Isaac Hamilton, poised to start his fourth and final season at UCLA, has freely dispensed advice to his team’s highly touted freshmen.
Do what you did in high school, Hamilton has told them. Play your game. Read and react to what you see on the court. Have fun.
There are some limitations, of course.
“We don’t have Lonzo shooting half-court shots,” Bruins Coach Steve Alford said with a smile Friday at Pac-12 Conference men’s basketball media day, referring to prized freshman point guard Lonzo Ball.
If there’s an early description of UCLA’s style this season, it might be run and fun. The Bruins, ranked No. 20 in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, intend to push the pace behind Ball’s passing sorcery and a glut of guards who might collectively be as good as any in the country.
That’s not to say that practices are always a joy.
Whereas the Bruins’ top players found themselves matched up against second-stringers and walk-ons last season because of flagging depth, now they’re going against players who equal or exceed their talent.
Ball has faced Aaron Holiday, a crafty competitor with an NBA pedigree.
Hamilton has gone up against Bryce Alford, a shooting menace whose touch has only improved now that he’s freed from having to handle the ball.
Gyorgy Goloman has faced T.J. Leaf, a freshman power forward whose range extends beyond the three-point line.
Thomas Welsh has matched up against Ike Anigbogu, a freshman forward-center who averaged a double-double in points and rebounds during an Australian exhibition tour against college and professional teams.
The results are already evident three weeks before UCLA’s season opener Nov. 11 against Pacific at Pauley Pavilion. Steve Alford said the Bruins are taking and making more three-pointers than they were a year ago, largely because they have as many as eight players who can shoot from beyond the arc, while vastly improving their assist-to-turnover ratio.
“When that happens, and you’re going against guys of your equal or guys that are very good players, you can’t help but get better,” Steve Alford said. “These guys have to bring it every day, because if they don’t, the other one embarrasses them.”
Hamilton knows about embarrassment, having endured a 15-17 season at a school that has produced 113 NCAA championships.
“You see other teams at our school, they’re looking at us like we’re supposed to win because they’re winning championships, so it’s like, just demand to win,” Hamilton said. “If I have three points and we win, I’m totally fine with that. I’m just trying to will these guys to win so we can have a great season and do what UCLA is supposed to do. We’re supposed to win.”
That should be a lot easier thanks to a roster stocked with players on the watch list for nearly every major college basketball award.
Ball is a candidate for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the top point guard; Leaf is a candidate for the Karl Malone Award honoring the top power forward; Welsh is a candidate for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award that goes to the top center; and Hamilton is a candidate for the Jerry West Award, honoring the top shooting guard.
It all starts with the mind-set that Steve Alford wants his players to have.
“Bring your talents. Bring what you brought out of high school to Westwood,” Alford said. “That’s why you’re here and that’s what we need out of you.”