Learning Curve Still High for Longhorns' Avery Bradley
Big man Dexter Pittman was posting up hard underneath, yet Bradley, who was still trying to find his rhythm, jacked up another aimless jumper that Pittman had to clean up with an offensive rebound. Finally, Longhorns coach Rick Barnes had seen enough and pulled his celebrated freshman out of the game.
Before Bradley could find his way to the bench, however, Barnes pulled him to the side for one of those teachable moments that stick with players for a lifetime. The point being made was when you have a dominant big man open in the paint, make the game easy by feeding him the ball.
"In a game like (that), it's real intense, so he wanted to make sure we were doing everything right," said Bradley, a 6-2 shooting guard. "By him telling me that, he was telling me that I needed to look inside and that if I look inside it would be an even better shot than the ones I was taking."
Bradley is quickly finding out that the learning curve for a freshman, even the No.1 recruit in the nation, can be steep. That isn't to suggest Bradley hasn't impressed during his first 10 games with the second-ranked Longhorns because he has.
His knack for impressive scoring -- and the jaw-dropping perimeter on-ball defense -- are there, just as they were last season at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas. But in between there are also still a lot of moments where Bradley isn't certain where to go with the ball, how hard he has to play or how to be a dependable team defender.
"The biggest part since our first game is I just need to learn how to pick my spots and figure out when I need to score and when I don't need to score," Bradley said. "Then it's adjusting to the speed of the game and learning how to play hard all the time and seeing that I can't take plays off at the college level."
Bradley had been able to work through his growing pains against a forgiving slate of non-conference games, but the competition ramped up considerably this past Saturday against North Carolina. It will stay on high Tuesday night when ninth-ranked Michigan State comes into Frank Erwin Center.
But if the game against the Tar Heels is any indication, Bradley will be just fine. Bradley scored a career-high 20 points during Texas' 103-90 win over the defending national champions.
Sure, he made some glaring mistakes early but he settled down, started driving to the basket and left the crowd of 38,052 at the Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, with some breathtaking memories Saturday. Perhaps none was bigger than his hustle in the final seconds of the first half when, after a Damion James layup with three seconds remaining, Bradley came from nowhere to steal the inbounds pass from the Tar Heels and lay it up to put UT ahead 54-41 while sending North Carolina into the locker room bent over with a gut punch.
"It was a big momentum boost for us," said Bradley, who scored 12 points in the first half. "We came into the locker room and we felt like we had a chance. We always knew we had a chance, but that really showed how good our defense could be."
UNC coach Roy Williams, who had spent some time watching Bradley as a prep star in Tacoma, and at Findlay Prep, came away both disappointed in his team's effort and impressed with Bradley.
"Avery, he's really good," he said. "I loved him when I saw him in high school."
While recognizing Bradley still has a ways to go to play the expected instrumental role in leading the Longhorns back to the Final Four, Barnes has been fairly impressed with what he has seen so far.
Bradley, part of a stellar freshman class at Texas that also includes J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton, is fourth on the team in scoring (11.9 points) and leads the team in steals (17), while averaging 24.5 minutes per game. He has scored in double figures in seven of the Longhorns' first 10 games and has twice led the team in scoring, dropping 17 against Long Beach State and then 18 against Texas-Pan American.
"He's continued to get better each and every night he's gone out," said Barnes, whose team is 10-0. "He's a person we thought early in the year was being a little bit too tentative maybe deferring some. But we think he's gotten better, maybe more aggressive. I think he is starting to get a pretty good feel of where his shots are coming from and where he needs to put himself on the court.
"He's not only gotten better offensively, but he's continued to improve defensively."
But Bradley, who grew up idolizing former UT guard T.J. Ford, tries to deflect most of the attention from himself and focus it on the team. He knows the Longhorns' play against North Carolina made a major statement to those wondering if Texas has what it takes to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2003.
"We showed people that we always play hard and that's one thing Coach told us before the game," Bradley said. "He told us we need to leave everything out on the court and show people we play hard all the time."
But with Michigan State headed their way in a few short days, Bradley also realized that was not the time to become complacent. Another statement game was quickly on the horizon.
"We are already getting mentally prepared for that game," Bradley said immediately following the North Carolina win. "We are just ready to get in the gym and play. Michigan State is a great team and we just need to go out there and play hard."