|Russell Westbrook, now a star for the OKC Thunder, is a beacon of Howland's developmental skill. (Getty Images)|
LAS VEGAS -- Ben Howland was sitting underneath the basket in an auxiliary gym at Bishop Gorman High this weekend, watching a point guard prospect get up and down the court, and we were talking about recruiting. More specifically, we were talking about negative recruiting and the seemingly endless -- and on many levels baseless -- string of attacks the UCLA coach has faced in recent years.
"There's so much [BS] in recruiting," Howland said. "Everybody's going to say whatever they can negatively. They do it to everybody, and I honestly don't even pay attention to it. So you tell me: What do they say?"
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They say his defensive-minded approach isn't fun.
They say he's hard to play for.
And because so many people have said it so often, somehow, someway, perception has become reality -- though I've never understand how any of it works against Howland given that he's got three Final Fours and been among college basketball's best at properly preparing players for the NBA. He wins and, while doing so, he gets guys to the next level and they stick. The proof: Nine former Bruins were in the NBA last season and eight were starters at the end of the season. The lone exception was Jordan Farmar, the New Jersey point guard who made $3.75 million as Deron Williams' backup.
"They're all doing really well," Howland said. "And they're only going to get better."
Not to mention wealthier.
It's one thing for Kevin Love and Jrue Holiday to succeed in the NBA because they were consensus top-10 recruits who likely would have been pros whether they played at UCLA or UC-Santa Barbara. With some guys, you know, the college situation just doesn't matter much. But what's interesting is that Scout.com ranked four of the nine Bruins currently in the NBA outside of the top 65 of their high school classes, meaning the remaining four -- Ryan Hollins, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook -- entered Howland's program looking nothing like pros but exited as draft picks.
And regardless of whether the once unheralded recruits were drafted fourth (like Westbrook in 2008) or 50th (like Hollins in 2006), they've flourished in the league and been better than most anticipated.
That's the pattern. But why?
"I think one of the things that helps our guys is that they go into the league knowing how to guard," Howland answered. "NBA coaches don't want to play guys who are going to go in there and screw it up defensively. Our guys learn how to stay in front of their own guy."
And on offense?
"We are always going to look to push it and get easy baskets, but we're going to execute on offense in the halfcourt set and take good shots, which is what you have to do in the NBA," Howland said. "Everybody is great in transition defense in the NBA. That's the No. 1 thing -- take away transition. So once that's taken away, you better be able to execute and be able to play with nine other guys around you. You better know how to move and how to use ball screens, and our guys do. I think our guys go into the league knowing how to play."
All the evidence suggests that's true.
Which means every negative people use against Howland could actually be a positive:
• Bad offensive style? It's a style that stresses fundamentals and teaches prospects how to play in the halfcourt.
• A no-fun defensive-minded approach? It's an approach that stresses the things that keep players on the court at the NBA level.
• Hard to play for? Maybe that's precisely the reason so many Bruins -- the first-round picks and the second-round picks -- are flourishing as professionals, making millions and positioning themselves to make many more.
That should be UCLA's recruiting pitch.
"We do talk about it to recruits," Howland said. "It's a pretty good pattern."