NEWARK, Del. – D.J. Haley’s teammates have taken to calling him “The Dream” at practice after NBA Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon.
While Haley is similarly tall, standing 7-feet, he bears little resemblance to the former Houston Rocket. But in practice this year, Haley has shown he has a little flash and a little substance in his game that his career averages of 1.8 points and 2.2 rebounds per game might not indicate.
“In practice he’ll make a play when you’re supposed to go hand-off with the guard. He’ll keep it himself and drive to the rim. He does it in games too,” said senior Bradford Burgess. “He’ll make a behind-the-back pass in practice you won’t expect and we’ll just yell out ‘The Dream!’”
Haley’s getting closing to displaying those types of skills in games too. In VCU’s 68-55 win at Delaware Saturday, Haley delivered an 8-point, 5-rebound performance in just 12 minutes. He was limited by four personal fouls, but Haley also provided stout interior defense against Delaware’s front line of Jamelle Hagins and Josh Brinkley.
The Palmdale, Calif. native showed a little bit of polish, as well as power. Haley displayed a refined touch around the basket, hitting jump hooks with both his left and right hands. He also stuffed the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Brinkley twice on the same possession in an impressive show of force.
“D.J. played amazing today, and when we’re in his ear telling how well he’s playing, that just gets his motor going even more and brings his energy up even higher, and when he does that, his interior defense is pretty solid,” Burgess said.
His teammates weren’t the only ones to take note of his effort. VCU Coach Shaka Smart indicated that Haley’s defense was critical for the Rams, who held Delaware to 31 percent shooting (18-of-58) and outrebounded the Blue Hens 46-44. In the 12 minutes Haley was on the floor Saturday, Delaware scored a grand total of seven points. His plus/minus rating was +21.
“Other than Briante Weber, [D.J. Haley] can lift our defensive energy and defensive intensity more than anyone on our team with his talk and with his presence and physicality out there, and I thought he did that today,” Smart said.
Haley started 11 games last season as a freshman, but averaged 7.7 minutes a game. He was raw, but could clog the lane defensively and block shots. This season, he appears to have improved across the board, and games like Saturday’s are happening with more frequency.
“I definitely feel a lot more comfortable on the court,” Haley said. “I know the ropes now. I kind of have to step up a little and show the younger guys what to do. If feels good. I feel comfortable.”
As far as his new nickname goes, Haley will really ramp up comparisons to Olajuwon if he can master the NBA great’s signature move, “The Dream Shake.”
“We’re working on that,” Burgess said.
VCU DEFENSE CONTINUES TO LEAD
As is their tradition, Delaware cheerleaders position themselves around the arena and lead the crowd in cheers until the Blue Hens score their first points. After about six minutes of fruitless Delaware offense Saturday, one cheerleader turned to the reporters on press row and sheepishly apologized for her presence. She promised that she’d leave as soon as Delaware scored.
Nine minutes into the game, she finally did.
The Blue Hens were the most recent opponent to wilt under VCU’s improved defensive effort this year. Delaware missed its first 10 shots and finished 3-of-18 from 3-point range in the game. UD’s 55 points were its second-lowest total of the season, one point better than the 54 it scored at Radford on opening night.
The Blue Hens were the second straight VCU opponent to shoot worse than 35 percent and are the third team in four games to score 55 points or less.
Delaware’s Devon Saddler entered the game averaging 19.1 points per game, but finished with just 10 Saturday after shooting a woeful 3-of-19 from the field. VCU used a number of defenders to throw Saddler, the 2011 CAA Rookie of the Year, off his game, including Darius Theus, Rob Brandenberg and Briante Weber.
“He likes to score and he’s always on attack when he’s on offense, so we just made our emphasis to always be aggressive on him on defense,” Theus said.
In the post, the Rams gave Hagins similar problems, limiting him to 4-of-11 shooting. VCU was particularly effective against Hagins’ initial efforts, and if not for the Delaware junior’s five offensive rebounds, he might have scored far fewer than 10 points.
VCU has managed to ramp up its defense at a critical time. The Rams shot 35 percent (23-of-65) from the floor against Delaware, their fourth straight game of worse than 36 percent.
“We’ve had a slump, you could say, but that just puts even more of an emphasis on defense,” said Burgess, who was 4-of-14 from the field, but finished with 18 points. “We were getting stops today. If we keep doing that… we’re going to score eventually. We have too much talent on offense not to score. When our defense is like that, we’ll take care of business more times than not.”
BRANDENBERG GETS A BOOST
Sophomore Rob Brandenberg, who had been mired in a 2-of-25 shooting slump, hit 3-of-5 from the field Saturday, including a 3-pointer from the corner in the second half. It was a much-needed performance from the 6-foot-3 guard, who got on track simply by not concentrating on offense at all.
“What we did with Rob was talked to him about really focusing on defending Saddler, and that’s your No. 1 job,” Smart said. “Forget about offense, forget about everything else and just do a great job on Saddler, and it’s amazing sometimes, when guys shift their focus to defense, their offense gets better.”
Smart says he believes that VCU’s shooting issues are partially a result of not finishing around the
basket and added that it’s an area the Rams will continue to work on… VCU has won 15 of its last 16 meetings with Delaware… VCU never trailed Saturday… The Rams turned the ball over just six times, a season-low… Troy Daniels had one of the stranger stat lines of the day. The VCU junior was 0-of-7 from the floor, including 0-of-5 from 3-point range, but the 6-foot-4 shooting guard collected nine rebounds, including five offensive.