Some Factors in Hoops Season

With the basketball season starting tonight, Greg Hicks offers some random thoughts and theories on the 2007-2008 Bruins, particularly the key roles of sophomore guard Russell Westbrook, junior forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and the health of the team...

With the first real game of the season tonight, I thought I'd offer some thoughts on the 2007-2008 Bruins. It's not really a preview, but rather just a collection of impressions, musings and half-baked ideas. Which, come to think of it, was pretty much all I had in my former incarnation as an aspiring screenwriter. Luckily, or unluckily depending on your POV (screenwriter reference), my inability to successfully flesh out the premise of "college student suffers heavy gambling losses and ends up going to work for his bookie to pay off losses," led me to this job. Where I get to make a living, as my friend so aptly put it, "spending a lot of time watching boys in shorts." Hey, as long as I'm not the guy on the corner, when it's a 102 degrees out, holding the "apartment for rent" arrow sign pointing towards the building. And if any of you do that job, you have my sincere sympathy.

Anyway…Kevin Love's pretty good, huh? I think Love will have a very good season in what will almost assuredly be his only year at UCLA. I don't know that he's going to be "dominating," as I've seen some people opine. Dominating means you can do pretty much whatever you want, whenever you want. Love isn't going to be able to score at will inside against the likes of the Lopez brothers, C.J. Giles, DeVon Hardin, Jeff Pendergraph, Taj Gibson and others. He's going to have to make adjustments and figure out how to be effective when he can't score over some people inside. But that's the great thing about Love – he's got a versatile game. He can step out and shoot the three. He's an excellent passer. He's got a very good feel for the game. And he plays the game the right way. The first time I saw Love, he was going into the 9th grade. His skill level was obviously very advanced, but it was everything else that really caught my attention. His approach to the game was like that of a ten-year NBA veteran. And that approach is the main reason I think he'll be successful even on nights when he might not be getting twenty points.

Speaking of approach to the game, I think that's going to be a key question for Luc Richard Mbah A Moute this season. Everyone knows by now that Luc wants to play the three (In fact, in the new videotaped self-introductions on the Pauley Pavilion scoreboard before games, when asked what position he plays, Mbah a Moute says, "Small forward." ) and show the NBA folks that he has what it takes to play that position at the next level. And Coach Howland is going to play Luc a lot at the three, as the imbalanced Bruin roster (frontcourt heavy) almost mandates that position switch. Which means that Josh Shipp will play a lot at shooting guard and Luc will slide down to the three. Luc's approach to the three is going to be an important issue for the Bruins. In the first two exhibition games, Luc had a tendency to over-handle the ball as he tried to create plays off the dribble. One of Luc's strengths in his first two seasons was his ability to rebound. I think he needs to remember that this is one of the things he does best. It's fine to take the open 15-17 footer when he's open, but he shouldn't make that the focus of his game. Also, Luc's size and strength is an advantage when he plays against small forwards. However, the farther away from the basket he goes, the more he gives away that advantage. Trying to create off the dribble against smaller players puts him at a disadvantage. He wouldn't be considered especially quick for a small forward and his handle is shaky. Luc can't play small forward the same way Josh Shipp does. He can't be running the baseline constantly coming around double picks and ending up with the ball beyond the stripe. It'll be interesting to see how Howland takes advantage of Luc's strengths as he plays a different position. I would imagine you might see a lot more opportunities to isolate Luc on the low block against smaller players.

In addition to Love and Luc, the Bruins have a couple other players that might be looking for an opportunity to play in the NBA after this year. In particular, Josh Shipp and Darren Collison. Hopefully, they resist the urge to showcase themselves for the NBA guys. I think they probably will, as Howland has developed a culture at UCLA that truly is all about winning. You don't see much, if any, selfishness these days in Westwood. At times last year – mainly early in the season – Shipp would take the occasional bad shot. But after an early season slump, Shipp really improved and he was playing excellent basketball over the last third or so of the season. Shipp's shot has looked very good so far this year. His release is quicker and more compact, with deep range. He's been very accurate in the early practices so far. He should have a big year with Love drawing so much attention inside. And look for Josh to get a number of easy lay-ups in transition this year. Josh has a great sense of when to leak out and he should be on the receiving end of a number of outlet passes from Love.

Collison is another player that will benefit from the addition of a low-post scoring threat. Collison needs a little time to get his jumper off, but he's very accurate when he can spot up at the three-point line and get his feet set. I think Collison's shot selection has been fine the first two seasons, but he does have a tendency to miss open teammates at times. It's not because he's being selfish, but rather due to a lack of vision. Despite what you might read in the national media, Collison does not have a great natural feel for the position of point guard. His athleticism allows him to overcome some mistakes and make up for that lack of feel for the position. Darren didn't play point guard in high school and he's still learning all the nuances of the position. But there's one area where Collison is unquestionably terrific and that's his defense. Howland has called Collison the best on-ball defender he's coached and it's easy to see why. His length and quickness allow him to get great ball pressure.

Speaking of ball pressure, that's an area where Russell Westbrook figures to make big strides this year. Everyone focuses on Westbrook's offensive abilities – and they're considerable – but it's as a defender that he can play a huge role this year. Arron Afflalo's defensive ability on the perimeter will certainly be missed and Westbrook is the logical candidate to fill that role. If Westbrook can learn to use his size and great athleticism at the defensive end, then the Bruins will really be a handful. Not many opposing guards are going to want to deal with Collison and Westbrook harassing them. But that's assuming Russell can learn to put his physical gifts to good use at the defensive end of the court. At the offensive end, Russell just needs to slow down. He's going to have plenty of opportunities to make plays. With his athleticism and talent, the plays will come naturally. He doesn't need to force the action. Sometimes Westbrook looks like he's trying to score six points with each possession. Part of that is probably due to the limited minutes last year. It's like he wants to show what he can do every time he gets the ball. He's like a colt that's been penned up and now he's just out there running free. I would bet that Howland isn't as interested in Westbrook making plays as he is in him reducing the mistakes. I expect that as he gets more time, Russell will make better and better decisions. And when he gets to that point, I think he's going to be an outstanding player.

It's a shame that James Keefe and Mike Roll will miss the early part of the season, as both guys made big strides in the off-season. Keefe was dominating people at the UCLA Elite Camp in June and Coach Howland was extremely pleased with his progress. Keefe had added weight and muscle, which was something he needed to do after struggling at times inside against stronger players last year. Unfortunately, his shoulder injury, and the long layoff, has caused him to lose some of the muscle he had added. Hopefully, he'll be able to get back to where he was sometime before the end of the season.

Roll was the Bruins' most consistent player in the first couple weeks of practice. Mike is a very smart player and it's not surprising that, coming into his third year, he had a great grasp of what Howland wants. He was making very few mistakes in practice and showing signs that he would become more of a scorer (and not just a three-point shooter). Assuming he comes back completely healthy in the next month, I expect Roll to be an integral part of this team. As Howland said, the UCLA offense functions best when Roll is on the court. His shooting ability, passing ability and understanding of spacing make him an important part of the Bruins' offensive attack. Love, in particular, will really benefit from having Roll on the court. Everyone talks about Roll's ability to feed the post, but it's not just the fact that he makes the entry pass. It's his understanding of when and where to throw the pass. He puts the ball in the right spot at the right time, giving his teammate a chance to do something with the ball.

The Bruins have become known for their defense and they should be pretty good at the end of the court again. I think they might have an adjustment period as Love learns to defend the way Howland wants his big man to defend. One thing that was noticeable in the first couple games was Love doesn't have the same understanding of the UCLA defensive concepts as Alfred Aboya and Lorenzo Mata-Real. Which isn't surprising – those guys have been at UCLA for three and four years, respectively. Both Aboya and Mata are almost always in the right spot when it comes to rotations. They have both become very proficient at taking charges and they're consistently good with their weakside help. Love is still learning how to do all the hedging, bumping cutters, etc., that Howland asks of his posts. But Love is a smart player and it was a great sign when he drew a charge in the second exhibition game.

If the Bruins can come close to defending the way thy have for the past couple seasons, they should be in great shape. Because the offense will almost certainly be better. With a legitimate low-post offensive threat, and the improvement of the returning players, UCLA shouldn't have as many of those offensive droughts it suffered in the past couple years. Love will get his share of points inside, as well as at the foul line, and the perimeter guys should get plenty of open three-pointers.

And then there's the possibility of a running game. Much has been written about Love's outlet passes and with good reason. It's a unique skill and I haven't seen anything like it – at the high school, college or NBA level – in quite some time. However, it's also something that is defensible. Good teams aren't going to let the Bruins get behind them in transition. So those impressive seventy-foot outlet passes from Love will be a lot more infrequent than they were in high school. However, the threat of Love's outlets will force some teams to send fewer players to the offensive glass. Factor that in with Luc at the three, and some combination of Love, Aboya, Mata and Keefe at the four and five, and Howland's goal UCLA of being the best rebounding team in the country might come true.

But getting back to the possibility of a running game – I don't think you're going to see the Bruins become a fast-paced team. I expect them to run more than in the past, but the foundation of Howland's program is defense, rebounding, taking care of the ball and good shot selection. And the great defense played by UCLA the past couple years has come, in part, because of what they do at the offensive end. When UCLA runs its offense, setting multiple picks (with physical players like Aboya, Mata and Love) and basically grinding people up, that has an effect on the opponent's offense at the other end. It's hard to defend UCLA for 20-35 seconds and then have the energy to do well at the offensive end. So I don't think you'll see the Bruins running up and down, jacking quick shots. I expect they'll take the high-percentage shots early in transition, but I don't expect them to play a lot faster than they have in the past.

The biggest question the Bruins face is probably their health. They have a great coach. They have veteran, talented players. They have good depth, although it'd be nice if they had one more guard on the roster. But with Keefe and Roll already down for the early part of the year -- and Collison probably out until next week -- the Bruins can't really afford more injuries. If they can get everyone back, and stay healthy, the Bruins figure to have a great year. Whether that means another Final Four run is obviously impossible to predict, given the nature of the tournament. But if they stay healthy, UCLA has an excellent shot to win the Pac-10, get another one seed and be in great position to make a run for San Antonio.

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