Four weeks of summer practice are in the books. Four more weeks remain before the UAB basketball team transitions into the fall semester.
Andy Kennedy likes what he sees thus far.
“It’s been very productive for us,” said Kennedy, who is fresh off directing his alma mater to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2015 in his second season at the helm. “Any time you’re bringing in a lot of new faces, it’s good to get on the court and start creating on-court chemistry. It’s also a time for coaches to figure out, ‘OK, who does what well? What are the combinations that work best?’ You start schematically putting together a plan as you enter the fall.”
Kennedy led UAB to a program-record 27 wins (27-8 overall) and the Blazers’ 16th NCAA Tournament appearance last year.
Kennedy and his staff are getting their first day-to-day look at six incoming players. Grissom High grad Efrem ‘'Butta'’ Johnson is the lone prep signee. Kennedy dipped into the transfer portal to land Ledarrius and Ty Brewer from East Tennessee State, Javian Davis from Mississippi State, Tyler Bertram from Binghamton and Eric Gaines from LSU.
Kennedy broke down what each of them has shown him during practice thus far.
Efrem Johnson: “He is going to be a terrific player. Obviously, he is playing behind a bunch of upperclassmen. Some guys, he was in the 8th grade when they were entering college. There is going to be a learning curve and he understands that. He’s a big, strong guard who can play multiple spots on our perimeter. He’s a knockdown shooter. What I like about him is the way he operates, a lot of times when high school kids come in, the pace of play just overwhelms them. It hasn’t overwhelmed Butta. He’s been tremendous and he’s got a big old frame. He’s going to get bigger and stronger. I’m really, really pleased with what I’ve seen out of him.”
Eric Gaines: "He could have gone anywhere in the country. Quite frankly, any Power 5 [team] in America would have loved to have him on their team. We were very fortunate for him to come and choose to be a part of what we’re doing. (He’s) very, very skilled, extremely fast, [an] off-the-chart athlete in the open floor. If he chose to be a triple jumper, he could compete in the Olympics. If he chose to be a high jumper, he could compete in the Olympics. He’s that type of athlete; just really, really flies around. He’s got to get tighter with his game. He’s got to gain some weight. He’s got to get his perimeter shooting better. But [he’s] a guy that immediately makes us better with his playmaking ability, a pass-first guy with great vision. He gives us another guy, with Jelly [Walker], that can really break you down off the dribble and be problematic for our opponents.”
Ledarrius Brewer: "Ledarrius is a guy who scored over 1,600 points [at ETSU], he’s a two-time all-league player. He’s kind of old school. He’s capable of knocking down 'threes.' He’ll have more open 'threes' than he’s gotten in his career, which is what I’m trying to explain to him. He’s always been the guy at the end of the clock who had to go make the play. This year, his role will change a bit. He’s still capable of that but he won’t have to carry as heavy a load late in the clock. He’s a guy who is experienced, he’s a veteran and he came here wanting to experience winning. He’s been a part of one winning team in his four years in college, never any postseason and wants to put himself in a situation to experience that. I think he can help us, and we can certainly help him in that regard.”
Ty Brewer: "Ty is an incredible athlete, probably second only to Eric, who I just explained is world-class in his athleticism. Ty Brewer is the second most athletic guy on our team and, if it wasn’t for Eric, he’d be the most athletic guy we’ve had in my two years. He’s a ball getter, meaning he’s always around the ball. He’s a capable pick and pop 4. He can play any one of our front-court positions – 3, 4, 5. His motor, his athleticism is really going to add value to our front court."
Javian Davis: "He’s a kid who started at Alabama, went to Mississippi State. Think about him, he started at Alabama with Avery Johnson, played with Avery, played with Nate [Oats] and then played with Ben Howland. I’m his fourth coach - kind of crazy. He’s a big kid, 6-foot-9. He’s about 260 right now but I think last year he played about 248, 250; that’s probably ideal for him. He’ll get there. [He has] great length - a 7-3 wingspan - and gives us low post scoring. He and Trey [Jemison] together are going to be great complements to one another. This kid has the knack for putting the ball in the basket and we’ve seen that early in our work.”
Tyler Bertram: "He’s a fifth-year senior, post grad, and a guy who is a knockdown shooter. I think we are going to be able to create open looks with the personnel groups that we have. He’s a guy that we brought in to hit open shots. He’s been more athletic and a better playmaker than anticipated. I think he’s another guy who is in the heavy mix for rotation minutes.”
Kennedy said the ability to practice over the summer has helped him make these assessments.
“A few years ago, [the NCAA] allowed us access to our team in the summer, which was a foreign concept when I played for Coach [Gene] Bartow,” Kennedy said. “The summertime, that’s when the Birmingham Summer League was started and you kind of did your own thing. You had no interactions with coaches as it related to workouts.”
While getting to know the newcomers is important, the summer is also a time to see how the returnees have progressed and players and leaders.
“I think we bring back six of our top nine as relates to minutes and production of last year’s team and four of our top six,” Kennedy said. “Last year kind of whet their appetite for what is possible. We had a great run at the end of the season, obviously, capturing the tournament championship and advancing to the NCAA Tournament. That’s really just the tip of the iceberg as it relates to their expectations. As a coach, that’s what you want. You want a player-led program. The best teams I’ve ever been a part of are led internally by the core group you have. I’ve got a great group of experienced veteran guys that have had success.”
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