Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Assessing A.J. Price

A year ago at this time, A.J. Price was averaging 14.3 points, 5.6 assists and 2.0 steals per game. He already had three games scoring 20 or more points. And those numbers would only get better as Price went on to earn First Team All-Big East honors and was named to the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s All-America Team.

Fast-forward to the present and Price is clearly a different player. He’s averaging 8.1 points, 3.8 assists and 1.0 assists, but those are just the numbers. Price appears hesitant, tentative, seemingly lacking confidence and aggressiveness on the floor. After practically patenting the little running, teardrop jumper in the lane last season, he has reverted to hoisting up 3-pointers and little else.

Of Price’s 20 field goals this season, 13 have been 3-pointers. Of his 59 shots, 33 have been 3-point attempts – or 56 percent of his attempts. Last year at this time, just 9 of his 32 field goals were treys and just 23 of his 68 field goal attempts – 34 percent – were from beyond the arc.

For all of last season, Price took 352 shots, 134 of them 3-pointers – 38 percent. Without question, he was taking the ball to the hole more often – and with far more authority – than he has to this point this season.

There’s a fairly easy explanation to it all: Price’s torn left ACL injury that ended his season a little over midway through the first half of UConn’s eventual overtime loss to San Diego in an NCAA tourney first-round game last March.

No, Price hasn’t re-injured the knee. In fact, after reconstructive surgery in April, Price’s knee is stronger than it was prior to the injury. Rather, it’s the mental hurdle of trusting his knee again that Price has yet to scale.

He was almost there. By all accounts, Price has been ahead of schedule ever since starting rehab soon after surgery. He was cleared for full-contact drills shortly before First Night, looked good in early practices, hit a wall, but then was good enough in a pair of exhibition games. Since then, however, it’s been a struggle – culminated by a 6-point effort against Buffalo last week in which he spent much of the game’s final 10 minutes on the bench.

People close to Price say that there were a couple of plays in the Huskies’ first few games of the season that “scared” him a bit and has him thinking about his knee too much.

Just 8 ½ minutes into the regular season, Price went up for a jumper (a 3-pointer, of course) and got undercut by Western Carolina’s Brigham Waginger. He landed awkwardly on Waginger’s foot and crumpled to the ground in pain.

Turns out Price had suffered a high ankle/foot sprain, but he twisted his knee a bit on the play, as well. There was no physical damage to the knee, but the psychological damage it caused to Price – that re-injuring his knee could come at any moment, on any play – seems to have taken a toll on him.

Then, against Miami in a Paradise Jam tournament game in St. Thomas, Price got another cruel reminder that the knee can be a fragile thing. He took a hard charge against a Hurricane player and the two collided, knee-to-knee. Price fell down, got up, walked around gingerly for a bit and finished the game. Again, it took a mental toll.

The following night, Price played 30 minutes in UConn’s tourney title win over Wisconsin. It was his first time playing back-to-back games since the ACL tear – on a sore knee, at that.

There’s also the fact that Price is, to a degree, playing a new position this year. Although he’s starting at point guard, he’s spending a good bulk of his minutes off the ball.

Yes, he played the two at times last year, as well. But when Kemba Walker and Price share the floor this season, it's readily apparent that Walker is the point and Price the two. And yet, Price is still the one calling the plays out on the floor, still the floor general, even when Walker is in the game.

Throw it all together – coming back from a major injury, a couple of oncourt scares with his knee, essentially playing a new position, still trying to get everybody involved while getting his own game going, too – and it’s been a struggle for A.J. Price.

But it’s one that everyone near him believes he’ll break out of, and soon. The Gonzaga game on Dec. 20 will be a good test for him. The No. 4-ranked Zags are very good, and boast terrific guards in Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin and Micah Downs. If Price is thinking about his knee too much in games against the Bryants and Delaware States of the world, he won’t have time to do so against Gonzaga. He’ll have to compete against the Zags, or risk embarassment on national TV.

Soon after, Big East play begins. Jim Calhoun has said that he doesn’t expect Price to be back to last year’s A.J. Price until February. It took Brandon Rush a similar amount of time to recover from his torn ACL last year; Rush wound up being a key cog in Kansas’ national-championship run.

As Calhoun has indicated, if the Huskies are to make a national-title run of their own, they can’t do it without A.J. Price getting back to form.

***According to a source close to the program, the Ater Majok Watch “might have hit some snags.” It wasn’t made clear what those snags were, however, and the Huskies are still hoping Majok will be enrolled at UConn and on the team come Dec. 14.

Majok is expected to arrive back in the U.S. this week from his home in Australia.

***UConn was supposedly very close to getting a commitment from Luke Cothron, the highly-touted, 6-foot-8, Class of 2010 power forward from Alabama who plays at Flora MacDonald Academy in Red Springs, N.C. However, Cothron has since grabbed the attention of at least a half-dozen other top-notch programs, and has told the Huskies that while he still likes them, he won’t be making a decision any time soon.

***Tonight, UConn will be taking a look at James McAdoo, the top-rated power forward in the Class of 2011. Right now, however, the Huskies chief recruiting target for next year is guards.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Andrew Yuan said...

Great article. Im surprised I havn't seen more about AJ price struggling- its the biggest concern I have for this years team. Dyson is not consistent enough to be the go to guy the way AJ was last year. If both are playing well though, Gary Parish will have to take back his comments on our subpar backcourt.

9:58 AM 

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