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Sunday Hoops Reflections: The "AAU Mentality" Of LeBron James & Ben Howland

Sunday is usually the day for me around spring and summer time to check in with all the MLB standings and statistics the old fashioned way via the hard copy of the local paper. It is the only time of the week I usually check out the Washington Post's sports section. Anyway, I was glancing through the sports section this morning and got locked into a Michael Wilbon column about the "drama" around LeBron James.

The following grafs really stood out to me given the recent post here on BN concerning Kareem's thoughts on NBA entry age and the culture around today's kids coming into the League (emphasis added):

The big issue is whether LeBron is going to make a basketball decision or one geared toward marketing, exposure and his personal life. After talking to several veteran NBA players and several club executives over the past 48 hours, it was somewhat surprising to hear that few people believe LeBron will make primarily a basketball decision. Nobody I talked to believes LeBron was humiliated by the loss to Boston. None of the players I talked to believes LeBron is motivated by winning in the same obsessive way Magic, Bird and Jordan were, or Kobe is. They believe that LeBron thinks he has years to win, and isn't particularly pressed at the moment to do so.

A former league executive, a former coach and a current general manager all told me LeBron is one of the most spoiled and coddled players of this generation and as a result isn't particularly accountable, as evidenced by his refusal to shake hands with the Orlando players after they whipped him in last year's Eastern Conference finals. It's a particularly disappointing thing to hear repeatedly because, if true, it suggests LeBron has this AAU mentality that values individual accomplishment over winning. I could live with hearing this about, say, O.J. Mayo, but LeBron James?  

Now rest of the column goes on to break down the chances of LeBron's potential suitors (Bulls, Nets, Knicks, Clippers, Heat and Cavs) and conclude that LeBron will probably be seduced by his "pal" Jay-Z (a co-owner of the Jersey Nets) and "the irresistible charms of owner Mikhail Prokhorov" who will launch a full court press via "parties, the girls, the trips on his yacht (once he locates it), the lure of good times piled upon good times" to ink the "MVP." Whatever, I could care less where he ends up.

What I wanted to get back at though and focus on those two grafs and discuss them a little in terms of Ben Howland and UCLA basketball.

I think Wilbon really touched upon something when he mentioned about how LeBron was not humiliated by the loss to Boston and that LeBron's next's destination is going to be more geared towards marketing and personal life rather than a pure basketball decision aimed for championships. I think that is really the phenomenon that handcuffed Coach Ben Howland in his last two years. The class of 2008 was essentially the classic posterchild of the LeBron generation more consumed with instantly gaining material wealth rather than positioning themselves from taking advantage of incredible education in game of basketball and life at one of the greatest schools in the country.

Yes, when I read those grafs it was the picture of Jrue Holiday (and Drew Gordon and Jerime Anderson) that immediately came to mind. I thought of kids who at least during these past two years never seemed concerned about humiliating losses rather than their own interests .  We can go back into archives to look up Jrue Holiday's quotes following the humiliating loss against Washington State in which he repeatedly got torched by Klay Thompson. Holiday refused to take any kind of responsibility for his "defense". Similarly Anderson and Gordon never cared about following Howland's axiom on man to man defense and instead were delusional of starting their own run and gun version of offense in Westwood.

Those guys  - especially Holiday and Gordon - personified the coddled high school athlete who never cared about taking responsibility as a student athlete in Howland's program. Now Howland is of course not without fault in all of it. He made his share of his mistakes by failing to effectively communication his vision and philosophy with that class and he didn't get much help from his assistants who were in place. Yet on balance, I think I lean more towards Howland's side as I think over last two years he was struggling to get his foundation of a basketball program based around defense, fundamentals and hard work with total dedication to those four letters back in place.

Perhaps Jerime Anderson has learned his lessons and will be different in his remaining two seasons. Despite my previous criticisms of Malcolm Lee (and his ill advised tweet and belief that he was more suited to play pg rather than 2 G), I think Lee has a chance to emerge as a good player who is dedicated to winning as a team and redeeming the last two lost seasons in Westwood. Similarly Tyler Honeycutt, Brendan Lane and Reeves Nelson seem to be cut out with a different mindset.  So that gives me some modicum of hope.

Ultimately though going forward  Ben Howland will have to zero in his recruiting efforts in a way that needs to put heavy emphasis on character along with skillsets. I don't believe that he needs to stay way from all "one and done" types. There are good kids as exemplified by KL, who did put team first over his personal stats and embraced Howland's way in Westwood. But in balance I think UCLA under Howland will be better off if it focuses on getting players with "Tom Izzo mindset" than getting guys who dream of themselves being part of "Calipari/LeBron James" schools of basketball.

I think during these past two years (especially with the class of 2008) Howland lost his way by trying to get some kids to play Izzo ball (the Midwest version of BenBall") with some kids who envisioned themselves of being part of a program playing Calipari/LeBron James brand of hoops.

Hope we can get back to what made Ben Ball so special in Westwood within next couple of years under Ben Howland.