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Player Development, Ben Howland and the NBA

Critics deride UCLA Head Coach Ben Howland for his style of play, and many suggest that this style negatively impacts the NBA prospects of UCLA’s players. When Arron Afflalo entered the NBA Draft after his junior year, he felt that he had to prove that he really could play offense and he was not just a “system” player.

As evidenced by the success of recent UCLA players in the NBA, there is virtually no validity to the argument that Howland and his approach hurt his players’ opportunities at the next level. In fact, Howland develops players into NBA-ready performers.

On the UCLA Scout site, I saw an article which tabulated the minutes, points per game and rebounds per game for NBA players representing their respective universities since Howland was hired at UCLA. Surprising to most, the leader is not Florida, with its two NCAA National Championships, or Duke with its roster of McDonald’s All-Americans.

Instead, the top two performers on the list are two of the three coaches who I have said that I would send an elite recruit if the recruit asked my advice: Texas’ Rick Barnes and UCLA’s Ben Howland.

Since the high school class of 2004, UCLA has put five players in the NBA: Jordan Farmar, Afflalo, Kevin Love, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Russell Westbrook. Out of high school, Love was the only definite NBA player, and Mbah a Moute and Westbrook were three-star recruits overlooked by many universities. Florida and Texas have put four players in the NBA, while Carolina and Duke have two each.

When looking at cumulative mpg, ppg and rpg averages, UCLA’s five players total 116/43/23, while Texas’ four players total 126/61/16 and Florida’s four total 85/29/21.

At Duke and UNC, their current NBA players from post-2004 were McDonald’s All-Americans: DeMarcus Nelson, Josh McRoberts, Marvin Williams and Brandon Wright. One expects a McDonald’s All-American to have a pretty good shot at the NBA.

UCLA, Texas and Florida recruit talented players, but they lack the depth of McDonald’s All-Americans that Duke and UNC have, yet these three schools have out-performed everyone else recently.

Billy Donovan has done a great job at Florida and with two recent National Championships, he probably should be considered the best college coach this decade.

Barnes develops players for two reasons, in my opinion:

(1) He lets players play to their strengths. He did not force Kevin Durant to be a back to the basket center. He allowed him to use his skills and showcase his well-rounded game. He gave him freedom to make plays and did not try to put a square peg into a round hole.

(2) Texas features the best Strength & Conditioning Coach in the country in Todd Wright, and Barnes gives him full control. Barnes and his staff recruit great players with tremendous athleticism, but Wright keeps them healthy and builds on their athleticism so they are physically ready for the NBA.

Barnes, like Howland, also runs a lot of great sets to get shots for his players. He does a great job of showcasing their talents and helping them move to the next level.

At UCLA, Howland prepares his players for different reasons. Howland, from what I know, is the most like NBA coaches in terms of his use of video and game preparation. Every college coach scouts, but Howland scouts opponents and takes away their strengths better than anyone right now. His players are ready for NBA coaching because they have played in a similar style at UCLA. Second, Howland demands defense and effort on every play. He does not play favorites, like many coaches, and he does not allow his best performers to rest on defense. He will not play players until they can defend to his level.

When I asked ESPN’s David Thorpe about the weaknesses of college players moving to the NBA, he said that they are terrible defenders. UCLA’s players are not. They are ready to defend at an NBA level as rookies, which gives them an advantage and helps them earn playing time. UCLA focuses on its post defense and pick-and-roll defense as much as anyone, so players understand NBA defensive rotations when they reach the NBA, and UCLA players play against NBA-type defensive intensity and rotations in practice, so they learn to attack post double-teams and traps against the pick-and-roll.

While many criticize Howland, he employs an NBA-style approach to his offensive sets and defensive schemes and this prepares his players to perform as rookies.

There are different ways to win and different ways to develop players for the next level, but Howland and Barnes do a very good job right now accomplishing both.

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