Standing near the door of the visitors’ locker room Saturday at Michigan’s Crisler Arena was Detroit Pistons rookie Arron Afflalo.
Afflalo had come straight from practice to see his old UCLA team play Michigan. After leading the Bruins to consecutive Final Fours, Afflalo chose to skip his senior season and leave UCLA for the NBA, and since last spring, there have been two big questions for UCLA.
Who would grab Afflalo’s role as the on-court heart and soul of the Bruins? Who would be brought to tears after a loss? Who would take the last-second shot to beat USC, or claim the court as his own in an NCAA game against Kansas?
And who would accept Afflalo’s position as defensive fiend? Who would love the exhaustion, the bumps and bruises, the chance for wounded pride? Who would beg to guard the hot-shooting forward or the quick, slashing guard?
The answer to the question about Afflalo’s role hasn’t been determined. Maybe it will be point guard Darren Collison, once he can discard his brace and regain confidence in his sprained left knee. Maybe it will be junior Josh Shipp, who can run hot and cold with his shooting. It might be Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who has beaten Michigan State at the buzzer but missed a similar shot when UCLA lost to Texas.
The answer to the defensive stopper question is clear: Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook stood in UCLA’s locker room Saturday quietly pleased with himself. The long-armed, loose-legged 6-foot-3 sophomore guard had just held Manny Harris, Michigan’s lively, driven leading scorer, to 11 points on three-for-12 shooting. That was more than five points under Harris’ average.
Westbrook hadn’t seen a statistics sheet yet when he was asked about playing against Harris. “Anybody seen the numbers?” Westbrook asked while he grabbed for a piece of paper that turned out to be just a piece of paper. After a second, and frustrated that no one had the official evidence, Westbrook said, “I think Harris was three of 12.”
Already this season, Westbrook has guarded standouts such as Harris, Davidson’s Stephen Curry (who scored 15 against Westbrook and is averaging 24.6) and Texas’ A.J. Abrams (who scored seven against Westbrook and is averaging 18.9).
As fifth-ranked UCLA approaches the start of Pacific 10 Conference play next week, expect to see Westbrook chest to chest with USC freshman star O.J. Mayo, Arizona’s offensively focused sophomore forward Chase Budinger and Oregon’s fearless shooter Bryce Taylor.
“Whoever is the opponent’s leading scorer on the perimeter, that’s who Russell will take,” said UCLA assistant coach Scott Garson.
It was what Afflalo did better than anybody in the country for three years.
Afflalo declared he wanted to be a defensive star in his first media session with UCLA.
Westbrook says the same thing, only in a different way. “I want to be Arron,” Westbrook said. “I want to guard the best guy every week.”
Afflalo and Westbrook were road roommates last year. Afflalo said Westbrook would always ask the right questions, about how to stay in your defensive stance or how to handle a quick guy who wanted to lose his defender off the dribble.
“He’s got longer arms than me,” Afflalo said, “and great instincts. He’s also a true competitor. A lot of guys say they don’t want to lose. Russell takes it personal if his guy scores a point.”
Garson said UCLA coaches keep a statistic on practice deflections. Every time a defender gets a hand, a finger, a nail on the basketball, the player gets credit for a deflection. Garson said it is a good indicator of a player who works hard.
“Russell has been the leader or one of our leaders in deflections all year long,” Garson said.
Afflalo won’t acknowledge that he has left a defensive legacy, saying it comes from Coach Ben Howland. “Playing defense is a selfless thing,” Afflalo said.
However, Westbrook pointed to Afflalo in the Crisler Arena locker room and said, “He set the standard.”
Garson said Westbrook has the proper physical tools to be a solid man-to-man defender.
“He has incredible arm length,” Garson said. “He has great quickness and athleticism, so he is really able to pressure the basketball, stay with a shooter, trail screens, contest shots.”
Donny Daniels, UCLA’s most veteran assistant, said it wasn’t the staff that decreed Westbrook would take Afflalo’s defensive role. “Russell gave the coaching staff confidence in his ability,” he said. “He just took the job.”
Afflalo said one of the hard parts of playing man-to-man defense is staying in the proper stance with knees bent and feet moving. It can be physically demanding, Garson said.
“Try it for a minute,” Garson said. “It’s exhausting. But more than that, you have to be alert every second. You have to know where your man is and where the ball is.”
Michigan’s Harris said he thought three or four times that he had an open lane when Westbrook would appear.
Davidson’s Curry said Westbrook played him tougher than anybody, and Davidson had already played North Carolina and Duke.
“Westbrook has such long arms,” Curry said. “He was just always there.”