It was a pretty typical Ben Howland practice: Very up-tempo, physical, precise and timed down to the second. Howland spent the entire 2 hours and 20 minutes teaching, always voicing some instruction, observation, criticism or praise.
We'll only provide you a few of the practice drills, so we don't give away everything that Howland does in practice, and a general overview of every player.
Of course, the biggest curiosity of the day is to watch Kevin Love, UCLA's prized freshman post, practice in a UCLA uniform on Pauley Pavilion's floor. After watching him for more than three years in AAU and high school ball, it is almost surreal to see him practicing as a Bruin. He definitely looks more svelte, and the presence he brings to the floor has such a huge impact. Ever since Howland arrived at UCLA there was always at least a bit of a dearth of big men on the roster, and definitely a lack of inside scoring, but no longer. In fact, it might have been our imagination, but it seemed that now Howland is emphasizing post play more than ever. It makes sense; when you have one of the best interior scorers around you would definitely shift your focus to exploiting it.
It wasn't surprising for us to see how skilled Love is, since we've seen him play so many times – being able to score on either block with either hand, the drop steps, the nice, compact jumper, etc. What was interesting to see, though, is just how physical he is, even in the environment of an elite college program. Love has always been very physical but going up against some players renowned for their physical play – Lorenzo Mata-Real and Alfred Aboya – Love still didn't looked too challenged physically. He was still easily able to post up and get position in the block. He did, perhaps, look a bit fatigued, lacking some energy to his step, but it's expected after the first tend days of getting pretty beaten up by the likes of Aboya and Mata-Real, and undergoing the rigors of Howland's practices. The best thing he did in this practice Monday was pass out of the post. In some five-on-fives, when the emphasis was working in the motion offense, when he posts up on a block, Love laid off a few exceptional passes to cutters under the basket with precise bounce passes. He's so comfortable and under control in the block, and has such excellent vision that you can understand if a great deal of UCLA's offense is going to start from that point – like Love is a point-center. In fact, the set UCLA was working was to post up on the strong side and run screens away from the ball on the weakside and allow Love (and the other posts) to find the open man.
After watching UCLA so limited in its offense in the last several years, being primarily perimeter oriented, you can probably expect to see the Bruin offense tweaked some, operating more inside-out this season, with the addition of Love.
Howland said that Love had his best practice on Saturday, when he went 15 for 25 from the field and had 14 rebounds.
But there is also Mata-Real, who has definitely improved his low-post scoring. Mata-Real's footwork has improved and his touch around the basket, and he looks far less in a hurry when he catches the ball in the post. Of course, this was just practice, but the word around the program is that Mata-Real's interior game has indeed improved. He's also far more accurate shooting from within 15 feet when he faces up. His best sequence of the day was when he tapped away the ball from Love on defense, then ran the court and followed up a missed lay-up with a huge put-back dunk, with Howland praising him for his hustle. Mata-Real didn't look hindered at all by the recent knee injury that kept him out of the first five or so practices of the season. At the end of practice, he did have ice on the ankle, as well as on his knee and shoulder.
The most effective player Monday was Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. First off, he clearly looks to be in better shape, definitely a bit leaner. He's also clearly quicker than he was last season. While you've heard reports in the past of players' shots improving and it doesn't necessarily turn out to be so during the season, Mbah a Moute's shot is clearly better. It's a shorter stroke and far smoother – and most importantly it goes in quite a bit more often. That, combined with his quickness and his ability around the basket, was very impressive in this practice. Howland was constantly praising Luc, for his passes, screens, cuts and defense.
It's ironic that, as Howland said later, Josh Shipp might be the guy who is the least injured on the roster. Coming off his second hip surgery, you would have expected Shipp to show at least some signs of it, but there weren't. He shot the ball well, also with an improved outside stroke.
Darren Collison was very much his usual self, showing flashes of the quickness getting into the lane that being so tough to defend. He was a little sloppy with the ball at times.
The squad, when it goes five-on-five, has Russell Westbrook running the point of one team opposite Collison. Westbrook looks far more confident on the dribble than he did last season. Where Westbrook stood out Monday was on defense, a few times being able to stay in front of Collison very effectively, beating Collison to the spot, and also getting his hands in passing lanes for steals.
A guy who could step up and contribute this season is Nikola Dragovic. While he still looks slowed by the double hernia operation he had in the off-season, and doesn't look like he can get off the floor near as effectively as last season, he asserted himself in practice and looks to be carving out a role. When the squad did some work on zone offense, he was particularly effective in spotting up outside and nailing the zone-busting three. He shot the ball well throughout practice and looks like he understands his role now, not forcing to put the ball on the floor, but exploiting his ability to pass and shoot.
Mike Roll didn't look visibly hampered by the turf toe he has on both big toes. He shot the ball very well, as you would expect, with what looks like even a more compact stroke, and he fed the post very well throughout practice.
The freshman Chace Stanback had a good practice, looking a lot more comfortable than we expected after hearing reports that he was a deer-in-the-headlights when practices began. Howland said Stanback hadn't been shooting well from the outside, hitting something like 26% from three, which was the worst on the team, but he shot the ball fairly well in this practice. In fact, in the zone offense, he hit a couple of threes in rhythm. He also looked like he understood what he was supposed to do in most of the drills, which looks like it can be challenging for a freshman with the team snapping from one drill to the next quickly and Howland barking out orders.
Alfred Aboya had easily the most gasp-worthy moment of the practice. Out of control, he drove the lane and Mbah a Moute took a charge from him, with Aboya falling heavily on Mbah a Moute. Believe it or not, since we've heard all of the usual reports of Aboya beating up his teammates in practice, Aboya looks to have refined his skills some. He's definitely better at shooting from within 15 feet, with an improved stroke, and looked far more comfortable catching the ball with his back to the basket. But you probably can still expect Aboya to be the physical enforcer.
On one five-on-five, the Gold team consisted of Collison, Mbah a Moute, Shipp, Dragovic and Mata-Real, against the Blue team of Love, Aboya, Stanback, Roll and Westbrook. The Gold team won, 11-6, on a turnaround jumper in the block by Mata-Real over Love.
Then the teams changed in the motion offense drill, with the Gold team consisting of Shipp, Dragovic, Westbrook, Mata-Real and Mbah a Moute, and Blue being Love, Aboya, Stanback, Roll and Collison. Gold won this one, 13-8, on a three-pointer by Mbah a Moute.
Afterward many of the players said they thought that practices so far this season have been the most physical since they had been at UCLA, and Howland admitted it himself. It's very noticeable, too, watching practice, what the addition of Love does in terms of physicality.
Howland is so good a running a practice, and you can see that it's what he enjoys. He's like an orchestra conductor on the floor, with his instructions coming in rhythmic short bursts, understanding that he needs to express the instruction quickly so he doesn't stop down the action long. His emphasis on detail and precision is a huge factor; he'll insist, for instance, on a player moving his foot six inches on the floor to get the exact position where he should be setting up in the post. He does tell his players that they're not doing something well, but he's also very quick with praise.
James Keefe ran with the team in the warm-ups, but then shot the ball on the side and got some treatment on his shoulder during most of practice.
Probably the most-used walk-on is Matt Lee, the senior guard, who Howland does utilize with the scholarship players at times. Mustafa Abdul-Hamid also gets some time, and his outside shot has improved. Joey Ellis is still sitting out of practice. There is also the returning walk-ons David McGrath and DeAndre Robinson, and new walk-on Kevin Schmidt, a water polo player who looks to be about 6-7 and 190 pounds and a combo forward. There are also a few new walk-ons, with the most noteable one being a 5-8 guard named Spencer (no one from UCLA could tell me his full name) who had very good quickness but is strickly a walk-on.
We'll have interviews with Howland and many of the players coming soon....