Indiana Pacers point guard Darren Collison used a food analogy to describe his graceful jump from playing under UCLA Coach Ben Howland to his quick success in the pros.
“You need the vegetables from Coach Howland,” Collison said. "[Then] dessert in the NBA is kind of your reward.”
It has been a disappointing basketball season so far for the Bruins, who are in a three-way tie for fifth place in the Pac-12 after being picked to win the conference. And there is some restlessness among the UCLA fan base.
This season, Howland’s ninth as UCLA coach, has been marked largely by a simmering feud between Howland and junior forward Reeves Nelson that led to Nelson’s dismissal from the team in December.
After the Bruins made the Final Four three years in a row (2006-08) under Howland, UCLA missed the NCAA tournament two years ago. And with a 10-7 record, it seems likely that only winning the conference tournament and earning an automatic bid will get UCLA into the tournament this season.
Yet there were 15 Bruins on NBA rosters at the start of this season, and 11 of them spent at least a year playing for Howland.
And from NBA scouts, to some of Howland’s former stars, there is a shared appreciation for how he tutored his players.
Arron Afflalo is one of Howland’s great success stories.
After playing under Howland at UCLA, Afflalo was taken by Detroit with the 27th pick in the first round of the 2007 draft. After two seasons with the Pistons, Afflalo was acquired by the Denver Nuggets and became their starting shooting guard. Last December, after Nuggets Coach George Karl called Afflalo one of his favorite players ever, the Los Angeles native signed a five-year contract extension reportedly worth $43 million.
“I think most of the guys who play for Ben, for however long, come to the NBA understanding what it takes in terms of preparation and with a willingness to do whatever it takes to win,” Afflalo said last week before his team beat Miami.
“It’s just the discipline of the game, discipline and fundamentals. Most guys in the NBA are naturally talented, so then it becomes being able to do some of the fundamentals, and most Howland guys, we learned the fundamentals.”
Forward Luc Mbah a Moute, who was a second-round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2008 draft when he left UCLA after his junior season (as Afflalo had done), signed a contract extension last month, reportedly for four years and $18.7 million.
“What I think I learned under Coach Howland that pays off at this level is just how to get yourself on the floor,” Mbah a Moute said. “I think most Howland guys can play defense and we learn how to be tough guys. If you’re tough, you can deal with coaches yelling.
“And one other thing, when I first got to college I thought, ‘Gosh, we have so many plays.’ We were expected to know every small detail of every play or we wouldn’t play. When I got to the NBA, I couldn’t believe how many guys can’t remember the plays.”
Phil Jabour, a former Houston Rockets scout, is now an independent scout for several professional leagues. He said Howland-coached players are notable for their total understanding of man-to-man defensive principles, and being fundamentally sound enough to earn floor minutes even as rookies.
“Often rookies, no matter how good, aren’t asked to play a big offensive role,” Jabour said. “UCLA guys come in and always seem to have the ability to set physical screens, hustle for loose balls and play defense. . . . You see it in guys like Afflalo and Mbah a Moute and Collison who spent three or four years with Ben or even with a guy like Jrue Holiday who only spent a year.”
Holiday, taken by Philadelphia with the 17th pick in the 2009 draft, is starting at point guard for the 76ers, who are off to their best start in 12 seasons.
Kevin Love, who is in his fourth season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, spent one sometimes uncomfortable season at UCLA.
Love, a 2008 lottery pick (No. 5 overall) who was an NBA All-Star last season and is fifth in the league in scoring this season, never hid his desire to have the ball more often on offense at UCLA, and sometimes clashed with Howland’s insistence to have his multitalented center pay attention all over the court. But Love said he now understands the lasting benefits of Howland’s coaching.
“He drilled us so much,” Love said. “Preparation first. Highlight the defensive end. Know the sets, just know them all. Your attention had to be very high or you would be left in the dust. That gets you ready for what’s to come.”
An assistant general manager of an NBA Western Conference team, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said he has scouted close to a dozen Howland-coached UCLA players and there is a commonality.
“There is a consistent mental discipline, a mental toughness, that you don’t always find in other players,” he said. “Players who come from UCLA have pretty well ironed out the problems and have acquired a type of toughness and an ability to pay attention to detail that is necessary to be a pro. Trust me. That is not always the case with kids who have spent one year or four years in college at other programs. . . . UCLA kids get groomed in a culture of discipline. Do they all like it? Probably not. Did it help them? Yes.”
From the distance of four years in the NBA in Minnesota, Love was able to acknowledge his year at UCLA was not wasted.
“For me I think everybody knows I felt like I wanted to play differently offensively at UCLA, but you know, the grass isn’t always greener. At the end of the day, I learned things from Coach Howland that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”