The official start of practice is exactly one week away, but an NCAA rule allows teams to hold on-court workouts for two hours each week over the summer. The Rebels worked out yesterday at the Mendenhall Center, and they didn’t hold back. Coach Dave Rice kept the tempo high, focusing on fast break offense, scrambling defense and ball movement. Below are three things that impressed me during the session, and three things that need improvement.
1. The kids can play
This year’s recruiting class has been touted as UNLV’s best since the Tark era, and the hype appears to be justified. The freshmen were extremely impressive during yesterday’s workout, with Anthony Bennett and Katin Reinhardt looking especially ready for prime time. Bennett took it to junior forward Mike Moser on several occasions, and his athleticism and finishing ability are going to make him a monster on the fast break. Reinhardt is already establishing himself as the team’s best shooter, with a quick release and deadly aim. He drilled a handful of 3-pointers during scrimmages yesterday, and at one point the coaching staff chastised him for NOT taking an open three. He’ll have the green light from opening night. And fellow freshman Savon Goodman is going to earn minutes as a defensive stopper. The kids are for real.
2. Birch is a difference-maker
Sophomore Khem Birch didn’t make much of an impact last year at Pitt (playing in just 10 games), but the 6-foot-9 big man showed his McDonald’s All-American talent at yesterday’s practice. His crazy athleticism was on display as he ran the floor and finished above the rim consistently, but he’s going to make his mark on the defensive end. It was just two years ago that he was considered the nation’s best shot blocker in high school, and Birch looks primed to live up to that reputation. He could be a contender for Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year.
3. The talent level is Final Four-caliber
Would it be wildly overenthusiastic if I pegged this team as a national title contender after watching just one practice? Well I’m doing it anyway. With Moser, Bennett and Birch, the Rebels sport three future NBA first-round picks in the frontcourt. In the backcourt, Anthony Marshall and Bryce Dejean-Jones look to be the starters, and both are capable of going for 20-plus points on any given night. And once Reinhardt gets his feet wet, he’ll be capable of going for 20 in any given half. That’s a core that can beat any team in the country if the Rebs play at their peak level. And with solid contributors like Justin Hawkins, Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez on the bench, depth is not a concern. It’s hard to see many weaknesses with this roster.
1. Turnovers troubling
Much of the practice focused on fast break offense, but Rice didn’t appear to be happy with the execution at times. Spacing wasn’t great, and the passing was sloppy. Rice stopped one drill to implore the team to run the floor fast, but slow down their decision making.
2. Outside shooting is off the mark
Besides Reinhardt’s sniper work, no one else seemed to be able to hit an outside shot consistently. This was a problem for the Rebels last season as well, so it will be key for Marshall (25.6 percent on 3-pointers last year) or someone else to pick up the slack as a perimeter shooting threat.
3. Dejean-Jones goes down hard
Sophomore guard Bryce Dejean-Jones finished one fast break with a huge two-handed dunk, but landed awkwardly and apparently hurt his hand. It didn’t seem serious, but he was seen wearing a wrap on his non-shooting hand after practice. Dejean-Jones is expected to be one of the team’s top scorers this season, so the early injury bears monitoring.
Follow Mike Grimala on Twitter for 24/7 Rebels updates (@MikeGrimala).