Ben Howland might not be showing off his players NBA skills, but he's instilling in them a level of fundamentals that serves them well on the next level. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Yesterday, DCBruins had a good post about Malcolm Lee. Picking up from his post, the other day I was watching the NBA draft camp, basically an organized tryout in front of NBA scouts. When they started talking about Malcolm Lee, I hit the record button, curious about what they might be saying about him.
I'm glad I did. I'm glad because the discussion strayed a bit from Lee to a discussion of UCLA basketball and Ben Howland. This is how it went.
The commentators were Tom Penn, Chad Ford, Len Elmore and Fran Frischilla. Ford covers the NBA for ESPN. Fraschilla is the former Manhattan coach turned college basketball analyst. Elmore played in the NBA and now does games for ESPN - I think he was an agent at one time. Tom Penn works for ESPN now, but he was formerly the assistant GM with the Portland Trail Blazers under Kevin Pritchard. There was one other guy, but I didn't recognize him and he didn't speak in this segment anyway.
Penn started the conversation by noting that Ford had Lee had at the back end of the first round when last season started, but then there was "another disappointing year by UCLA standards."
"Well, one thing is he's an elite defender, and he can guard both positions in the back court," Ford responded. "And given his size that's intriguing for NBA teams.
"Then there's the UCLA factor."
Ahhh ... the UCLA factor ... that's what got my attention.
"A lot of these UCLA point guards did not look like great NBA prospects necessarily to NBA scouts in Ben Howland's system. They get into the league whether it was Jrue Holiday, whether it was Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison (Arron Afflalo) - they have all produced at a big time level."
Obviously Ford knows Afflalo is not a point guard, so mid-sentence he expanded his thoughts to include UCLA players. At this point they were showing some highlights of Lee shooting the ball, so it was tough to tell who spoke next. It sounded like Elmore:
"And that's not a knock on Ben Howland it's not a criticism that these guys aren't getting coached well at UCLA. It's just that the system he runs does not highlight some of the things that NBA teams really value in these guys and when they get in the NBA system they're well coached, they've been well trained, they've been patient and suddenly they blossom in the NBA.
"Lest anyone use that as recruiting ammunition against Ben Howland - the important thing is that these guys are fundamentally sound, and that's what Ben teaches and it allows you to adjust to this type of game (i.e. the NBA game), even though that system (UCLA's) isn't the pro style system, because they're mastering the fundamentals they can make that adjustment and teams find it easy to build upon that and the guys that you mention in the league are prime examples of that.
Fraschilla then noted some weaknesses in Lee's game, particularly his shooting. I can't say his observations were unfair. He also pointed out that just because Holiday and Westbrook have done well in the NBA, it doesn't follow that every UCLA guard will do well in the NBA. (It made me laugh because he said "Just because Carson Palmer was a successful NBA quarterback, it doesn't mean Matt Leinart was going to be a great NBA point guard. He apparently doesn't realize that Palmer and Leinart both suck, though in fairness to Fran, Leinart sucks out loud while Palmer just sort of sucks. Still, point taken.) He also said just because Lee had looked good in a few weeks of tryouts, it didn't radically change what scouts think of him.
Then Penn said:
"It never radically changes who they are in four or five weeks, but it establishes a pattern of improvement. It shows a willingness to work and players can and do evolve
"Going back to Chad's point about UCLA guards, they're not all created equal. (But) there is a subtle -- (maybe a) not so subtle -- similarity that you end up having between these players and it increases the likelihood of success (in the NBA) potentially in your own mind and when you're selling these things internally."
Penn's point here is that while Lee may not be Westbrook or Afflalo, he still has the same fundamental foundation learned at UCLA. And he possesses the same willingness to work and improve. And when a scout or GM needs to justify his selection to his coach or owner, he can point to those similarities.
Ford then chimed in with a very interesting point:
"He was a blue chip prospect who plays in summer camps and looks more like an NBA prospect.
"There's a third factor that a lot of teams don't talk about. Their players go in the summer and they play with these college kids (i.e. in the Wooden Center games that take place every summer involving UCLA players and NBA players who live in Los Angeles in the off-season) and these players will come back and report to their general managers and their scouts who they think can play and I'm telling you that a number of NBA players have come back and said Malcolm Lee is a big time prospect and a lot of teams have told us that plays a role because their players are playing with him in the summer and reporting back."
Summarizing Ford's last point, you've got guys from the pros playing with our guys in the Wooden Center and they know who can play and who can't. I believe it, too. NBA players may not be scouts, but they can tell who's got game and who can't. And, if Ford's sources are correct, then NBA scouts are telling their team's scouts and GMs that Lee can play.
So, what to make of all of this:
Part of the conversation was about Lee specifically. He's looked good in the workouts and the tryouts and apparently he's made an impression on a few NBA players.
But the larger point is about Howland and Howland's style. And, oddly, it justifies some of the negative things we've heard rumors about but it also refutes those negatives and makes them a positive.
See, on one hand, the comments about Howland's system not being an NBA system and not highlighting the NBA strengths on his players might be true. When we hear a rumor that a Holiday or even an Afflalo (or someone close to them) is saying that Howland didn't feature show off their skills properly, there might be something to it. We don't play an NBA system. For the record, remember when they used to say the only person who could hold Michael Jordan under 20 points? and the answer was "Dean Smith." That's because Smith didn't play an NBA system either -- but Smith players seemed to have long productive NBA careers, even those not as talented or skilled as Jordan.
Howland might not be showing off his players NBA skills, but he's instilling in them a level of fundamentals that serves them well on the next level. Their college highlight reels might lack plays that translate to NBA systems, but scouts and GMS realize that there is an underlying set of fundamentals - coupled with the work ethic it takes to play with Howland - that makes them interested in UCLA players and gives them confidence in drafting them.
Fraschilla is right. Not all UCLA players are the same. Westbrook it just better than Collison. Holiday is just better than Farmar. That's mostly DNA and no college coach can alter your DNA. But a college coach can instill a set of necessary fundamentals that give a coach in the NBA a foundation to build on.