Saturday, October 22, 2016

LAT's Bolch: "With more depth, UCLA men's basketball team is ready to push the pace and have fun"

Bryce Alford, Coach Steve Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Jerrold Smith

Friday, October 21, 2016

LA Times: Basketball Media Day Oct-12-2016

SI: Russell Westbrook: 'I Was Never Going To Leave'

Lee Jenkins
Wednesday October 19th, 2016
After the milquetoast essay and the token text, Russell Westbrook played dominoes. He had started the game early that July 4 morning, as friends and family filled his sunny backyard for a housewarming party, and he did not stop when his phone throbbed with the news he dreaded. A union that spanned eight seasons in Oklahoma City, producing everything but a championship, was over. The goodbye text, which landed in Westbrook’s phone a couple of minutes after the first-person essay appeared online, mentioned a desire for a new journey. Kevin Durant was, of all things, a Warrior. “The team that just beat us,” Westbrook muttered over dominoes.
Clicking on box will take you to the original SI article that contains the active link. Look for it early in the article. 
His guests had come to toast him—a son of South L.A. on a spread in Beverly Hills—but they did not know what to say, and neither did he. The first call came from Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver, who heard the disbelief in Westbrook’s voice. “You have to do your job,” Weaver said, “and trust us to do ours.” Then OKC power forward Nick Collison, who had been in the private room at BOA Steakhouse in West Hollywood a week earlier, when Westbrook asked Durant what he could do and how he could change. “He went above and beyond,” Collison says. Westbrook offered to fly to the Hamptons mansion where Durant was holding free-agent pitch meetings.
Westbrook and Durant were not best buds, but they were peerless partners, a souped-up Stockton and Malone, transporting a mini market to the big time. Westbrook’s closest friends are actually former high school teammates, long-standing wing men like Donnell Beverly and Demetrius (Juice) Deason, who flank him in summer pickup games and play dominoes with him on the Fourth. “He didn’t talk much about what happened,” says Beverly. Westbrook didn’t disparage Durant. He didn’t judge him. All he did was take a picture. When Kendrick Perkins played center for the Thunder, he called teammates “cupcake” if he thought they were acting a little soft. Westbrook and Durant adopted the term in jest. Westbrook posted a bittersweet pic on Instagram: three plates of cupcakes topped by red and blue stars and sprinkles.
Durant’s departure was distressing enough without the subsequent piling on, several Warriors suggesting that the former MVP had grown weary of his edgy but explosive point guard, eager for the Big Fun promised by Steph Curry & Family. Durant’s move morphed into yet another referendum on Westbrook, despite all the assists he’d delivered and arrows he’d absorbed, wearing the black hat while his costar wore white. “I don’t know if Russ was hurt,” says center Steven Adams, “because he’d never tell me, and he’d definitely never tell you.” Adams recalls a litany of ordeals he has endured in recent years. “Russ is always the first person to help,” Adams adds. “But if you try to reciprocate, he’s the last person to accept help himself.” He bears every burden. He betrays no weakness.
“This is professional sports,” Westbrook sniffs. “You have to live with it. I just continued about my day.” As the afternoon wore on, and more dominoes were played, Beverly turned the topic to Oklahoma City and the franchise left behind. “I like my team,” Westbrook told him. “I still really like my team.” His tone took Beverly back a decade, to the blank navy thermal sweatshirts they wore in layup lines at Leuzinger High, as rivals from Westchester and Artesia rocked shiny jackets with shoe company logos. Westbrook, desperate for a college scholarship, could have mulled a transfer. “Oh no,” he says now, cutting off the question. “No, no, no. That school was where I’m from. It’s where my friends went. I was never going to leave. I was never going to be a follower.”
Late in his senior season one player quit and two others were ruled academically ineligible. “You can guess how he responded,” Beverly says. “‘Forget ’em. We’ll go with what we got. We’ll run with who we have. We’ll fight to the end.’” When Leuzinger fell in the sectional quarterfinals, finishing 25–4, Westbrook staggered to the locker room with cramps buckling both legs. Beverly eyed his fuming friend and worried he might slug an opponent. But Westbrook felt oddly at peace. “You don’t win a championship every year,” he says. “The moment, the process, the ups and downs, the bumps and bruises, are special to me. We didn’t win it all, but we became better, we became closer.” He savored the struggle. He treasured the crew.
On July 6, Westbrook flew to Oklahoma City to shoot a spot for Jordan Brand. Execs across the league were already speed-dialing the Thunder, convinced they would trade him before he too bolted as a free agent in 2017. After all, Westbrook is 27, from L.A. and loves fashion, and if you dug no deeper, it was easy to connect the dots leading out of town. Westbrook insists that he did not realize on the 6th how Durant’s decision would accelerate his own. But unlike so many of his contemporaries, forever jockeying to improve their title shots, Westbrook was doubling down on sinking odds.
He wanted to work out, but the court at Thunder headquarters was being resurfaced, so he drove past the dog-food factory to the old gym where the team had practiced after it moved from Seattle. He told Matt Tumbleson, the p.r. director, to meet him on the floor. Like many in the organization, Tumbleson was tight with Durant and gutted by his exit. Westbrook spent a half hour with Tumbleson.
“We’re going to be all right,” Westbrook said.
He never dreamed he’d reach the NBA, much less become one of its leading men, and in that way he is different from the former prodigies who populate his stratosphere. “I wasn’t that good,” Westbrook says. “I really wasn’t. All I cared about was that my parents didn’t have to pay for college. I didn’t care where the hell I played after that.”
On Dec. 29, 2011, in a home game against the Mavericks, Westbrook started 3 of 11 with seven turnovers. This was one night after he went 0 for 13 and squabbled with Durant on the bench in Memphis. “It was a really tough time for me,” Westbrook says. “I was hearing a lot of things.” He shot too much. He didn’t pass enough. Durant was the savior and he was the foil, getting in the way. “He’d come into my office feeling so beat up,” says Weaver. “He didn’t understand the criticism. The kid was Brett Favre. Remember how Brett Favre would drop back, see what coverage you were in and believe he could put the ball wherever he wanted. Sometimes he could. Sometimes you’d pick him off and take it to the house. He wasn’t Joe Montana. He wasn’t Dan Marino. I had to tell Russell, ‘Continue to be who you are. Continue to be Brett Favre.’ ”
Not every exec would say that. Not every coach would allow it. Not every fan base would encourage it. Not with Durant perched on the wing. “He was playing so bad that night against Dallas, I mean really struggling,” Weaver recounts. “But our crowd wouldn’t leave him. They just stayed with him. I remember this one kid, up in the Loud City section, chanting ‘Rus-sell! Rus-sell!’ and then everybody started chanting it.” Late in the fourth quarter, after a prolonged stint on the bench, Westbrook converted a three-point play and sank a 17-foot jumper to set up a Durant buzzer beater. “I think his career changed that night,” Weaver says. “I think it was the defining moment.”
Weaver, in another cross-sport comparison, likens the Thunder to the St. Louis Cardinals. Players are protected and eccentricities embraced. Take Westbrook, for instance, who has his own shower, his own parking spot and his own massage table (marked by a pair of sandals) at the training facility. He is not an isolationist. He is a neat freak, shunning tattoos and piercings, chiding rookie Josh Huestis for a messy locker (“We keep it clean here”) and Adams for untied shoes. When posing for a picture with his coach, Billy Donovan, he ensures that Donovan is holding the basketball so the logo points toward the camera. He makes self-deprecating references about his OCD tendencies. “Sometimes, when he’s not looking, I lie on his table and rub my ass on it,” Adams says. The big man must be joking. The last person who swiped Westbrook’s parking spot got boxed in for the rest of the day.
His sense of order extends to his daily schedule. Shoot from 9 to 9:30 a.m. Breakfast from 9:30 to 10. “If you’re a minute late for anything,” says athletic trainer Tony Katzenmeier, “he’s tapping his wrist and asking what happened.” Lock in, Westbrook tells Katzenmeier, and everybody else. “I’ve never known someone like this,” says guard Anthony Morrow, “who wasn’t in the military.” Westbrook listens to the same eclectic playlist on the drive to games, calling both of his parents, Russell Sr. and Shannon. Then he calls them again on the way home.

In the off-season he works out at 8 a.m. at Jesse Owens Park in L.A., where his father trained him, and he still does his dad’s drills. He is often alone. “I know what to do,” Westbrook says. “I don’t need a bunch of people around to give me—whatever those people give you.” He pays his own bills, a rarity in the NBA, hauling stacks of them into the Thunder lunch room. “This isn’t $32,” a staffer heard him grouse at a miscalculated invoice. When the team eats dinner on the road, they toss their phones in the middle of the table, so nobody is distracted. The first person to reach for his cell has to pick up the check. Westbrook typically goes home with a free meal. “My life is pretty simple,” he says, contrary to the mad dashes and outrageous outfits he shows the public. When Westbrook was younger, he tried to ingratiate himself with Durant, according to those who knew both. But KD was surrounded by a thick circle of friends and associates. By the time Durant streamlined his entourage and attempted to reciprocate, Westbrook had settled down. He lives in the Oklahoma City suburbs with his wife, Nina, whom he met at UCLA. He does not drink. He toils over his clothing designs.
Simon Bruty/SI
Westbrook’s shell is tough, but you know you are cracking it when he starts calling you an “a‑‑hole” or a “piece of s---.” You’re really getting somewhere when he flips you off. The Thunder have understood this quirk of personality since June 2008, when he swaggered into the Furtado Center in Seattle for the first time. Marc St. Yves, the Sonics’ legendary equipment manager, greeted him at the front door. St. Yves wanted to know if Westbrook was going to stick with the number 0 he wore with the Bruins. St. Yves does not remember Westbrook’s exact response, but it was something like, “Get my f‑‑‑‑‑‑ zero ready.” St. Yves turned to the security guard and rolled his eyes. “This kid is going to be fun,” he said, shaking his head.

He had no idea. St. Yves now cusses Westbrook like a longshoreman and loves him like Gary Payton and Xavier McDaniel rolled into one. When St. Yves bought a Western Conference All-Star jersey for Westbrook to autograph two years ago, he pleaded, “Don’t write a--hole on this one.” That’s how you break the shell. “Russell takes a long time to feel comfortable with people, to trust people, but he realizes he has that here,” Collison says. “He knows he’s been treated well.”
A blue-chipper like Durant, saddled with whacked-out expectations since adolescence, could have looked at the last eight years as a ringless disappointment. Westbrook, the kid in the blank thermal begging for a scholarship, never would. “This environment is a huge part of how I got to this point,” Westbrook says. “There’s a sense of comfort for me here.” During nationally televised games Westbrook can come across as chilly in his sideline interviews. But on local broadcasts his demeanor is much warmer, which is no coincidence. In 2012, Thunder sideline reporter Lesley McCaslin challenged Westbrook on his clipped answers. “I have to ask you these questions,” McCaslin said, “and you’ve got to help me out.”
Westbrook will never be a garrulous speaker, but he respected McCaslin’s candor. During the playoffs last spring McCaslin was pregnant, and Westbrook pestered her about when she was starting maternity leave. She didn’t understand why he was so interested. Finally, after a flight from San Antonio to Oklahoma City, Westbrook led McCaslin through the airport parking lot and popped the trunk of his car. Inside was a Maclaren stroller. “He’s more human than people would ever think,” McCaslin says. “He just doesn’t want you to know that.” When McCaslin thanked Nina for picking out the stroller, soon to be occupied by baby Hunter, Westbrook’s wife laughed. “That wasn’t me,” she said. “That was all Russell.”

Not long after Durant’s decision Westbrook returned to Oklahoma City for his annual basketball camp, and general manager Sam Presti met him back at the dog-food gym. The Thunder were prepared to offer Westbrook a maximum contract extension, and if he turned it down, they’d have no choice but to consider those trade offers. “I don’t want you to do this because you feel you need to,” Presti said. “I want you to do it because you want to.” Westbrook could have told Presti that he’d talk about free agency next year, setting up the Summer of Russ, and all the ensuing attention. But Presti had a pretty good feeling that he wouldn’t. “One way or another he lets you know where you stand,” Adams says, “and he doesn’t do it with a whisper. He does it with a few more decibels than that.”

For someone who is loath to change, slow to trust and attached to routine, the choice was easy. “You remember the people you’ve been in the trenches with,” Westbrook says. Besides, he’d earn more money in Oklahoma City.

On Aug. 4, Westbrook signed a three-year, $86 million extension, and then ducked into St. Yves’s office. An early version of the 2016–17 schedule was out, and Westbrook wanted to see it. Every year he loses himself in the schedule, reviewing hotel choices and departure times. For 30 minutes he studied the document, his eyes burning holes in it. St. Yves didn’t ask if he was looking at any games in particular.

He didn’t have to.
Shane Bevel/Getty Images
Westbrook is making the case, impossible as it may be, that the Clippers game on Nov. 2 will mean as much to him as the Warriors game on Nov. 3 or the Timberwolves game on Nov. 5. “Who it is, what day, what time, pickup, not pickup, I only know how to play one way,” he says. “There’s nothing extra. I don’t need it. I already have it. My duty is to give all I have. Other people have to think about competing. I don’t. Watch those games and tell me I don’t play the same way.”

He was a football star first, a heat–seeking tailback, pounding between Pop Warner tackles and looking for linebackers to level. “I liked to hit,” Westbrook says, gazing down at the scars that stripe his arms, badges from runs up the middle. “I liked contact.” He brought the gridiron to the hardwood, taking no breaks, tolerating no lapses, regarding the T-Wolves just as he does the Dubs. But then a quote is relayed to him from another NBA star he knows well. “I don’t pay to watch sporting events, but I would pay to watch Russell Westbrook against Golden State.” At this, he unleashes a delirious laugh.
Media and fans are prone to hyperbole, but even Westbrook’s peers speculate about his upcoming campaign in terms normally reserved for natural phenomena. They expect him to breathe fire, hottest on Nov. 3, but inextinguishable every other night as well. Can he score 35 points per game? Can he average a triple double? Can he go one-on-four at Oracle Arena and rip the hoop from the stanchion? In a season when the champion appears preordained—and the runner-up as well—Westbrook is the most captivating subject.
There is basis for the hype. When Durant was recovering from foot surgery in early 2015, Westbrook embarked on a two-month offensive binge reminiscent of Oscar Robertson, making 40/15/10 stat lines look commonplace. The everlasting question—What could Durant do if un-tethered from Westbrook for 82 games?—was suddenly flipped on its head. What could Westbrook do? He can answer that in a couple of different ways, either by turning Oklahoma City into a wildly entertaining if ultimately nonthreatening solo act, or by moving the ball and lifting a young core back toward contention.
“Let’s say Russell becomes a one-man wrecking machine, night in and night out: Where’s the growth in that?” asks Donovan. “Can you develop the rest of the roster to complement Russell and help Russell? He’s so bright. I think he understands the importance of having guys he can rely on.”
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Sometimes the wrecking ball prevails. In the 2000–01 season Allen Iverson hauled the 76ers to the Finals, with a starting lineup that featured George Lynch, Tyrone Hill, Theo Ratliff and Eric Snow. An assistant coach was Maurice Cheeks, now with the Thunder. “We’ve talked about that team,” Donovan says. “Iverson took the majority of the shots and did the scoring. They had great defenders and rebounders. If you look at the stats, there was so much attention on Iverson, they killed teams when he shot and they got offensive rebounds.”

Oklahoma City, with its length and toughness, is not so different. Power forward Enes Kanter pulled down 18.5 rebounds per 48 minutes last season, fifth in the NBA, and Adams gathered 12.7. Andre Roberson is a stopper on the wing, and Victor Oladipo, acquired from the Magic in the deal involving Serge Ibaka, is a more dynamic scorer than any of those old Sixers. But for every Iverson there have been countless solo shows who failed to cause a playoff ripple—including Westbrook in ’15, when the Thunder missed the postseason. OKC lacks outside scoring, an issue for Westbrook, who figures to find driving lanes clogged. “I have to do what’s best for the team,” he says. “I have to gauge that. And as a leader you have to gauge how you help other guys get better. I want to make sure everybody feels comfortable about what they’re doing.”

The Thunder are not making the Finals this year, barring an Iversonian surge, but they are not going to be the 2010 Cavaliers, either. They privately prefer to be compared to the Cardinals, strained as it may be, who lost Albert Pujols in ’11 and reached the World Series in ’13. Westbrook has never been the franchise face, but he has long prepared for the day. Over the past few years he has watched game film to evaluate his body language and tried to tailor his style of communication depending on the recipient.
“He blasts me all the time because I’m fine with it,” Adams says. “He can scream in the middle of a game, ‘F--- that!’ and we’re totally cool. But I see him take another approach with others.” The Thunder heard the off-season indictments, that Westbrook is difficult to play alongside, and compared with Curry those claims may be true. But the same used to be said about Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, both of whom call Westbrook the current player who most reminds them of their younger selves. “This is the way I look at it,” says Kanter. “When he yells at me that I need to do a better job, it’s probably because I need to do a better job.”
Just as Westbrook will have to strike a balance between carrying teammates and enabling them, he will also need to alternate tongue lashings with attaboys. “All eyes in the room are on him, where they used to be split,” Weaver says. “Russell could be the hard charger, and Kevin would go pick guys up. He needs to be a little more understanding, a little more sensitive. I think he will. I think that’s in him.” Weaver flashes back to Khelcey Barrs, Westbrook’s high school teammate and best friend, who died during a pickup game in 2004 and was later found to have an enlarged heart. When Weaver scouted Westbrook four years later, he came across a piece of personal information that froze him. “Do you know that after the boy died, Russell would go over to his grandmother’s house and do his chores?” Weaver asks. “Part of the reason we liked him was his compassion.”
Super teams are as endearing as hedge funds, so even if Westbrook scowls all season, he will still be the league’s darling. Just like that, he and Durant switched hats, not that he gives a damn. “I didn’t care about that then, and I won’t care about it now,” Westbrook says. “Good things, bad things, I’m going to do the same things, like it or love it. Before, nobody liked it, and now everybody loves it. Doesn’t matter to me either way.”

What does matter is the picnic. One afternoon every September, the Thunder hop on Route 66 and head to Arcadia Farms, 30 miles north. Almost everyone in the organization, plus spouses and children and a few Disney characters, gather on a grassy bluff for food and football, cornhole and karaoke. The first year, Presti counted 60 people under the pine trees. Now, there are more than 250. Westbrook, in a white T-shirt and gray shorts, mirrored sunglasses and red-and-black Jordans, is the Pied Piper. He holds Presti’s 18-month-old son, Nicholas. He teaches handshakes to Tumbleson’s four-year-old, Teddy. He encourages teammates to mingle. Lock in. Kanter bounds down an inflatable slide. Roberson poses for a caricature. One backup point guard, Cameron Payne, fires a water gun. Another, Ronnie Price, drops a line into a pond. Adams compares mustaches with Captain Hook. (“Bastard,” he mutters, defeated.) Oladipo serenades Tinker Bell with “I Believe I Can Fly.” (“Any duets here?” he asks, and she rises from her hay bale.)
Westbrook, cradling a football, surveys the folksy tableau. Oladipo and Tinker Bell have moved on from R. Kelly to John Legend. Even when I lose I’m winning, ’cause I give you all of me, and you give me all of you. A year ago Westbrook was running fly patterns with Durant on the bluff, and now he is throwing spirals to Nina. Finally, he fires one deep, into a bouncy house, and kids scatter with terror and glee. Their laughter fills the farm as Westbrook turns to leave, having crashed one fun house, locked in on another.

Article SI Link
Thanks to mendels for sharing this article on BZ. 

Oct 12 2016 Pressers - Coach Steve Alford, Bryce, Lonzo, T.J. and Welsh

Thursday, October 20, 2016

TBT: Fan Jam 1996

Found these photos from Fan Jam 1996 (the year after Banner 11). Taken with a non-digital camera. I apologize for the fuzziness. Good times :-). P.S. Can anyone help me with the ??? players? 

Bob Myers, Cameron Dollar, Kris Johnson, Toby Bailey, Harold Sylvester
Bailey, Sylvester, J.R. Henderson, ???, Jelani McCoy, Brandon Loyd, Kevin Daley
Jim Saia, Steve Lavin, Michael Holton, Charles O'Bannon, Myers, Dollar, Johnson
Lavin, Holton, Charles O'Bannon, Myers, Dollar, Johnson, Bailey, Sylvester, Henderson
Myers, Charles O'Bannon (obscured), Dollar, Johnson, Bailey, Sylvester, Henderson, ???
Myers, Charles O'Bannon, Dollar, Johnson, Bailey, Sylvester, Henderson, ???, McCoy

Sylvester, Henderson, ???, McCoy, Loyd, Daley, ???

Jelani for the slam
Jelani covering JR 

A Coach Jim Harrick sighting!

Brandon on Tob

Tob to the rack 1

Tob to the rack 2

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

SI: Here We Go, 'Zo: Can Lonzo Ball bring UCLA back to the top?

Thanks to MalibouAL for posting this article on BZ. Original SI article link



  • The scenario in Westwood: A coach on the hot seat after a rare losing season turns the offense over to stellar—and hyperkinetic—freshman point guard Lonzo Ball.

  • Brian Hamilton
    Tuesday October 18th, 2016
    This story originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
    As UCLA gathers for its sixth practice of the year, a midafternoon workout on Oct. 7, Lonzo Ball relaxes on a courtside folding chair. His black Beats Pill speaker occupies the seat to his right. The most intriguing freshman in college basketball pulls out his phone and scrolls to a song that fits his mood. Seconds later, he’s on his feet lip-synching to Travis Scott’s “Serenade.” Ball shakes his head while he mouths the lyrics to teammates lounging nearby, then wheels and almost blindly drains a three-pointer from the corner. He drifts out—way out—to a line of white tape affixed to the edge of the Pauley Pavilion logo at center court and effortlessly launches another shot. It splashes through the net.
    The previous day’s workout had been a bit of a slog, a low-energy, mistake-addled exercise in frustration for the entire roster. Ball was particularly irked by how poorly he shot. But 24 hours later he’s bouncing all over the gym, singing and flinging behind-the-back shots from three-point range. His rhythm has returned. “If you see me, you’re going to hear some type of music coming out of me,” Ball says. “I like the vibe.”
    UCLA is due for some good vibrations. After reaching the Sweet 16 in Coach Steve Alford’s first two seasons in Westwood, the Bruins went 15–17 last winter, prompting Alford to return a contract extension (for the 2020–21 season) he had received after his first year at UCLA. If this season is a referendum on a historically great program and its coach, optimism abounds due to the presence of Ball, a lithe, hiccup-quick 6' 6" guard whose shooting range is surpassed only by his exceptional court vision. He averaged a triple double (23.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, 11.5 assists) for a 35–0 high school team that scored nearly 100 points a game. And his reputation for making spectacular plays—lobs, dunks, threes—is not restricted to the U.S. Dozens of fans in Australia clamored for his autograph during the Bruins’ foreign tour in August.Ball may have the zealous following of a revolutionary, even if he won’t exactly reinvent college basketball. But the Bruins will reinvent their style of play for him. Now at practice, coaches push for the Bruins to accelerate their dribbles and to talk to each other through every movement. UCLA’s current offense is all spacing and reads instead of formulaic spot-to-spot choreography. It is both a course correction after last year and a way to maximize the skills of a wizardly freshman. As the Bruins’ prized recruit walks the ball up the floor, Alford’s voice booms through the arena. “Go, ‘Zo, go!” It’s a whole new Ball game in Westwood.
    At the end of the 2015–16 season, Chino Hills (Calif.) High was less a team than a scoring machine. Unremitting full-court defensive pressure and a speed-of-light offensive attack fueled a season in which the Huskies averaged 98.4 points. In 32-minute games, Chino Hills scored 100 or more points 18 times and beat De La Salle High by 20 for the state championship, matching its smallest postseason margin of victory. Anywhere the Huskies played, fans arrived hours early to secure seats; the Inland Daily Bulletin reported that a Chino Hills game at Damien High in January featured a sellout crowd of 2,500 with more than 400 people turned away at the door.
    Ball, the eventual Naismith national player of the year, was not the only attraction—even in his own family. His brothers LiAngelo, a 6' 6" junior forward who averaged a team-leading 27.4 points, and LaMelo, a 5' 10" freshman guard who chipped in 16.4 points and 3.8 assists, also powered the Chino Hills turbine. A MaxPreps preview video for 2016–17 features a clip from last season in which an opposing player loses the ball in the post. Four seconds later, Chino Hills hits a layup. “The ball would go through the hoop, and you’d turn around, look, and the ball is in the air and someone is catching it and going up for a dunk,” says UCLA freshman forward T.J. Leaf, whose Foothills Christian High team lost to Ball & Co. three times last year. “It was pretty unbelievable, actually.”
    Lonzo Ball says he’s held a basketball since he could walk and that he was groomed by his father, LaVar, who played forward at Washington State and Cal State–Los Angeles and later played tight end for the London Monarchs of the World League of American Football. As a grade schooler, Lonzo’s standard driveway workload was 25 bank shots from each side, followed by floaters from the top, followed by shooting games against Dad or one-on-one with friends or his brothers. By fourth grade, Lonzo was competing against eighth-graders, and his affinity for passing bloomed out of necessity. “Knowing some guys are way bigger than you, way faster than you, you have to find other ways to do what you want to do,” Lonzo says. Early on, LaVar drilled home the idea that point guards are judged by wins, not points. “As long as people want to play with you, you’ll have a good team,” Lonzo says. “If you have a point guard that’s coming up and jacking [shots] every time, ain’t nobody going to want to play with him.”
    This explains Ball’s line from the McDonald’s All-American game last March. He tied an event record with 13 assists ... but took only three shots, scoring no points. “If I have the best high school players in the country, why not let them do what they do?” Ball says. “It wasn’t that I was not going to shoot. It’s just like, Why would I shoot, when I can have them do it?”
    Ball’s uncanny ability to see the floor resonated with Alford immediately, even though the point guard was only a sophomore at Chino Hills during the coach’s first year at UCLA. “He has the ability to see a play in front of the play that’s happening,” Alford says. That aspect of Ball’s skill set, perhaps more than anything, informed an overhaul the UCLA staff began last spring. In 2013–14 the Bruins were highly effective on the run, spending 21.4% of their possessions in transition and scoring 1.167 points per trip. That ranked 31st nationally. But by 2015–16, transition accounted for just 13.1% of the Bruins’ possessions. Their 0.969 points per transition opportunity sagged to 279th in Division I. Meanwhile, the lack of a stretch power forward forced the Bruins to play two centers at once, limiting UCLA’s options in the half-court offense. It maddened a coach who believes in flow and motion and in trusting players to read defenses and react accordingly.
    Leon Bennett/Getty
    Ball joined three double-digit backcourt scorers who were returning for UCLA: 6' 5" senior Isaac Hamilton, 6' 3" senior Bryce Alford (the coach’s son) and 6' 1" sophomore Aaron Holiday. The Bruins were also adding a power forward with range in the form of the 6' 10" Leaf, a five-star recruit himself. And 7-foot junior center Thomas Welsh, whose 56.3% shooting on jumpers inside 17 feet makes him lethal in screen-and-roll action, would also be back. The strategy was self-evident. The Bruins would play fast and free, with a nod to the high-flying pro team a few hundred miles to the north. “We’re trying to emulate the Warriors as much as possible,” Bryce Alford says. “Screening, cutting, at the fastest pace you can possibly run offense. It’s not an offense you can really scout, because we don’t really have a rhythm to what we’re doing. The defense can’t take away everything.”
    No, UCLA won’t be a blue-and-gold blur. But it will certainly tailor its attack to the strengths of its kinetic prodigy. “I’m coming at you 100 miles per hour every time I can,” Ball says.
    “He’s got, like, batteries in his back,” Hamilton says of his new backcourtmate. “He never stops moving.”
    Ball certainly commands attention, even in practice. On a fast break he spins around a defender, flings the ball upcourt, gets it back and delivers a touch pass for a layup assist. After a backdoor cut Ball receives a feed in position to score ... and redirects it into an alley-oop to freshman center Ike Anigbogu. Failed passes, meanwhile, are merely opportunities to recalibrate. When Hamilton mishandles a lob caught at chest level, Ball asks, “Isaac, you want that up top?” Ball then shrugs as the coaches tease him for the minor miscalculation. “I didn’t even know he could dunk,” the freshman deadpans.
    There are plenty of plays that would go viral on YouTube. Leaf recalls a sequence in which Ball grabbed a make out of the net, planted a foot out of bounds and fired a one-handed, length-of-the-court lead pass to junior forward Gyorgy Goloman for a dunk. “Like [Tom] Brady,” Leaf says. Ball regularly finishes lobs and reverses with tomahawk jams, and a blinding crossover preceded a gnarly step-back three-pointer with Bryce Alford in his face. But in Ball’s hands, UCLA’s offense is a 3-D representation of legendary Bruins coach John Wooden’s adage: Be quick but don’t hurry. “I wouldn’t say I slowed myself down—now we actually have plays I can run, instead of fast-breaking the whole time,” Ball says. “If I feel I can push it and go get a bucket, I can do that. It gives me a lot of freedom.”
    He knows he cannot flaunt that privilege if he is to lead a successful college attack. At one point, while waiting for Alford to draw a play for the opposition in a five-on-five session, Ball casually drains two 30-footers. He misses his next two. The second rebound bounces to Bruins assistant Duane Broussard, who flips it to Ball. Another 30-footer falls. “It’s all in the pass,” Broussard cracks.
    Before he returns to work, Lonzo Ball turns and points at his coach, like truer words were never spoken.
    John W. McDonough
    Steve Alford sits on an office couch beneath a collection of plaques commemorating each of the teams he has coached over the last two decades. One space is empty but for strips of black Velcro. It is the spot reserved for UCLA’s 2015–16 plaque, which fell off the wall and now rests on the sofa’s arm, temporarily out of sight. The ‘15–16 flop was Alford’s first losing season since he went 14–16 in his inaugural season at Iowa, back in 1999–2000. When state-of-the-program discussions with UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero began last spring, Alford insisted that he wasn’t willing to make staff changes. He preferred to demonstrate his commitment to winning by altering his own bottom line. So he wrote an open letter to Bruins fans explaining why he was returning the extension he had been given after Year 1. “It puts all the responsibility right where the buck should stop,” Alford says. “These are ultimately my decisions that are made in how we go about recruiting, the people we bring in here, how we play. That’s ultimately me. I thought it was a significant way of saying, Hey, I’m not happy, either. I’m in this thing.”
If there was one positive takeaway from 2015–16, Alford believes, it’s that last year “shook the tree.” His film session before UCLA’s first practice involved watching zero film; Alford wrote CULTURE on a board and opened a discussion about what that meant to this team. Talk of competitiveness and selflessness followed. Change will come, one way or another, next spring. The Bruins must be explosive on offense and respectable on defense. (They ranked 119th in defensive efficiency last year.) They must return to the NCAA tournament (of course) but also make a deep run. And for the future, Alford must prove that he can extract the most from his most treasured recruit: The plan for Lonzo Ball has to work, if for no other reason than to ensure that both of Ball’s talented younger brothers follow through on their pledges to play for UCLA.
So if this is not quite Chino Hills West, it is still another program that will move as fast and far as Ball takes it. The experience of playing in Australia revealed that much, at least to Ball. He averaged a team-high 30.6 minutes in three games but shot just 25.0% from the field. He fiddled with the release point on his shot. He tried to play mistake-free. He tried to fit in. None of it worked very well. When Ball returned home after the trip, his father asked which Lonzo was in the house. “The one from Australia,” LaVar said, “or my son?”
Over the next two weeks, they worked out the identity crisis. UCLA’s coaches visited, too, eating LaVar’s pancakes and then scouring film from the games Down Under with his point guard for about 45 minutes. Alford had wanted to leave Ball alone until then, to let his new protégé feel and process adversity. And now the Bruins coach told him, No one wants you to fit in. The player with energy, the force of personality who ripped teammates in a huddle and told them they were not taking a second loss on the trip—that was what UCLA needed. “The No. 1 thing I learned out there was to be myself,” Ball says. Everything depends on it. That much hasn’t changed at all.