Howland Talks About Practice

With practices closed for UCLA's first ten practices this season so far, Head Coach Ben Howland talked with Bruin Report Online today, to provide us a quick rundown on how practices are going. He talks about Josh Shipp's improvement, and his surprise over Russell Westbrook...

So far, since basketball practice began October 13th, all practices have been closed to the media.


UCLA fans are, of course, jonesing for some news out of practice. 


Head Coach Ben Howland provided a little relief today when he gave Bruin Report Online an exclusive update on how practice has been going.


How's practice been going?


"It's been going well. We've had ten practices, and we're off today and then we'll resume on Wednesday.  I've been pleased, especially with the last couple of practices. We scrimmaged on Saturday and I didn't think it was very good. We have a long way to go to be a good team, and not a lot of time to go a long way. We have a game cmoing up in three weeks from tomorrow. But the last two practices were better."


How is Lorenzo Mata?


"The same. Nothing has changed. We're expecting him back in 2 ½ to 3 weeks. It's still not certain whether he'll be back in time for BYU."


And Nikola Dragovic has been hurt, correct?


"He practiced yesterday, but not completely. He still has pain and soreness in his quad, and it's hampered him. He's missed a number of practices and that's hurt him, since he is a freshman and has a lot to learn."


Is it a situation where, being a freshman and from another country, missing the beginning of practice could set him back for the rest of the season?


"For him it's really important to practice. But he did do more fullcourt yesterday than he had in any of the other nine practices."


How is Josh Shipp?


"Josh is playing very well right now. The part of his game that has improved is his outside shot. He's a much better three-point shooter than he was as a freshman. Through ten practices he's shooting 52% from three, and that's in competitive drills. He's shooting 62% overall."


Has his shot shortened up?


"He has better follow-through. He's stronger, so more of his legs are in it. He's put in countless hours shooting the ball in the off-season, so you have to give him credit for working so hard at it.


"And speaking of improved shooting, Mike Roll has really improved, all of his game actually. But he's shooting really well, with a lot of confidence. Exceptionally well."


We've heard that Alfred Aboya has played well in practice...


"Aflred has improved a lot from last season, getting that year of experience. He's playing very hard, and doing a lot of things. He's definitely scoring better down low, too."


Is Arron Afflalo 100%?


"He actually tweaked his hamstring the last couple of days. Arron will, of course, be one of our best players."


Has his shot improved since last season?


"When all is said and done he'll end up a better shooter than he was a year ago,  yes."


Will Afflalo get the back-up point guard minutes, or has Russell Westbrook earned those in practice?


"Russell Westbrook had done a good job. He's playing the point, and he'll be our back-up point guard fo rnow. I'm confident he'll be a good player for us, in terms of being able to play the position. And I really didn't know that until these ten practices. He does what he needs to do at the position – he defends well, and he's making good decisions. Right now his assist-to-turnover ration is just 1-to-1 and that has to improve. But he's doing a good job. Playing point guard is a whole different animal, having to get others involved and initiate the offense. But I've been pleasantly surprised by Russell's ability, not as a player, but as a point. And the thing is, he's been going against Darren Collison in practice, who is a very good on-ball defender."


How is Westbrook's handle?


"It's pretty good. He has to better, has to lower his dribble. Sometimes he gambles with decisions, but it's a learning process and I'm pleased with how he's looked  so far."


How is Darren Collison?


"He's playing well. He's looked good both offensively and defensively, very quick, but stronger from last season, which has improved his ball-handling."


We've heard reports that Ryan Wright has struggled to start off practice...


"The last two practices have been Wright's best. He is actually our leading rebounder, of all the players in ten practices. And that's way better than it was a year ago. Last year he'd get on him for getting just one rebound in a practice. But I'm very pleased."


What has made the difference in the last two practices?


"We're trying to simplify things for him, and he's doing a decent job of slowing down. I've been encouraged the last two days. The first five or six practices he was trying too hard and pressing. The last couple of days he's been letting things come to him and not pressing. He's definitely going to play."


How has James Keefe been?


"He's done a good job. He's shooting well, being selective. In ten practices, he's taken 12 threes and made six of them. He's shooting 56% overall. He's been pretty good at taking care of the ball, with his turnover count pretty low. And that's something since he's being guarded by Luc (Richard Mbah a Moute). Yesterday, Keefe had his best rebounding day, leading the team in the practice with 11 rebounds."


He'll strictly be able to guard fours, but not fives?


"It wouldn't be easy for him to defend fives. We don't have the type of fives on our team that he could face. The size would be a problem for him. He's 220 pounds. Right now, he'll have a hard time matching up against (Washington's) Jon Brockman, who is 245 pounds. We might have to play Alfred at the four against Brockman."


How has Luc been?


"Luc's been good. He's shooting the ball better. We just don't want him to lose sight of what makes him so special, and that's playing hard and the little things he does. He's our best post defender. He's an outstanding passer. When he's playing hard as he can play he's an oustanding player. Just high-enery."


How has the walk-on freshman, Mustafa Abdul-Hamid, been? Will he contribute?


"He's been good and done a good job. He's getting a lot of opportunity in practice. I don't know if he'll get time this year, but it's just good to have him on the squad, no question."


So, when are you going to let the media in for a practice, coach?


"Next Tuesday. We'll open practice up for the media types."


Did you watch the UCLA-Notre Dame game?

"I did. We actually had a team barbecue over at my house, with 40 former players. We were all cheering. It was a shame they lost."

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