RICHMOND, Va. – It’s hard enough to get Shaka Smart to take a vacation, but now? It’s going to take one heck of an advertising pitch to pull the VCU coach away from Richmond now.
In years past, the summer was a steady stream of pickup hoops and loosely-tethered together workouts. Coaches were not allowed to run practices or have much contact with their players.
But this year, thanks to a change in NCAA legislation in January, teams are allowed to run full practices with coaching staffs for up to two hours a day and up to eight hours a week for eight weeks. All returning players in good academic standing and incoming freshmen enrolled in summer school are allowed to participate.
That the changes have been welcomed by coaches should come as no surprise, but many players see the value in them as well.
“I think it’s a lot more fun,” said senior David Hinton. “You get to see the coaches in the summer. You had that big gap before where the coaches worked you out in the spring, but you really didn’t see them again until the fall. [The coaches] won’t be as anxious in the fall. They monitor your progress all summer, and they help you out and improve your game more.”
Coaches and players alike see the new rules as an opportunity for greater development. For young teams, the benefits are particularly obvious. VCU will welcome three freshmen this season, guard Jordan Burgess and forwards Mo Alie-Cox and Justin Tuoyo. Smart could really use another shooter and a couple of rebounders, so if VCU’s rookie trio could contribute early, it would make the Rams that much more dangerous.
But the transition from high school to college has challenged even the best prep stars.
“It’s a pretty big difference,” said rising junior D.J. Haley said of the transition. “Speaking from experience, the game is a lot faster, a lot more physical.”
“You can take a simple drill such as hook shots, but now you’ve got the coaches yelling at you and you’ve got to make a certain amount in a certain amount of time,” Hinton said. “You’re going to get your heart rate up a lot, so just the intensity and the game speed [is different].”
However, the hope is that the new guidelines could soften their landing.
“There are a lot of advantages because us being young, our younger players get to learn the system a lot faster,” said rising sophomore Treveon Graham. “By the time the season gets here, we’ve already got our chemistry together and we’ll be ready to roll.”
When Smart looks to offset the loss of Bradford Burgess, his leading scorer from last season, he’ll probably survey a number of options. One of the logical choices to fill the big shoes of “Big Shot Brad” is Graham.
A rising sophomore, Graham saw his playing time and production grow during last season. By season’s end, he was a valuable scorer off the bench and finished with averages of 16.7 minutes, 7.0 points and 3.2 rebounds per game.
Although he is often compared to Burgess because they are both solidly-built, 6-foot-5 swingmen who contributed immediately, the two players are quite different. Graham has a scorer’s mentality, whereas Burgess was often comfortable as a facilitator and opportunistic scorer. Graham excels at driving the ball into the paint, absorbing contact and getting to the free throw line. Burgess was a dead-eye shooter from the perimeter who was adept at defending three different positions.
So while Graham may help replace Burgess in the lineup – the two were often substituted for each other last season – he’ll likely do it in a different way. His own way.
“Now that Brad is gone, down the ladder there are more minutes, so I’m going to be coming in and just looking to do some of the things that he did and pick up the slack, but still play my game,” Graham said. “I don’t want to say that I want to be exactly like Brad, but I do want to bring some of the intensity he brought.”
This summer, Graham says he’s working on improving his ball-handling skills, sharpening his mid-range game and polishing his defensive chops. But with a year of experience under his belt, he’s already seeing improvement.
“Now that I’ve had a year, I’m more comfortable with the things we do in practice,” he said. “I know what the coaches look for with different things [so I can] help the freshmen coming in to have a head start.”