs to get better at scoring in the paint, as he's truly a face-up four man at this point. But in Coach Howland's offense, that's not a bad thing to be (ask Dijon Thompson).

It's pretty obvious watching Russell Westbrook that the most critical aspects to his development will be mental. He's got the physical tools to play at this level as a shooting guard. He's 6-3, with a great body and very good athleticism. He's more of a scorer than pure shooter, but does have range to the stripe. He's got a nice pull-up shot off the dribble. His best chance at getting minutes, though, might come because of his defense. He's got a chance to be an outstanding defender. But, as I mentioned, it's all about the mental things – at both ends of the court – with Westbrook. Learning about shot selection, valuing the ball, understanding game situations, knowing how to create a shot for a teammate – those are the types of things Westbrook needs to learn. If he can do those things, he might spend some time at point guard.

Mustafa Abdul-Hamid, the 6-1 walk-on point guard from St. Louis, doesn't figure to play many minutes this year. But there are a few things that bode well for him as a possible emergency guard in the future. He's got good size and he's a pretty good athlete. He competes very well and he's smart. While he's not a shooter, he can make shots if left open. Most importantly, he's got the size and quickness to potentially defend at the Pac-10 level some day. That ability, more than anything, is probably his best chance at getting minutes sometime in the future.

Arron Afflalo, of course, hasn't played since early in the summer due to stress fracture in his foot. He's expected back by mid- to late-September.

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