UCLA may lack experience, but they have loads of talent
On June 28th J’Mison Morgan received the news he had been waiting for. After missing six weeks of the off-season due to arthroscopic surgery to remove torn cartilage from his right knee, the rising sophomore was cleared by doctors to begin running again. Having arrived on campus the previous summer as a consensus top five center in his class, but quickly deemed out of shape, the clean bill of health was music to Morgan’s ears.
Waiting for him on the court upon his return were fellow sophomores Drew Gordon, Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee – all elite recruits in 2008 and all quickly forgotten like Morgan.
It’s amazing sometimes how prevalent short term memory loss is amongst sports fans. In this day and age of the “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” mentality, is it any wonder that UCLA would be expected to drop from their perch atop the Pac-10 after graduating Darren Collison, Alfred Aboya and Josh Shipp and watching Jrue Holiday depart for the NBA after one season?
Is it surprising that the other four members of last year’s number one recruiting class would be overlooked after biding their time on the bench at Pauley Pavilion behind a battle tested lineup of veterans?
With a roster that will feature five freshman, four sophomores and just three seniors, can you find fault with experts for projecting Washington or Cal to finish ahead of a team that has gone to three Final Fours in the last four years? Maybe not – but don’t tell the Bruins that.
“It’s tough to agree with it, it’s tough to disagree with it,” says sophomore power forward Drew Gordon of the early predictions. “We don’t have the set program that we as freshmen walked into. We had a lot of upperclassmen last year and they told us what to do. They had been through the program, knew how Coach Howland worked and we were able to adapt very quickly because we had those individuals telling us what was right and wrong. This year we’re still going to be getting a feel for Coach, we’re going to be learning as the freshmen are learning too.”
“At the same time, we have a good team, we have good chemistry, and we all know each other, so we’re going to mesh together. It all depends how you want to look at it, glass half full or glass half empty.”
With a roster that features only two players who averaged more than 15 minutes per game last season, most are thinking glass half empty. Given Ben Howland’s track record of success since joining the program though, that might not be the wisest approach.
“When Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo were sophomores we were picked third in the Pac-10 and wound up winning the league and going to the national championship,” Howland reflects. “Granted, we had a couple of really good seniors on that team, but where they pick you really isn’t that important.
“If they pick you number one it doesn’t mean anything, if they pick you last it doesn’t mean anything, it’s all up to you.”
It would seem the Bruins have the necessary personnel in their sophomore class to stay relevant on the national level. All four players were members of the ESPNU Top 100 as seniors in high school, but none saw major minutes during their freshman seasons.
Morgan, the only of the four not from California, has the physical tools necessary to be a force in the middle. Blessed with a broad 6-10 frame and a pterodactyl-like wingspan, the Dallas native should be an impact defender almost immediately upon getting starters minutes. His lack of conditioning upon arriving on campus was a concern, but he has reportedly lost nearly 25 pounds since his senior year of high school, drastically increasing his mobility.
Gordon, his likely counterpart inside, is an athletic power forward who shows an advanced level of versatility for a 6-9 player at his age. Capable of handling the basketball on the perimeter and connecting on shots ranging out to 18-feet, Gordon should be able to draw defenders out of the lane, allowing Morgan to operate with more space on the block.
With just three players returning to the backcourt who have seen any playing time, it is likely a great deal of the pressure heading into the season will be on the two interior youngsters. Given his propensity for being the team jokester though, Morgan, – who goes by BoBo to everyone on the team – is going to do his best to keep things light.
“I try to keep everyone’s mind off of pressure, I keep it loose,” he says with a laugh. “I never feel pressure so I try to get everyone else like that.”
Gordon is quick to point out the difficult losses the team will have to deal with in the upcoming year, specifically referencing his task of replacing the now graduated Alfred Aboya.
“He was such a big contributor to the team; he was a great defender and all that. I’m trying to make sure I can be like Alfred, if not better. It’s going to be tough to do; he’s a great player to follow.”
In all likelihood, it will be Anderson and Lee who have the tougher act to follow though, stepping in for Shipp, Collison and Holiday. The latter two were taken in the first round of June’s NBA Draft while the former led the Bruins in scoring a year ago. Along with the sophomores, senior Michael Roll will be a major contributor in the backcourt and according to Howland it is likely that all three will find themselves in the starting lineup when the regular season begins in a little over a month.
“Last year we had no real major injuries and had a lot of depth at the guard position, this year is different,” Howland says. “There’s no question it’s going to be important in terms of how much success we have will rest on those three returning guards having good years. We’ll probably start those three and bring the freshman off the bench.”
The freshman Howland refers to are Mike Moser and Tyler Honeycutt, both highly touted members of the class of 2009 who will see minutes at shooting guard and small forward respectively. There is no question though, the onus will be on the sophomore group to grow up quickly on the court.
Lee, who came to UCLA from Riverside, California, was one of the top guards in his class. While he has yet to establish himself as a pure player at either guard position, he does have the skills necessary to run the offense if called upon. More importantly, Lee will be expected to lock down the opposing team’s top perimeter weapon night and night out – not an easy assignment for a player who was on the court for more than 20 minutes just twice all of last season. Anderson is more of the steady floor general, the one who can be expected to handle the bulk of the minutes at point guard. While he doesn’t blow away observers with his athleticism, he displays a level of craftiness with the basketball that makes him a tough defensive assignment.
It was a difficult adjustment for both to go from high school stars to second string contributors last season, but Lee was able to rationalize the situation for his fellow teammates.
“Any highly touted player who played a lot in high school is going to be frustrated when they don’t get a lot of time right away. My judgment was different but reality set in kind of quickly and I realized, OK I’m playing at one of the top programs in the country, so that gave me the sense that I needed to wait my turn. There were so many great players in front of me because that is the caliber of player that UCLA brings in.”
And that ability to cope and wait until their time in the spotlight is what has brought these four individuals together. For Lee it was his understanding of the level of talent that UCLA features in every recruiting class before him. For Anderson it was learning from observing a pair of elite point guards now playing professionally. Morgan had to lean on his teammates to get through the frustrations of seeing barely five minutes per game. Gordon – who speaks with the wisdom of a man well beyond his 19 years – says the ability to forge their relationships in the less than ideal circumstances of riding the bench has made the chemistry that much stronger between the four sophomores.
Whatever mantra, saying or rational realization it took to get them through the waiting period last season will be kicked to the curb when the Bruins take the floor against Cal State Fullerton on November 17th. Coach Howland states it is only normal to expect some growing pains early in the year, but that his expectations for the sophomore group are high and have to be in order for the team to succeed.
The preseason focus in the Pac-10 may be on other teams that feature established stars, while the youthful Bruins are still looking to make their first mark. There are more questions than answers at this point, more what ifs than certainties. In the whirlwind that is and will be the prediction game leading up to the opening tip of the year, perhaps J’Mison Morgan sums up the lack of notoriety for this sophomore group best.
“We don’t have any outright national stars right now, people don’t know us. When teams play UCLA they won’t know what to expect, but by the time they realize it, it’ll be too late for them.”