I've heard it before. Seems like good advice (unless I'm at a blackjack table, looking at the 25 I just drew). Trust the process. Kind of Zen, mixed with flight instructor, and a dash of psychology thrown in. Phil Jackson probably said as much to Jordan, Shaq and Kobe, while loading up on the championship rings.
Because it's early November, and UCLA basketball ('08-'09 version) is about to start—and because Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute don't live in Westwood anymore, but five new freshmen ballers do -- it's the phrase that keeps coming to me.
Because this season, I'm guessing, will be all about the process.
Last year's Bruin model seemed almost fully formed from day one. The blueprint was clear: All hail Love. Plug him in for Arron Affalo. Win Pac-10. Convene at Riverwalk in San Antonio for eight claps and Patron shots.
Most of my friends reserved airline tickets from LA to San Antonio before the season even started – seriously -- and it made perfect sense. A sense of inevitability, or at least weighty expectation, permeated last season from the moment the previous one ended at the hands of the Florida Gators.
Well, things are more fluid, unformed: think the liquid metal guy in Terminator 2. More questions than usual hang in the Pauley Pavilion air, and patience will be required of the Bruin fan, as Howland mixes, matches, and develops his most athletic roster yet, one flush with youth and a lot of interchangeable parts.
Here's the skinny: the Bruins again are the favorites to win a watered-down Pac-10, because they have the most talent, the best coach, and well, because they're UCLA.
But this is not last year's team. Only two starters -- senior point guard Darren Collison, and senior wing Josh Shipp -- return. And with the loss of its top three post players, this year's model will clearly revolve around the perimeter players. However, most of Howland's Bruin teams have been similar in that regard (Love's one season at UCLA was the only time in five seasons that Howland had a star in the post) and he's managed pretty well.
Still, there's one big similarity from last season: UCLA's ultimate fortunes hinge on how Howland and the veterans integrate another uber-talented freshman into the mix.
Last year it was Love. This year it's Jrue Holiday.
Love, the old-school center with the famous family, ate up the spotlight (in a good way) and somehow managed to make the outlet pass as cool as an IPhone. He arrived on campus with a sense of coronation. Alcindor… Walton… Love, were the breathless hopes. He relished it, and knew that you knew he did, and it all worked out because the kid was just so damn winning. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he played a game, but justified the hype by ending up as arguably the best player in Westwood since Ed O'Bannon, though UCLA's great season fell short of the stated goal of another banner to hang in Pauley.
By contrast, Holiday is a do-everything, 6-foot-3, 180-pound guard whose ego is so in check that despite winning the Gatorade National Player of the Year award (as Love did the year before), and leading Campbell Hall High to three state championships in four years, he volunteered as the team manager for the Campbell Hall girls' tennis team -- you know, in his spare time during senior year (If for some reason this doesn't sound that unusual, try picturing OJ Mayo doing something similar.) Soft-spoken, a good student and member of the high school's gospel choir, he glided into Westwood with relatively little in the way of a media commotion, despite his accolades.
I find this interesting, because knowledgeable basketball people insist that Holiday is so good he's going to blow people's minds. When he committed to UCLA, Greg Hicks, Scout.com's West Coast Recruiting Analyst, wrote an essay, "What Jrue Holiday's Commitment Means," called it "historic," and described Holiday as "better than Baron Davis at the same stage," and potentially one of the best UCLA players in two decades.
Others share this assessment. "In my opinion, the most talented overall player among the elite players in the country is Holiday," said USA Basketball Junior Development Committee Chair Don Showalter in March, to RiseMag.com. "I love the kid. I think he's a great teammate. He makes everybody else better. He's very coachable, he reacts so well to feedback, and his teammates just absolutely love him -- and that's an important thing to note when you're talking about this level of talent."
Holiday is super athletic, with incredible instincts, body control -- "The best footwork I've ever seen" gushed my buddy Weiss after the Bruins' two exhibition games -- and an unreal off-hand, and is supremely competitive. In short, he's the total package, it seems, except for a knack at self-promotion.
"I never really talked about being an NBA player or a college player, I just really like playing basketball," said Holiday to RiseMag.com in March. "People would go out and play in the summer to try to earn scholarships, I really didn't care about it. I would just go out and play every game and leave it all out on the floor, and I guess I had the talent to get into a great college like UCLA."
All well and good, you might say. Tons of talent and drive, and who doesn't love the humble star? But the dude hasn't played a minute of college ball. What about Collison, and Shipp? Aren't they just as important?
In a way… sure. Collison figures to be one of the top all-around guards in the country. His return to college for his senior year was a welcome surprise, and he's staking a claim to potentially being one of the most important UCLA players in the last decade, when it's all over. A great shooter who has hit half of his three-pointers over the past two seasons (Shoot, Darren, Shoot!), a defensive disruptor, careful with the ball despite not being an instinctive pure point guard, no doubt Collison must have a great senior year for UCLA to do anything noteworthy. And he probably will.
Shipp, meanwhile, is important in a different way. He heads into his final season in Westwood as the most polarizing UCLA player in recent years. He's got his supporters, he's got his detractors, and he's got his swing voters that aren't quite sure what to make of him.
Having watched most of his games during his three seasons, I think that Josh Shipp is good (often really good) at a number of things as a basketball player. I'm just not sure he completely realizes what those things are.
Harsh? Maybe, given the level of success Shipp has enjoyed. But there's a reason Shipp leads all Bruins -- by far -- in the little-known but vital stat of Most Number of Times He's Made Me Yell At The TV for the past two years. Just like there's a reason that Freshman Shipp, like Freshman Luc or Sophomore Westbrook, seemed to make the right play virtually all the time, and I joined every Bruin fan in gushing over them.
My take: If Shipp's role, either self-proclaimed or fostered by Howland and staff, is to try and be UCLA's star this season, I think the Bruins are in trouble. If his role is to be the third guy meshing along with Holiday and Collison, and to do his job well, UCLA can make some major noise.
Two other Bruins to keep an eye on: Mike Roll, and Malcolm Lee. Roll appears to be fully recovered from a foot injury, and at least in the practice video published on BRO, seems to look quicker, more confident with that great stroke. I have a feeling this year he comes into his own a bit; on a team filled with perimeter talent, I suspect people may be surprised by how many minutes the junior Roll earns.
Lee, a McDonald's All-American, is a skinny 6-4 freshman, but has the freaky athleticism not seen in a Bruin wing in quite a while. It will be interesting to see how much burn Howland awards Lee (a Swiss Army knife, in that he can play the one, two, or three spots), and whether Lee's elite talent proves a major factor by March.
Quick notes about the big men: Alfred Aboya will be asked to bull around the china shop without breaking too much stuff; James Keefe will be asked to channel some of Luc's rebounding and defense but not the bricklaying; and the two freshmen posts, Bobo Morgan and Drew Gordon, will be asked to hustle, climb a steep learning curve without being severely injured by Aboya in practice, and become factors by Pac-10 play.
But let's face it. This season will be all about how well Collison and Shipp play with Holiday. In the NBA, you're only as good as your three best players, and your three best players better understand the pecking order. And while college ball is more of a team game, this tenet has some validity. Holiday will be -- maybe already is -- UCLA's best player, just like Love was UCLA's best player as a freshman last season. Will he take that mantle? Will anyone resent it?
Watching the players and Howland figure out that stuff is half the fun, I've come to realize. Yeah, this team will probably pull an Oceanic Flight 815 at times. At other times, things will click, and it will look frighteningly athletic and versatile.
It will take patience, not necessarily the digital age sports fan's strong suit. But if there was ever a year to suspend snap judgments, to resist the urge to make pronouncements in December or January (jeez, even February), this is it.
With the NBA early entry procession each spring, every season is a one-off, not a continuation of the previous year. And UCLA basketball under Howland is like a great road trip. Sure, the destination is important. But the more of these trips you go on, the more you realize that the journey itself actually ended up as the point.
So, my mantra this year: Enjoy the Holiday. And trust the process.