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September 15, 2010

Q&A with James Whitford, Part II

GOAZCATS.com caught up with UA assistant James Whitford for a Q&A. In part two, Whitford discusses the Wildcats' five sophomores.

GOAZCATS.com: Moving on to the returners, how has Kyryl Natyazhko's game changed since the spring?

James Whitford: Kyryl is a much more mature player now than he was a year ago. His decision making is improved and he's not playing as rushed basketball as he was a year ago. I think his confidence is not even in the same ballpark. He had a great summer playing in Europe and I think that's really helped his confidence.

I think that confidence in turn has helped him play at a better pace, where he's making better decisions. He's still the same skilled, talented player that we've always seen, but he has much more of a swagger now than he ever did.

GOAZCATS.com: Were you able to watch any tapes of his games in Europe and what did you think of them?

James Whitford: We did. I think we were all impressed with his decision making. He had a much better feel for the pace of the game and he was in more of a dominant role, where he was their go-to guy.

He was going to stay in whether he made mistakes or not. That always helps any player in their development. To his credit, it wasn't an easy tournament to play in over there. He went in with the purpose to get a lot of game experience and he really took advantage of it.

GOAZCATS.com: How big of a step forward do you expect him to take from his freshman to sophomore year?

James Whitford: I think he's going to take a big step forward. With that being said, I think there's unknowns in every year. There's always a few players that surprise you, both good and bad. I think we're all expecting big things from Kyryl this year. He had a terrific summer. From the moment we got him, we knew he was really talented. It's more been a matter of when for him, and not if.

GOAZCATS.com: It sounds like MoMo (Jones) has really improved his body fat percentage.

James Whitford: Yes, my hat is completely off to MoMo because he did one of the most difficult things to do in life, much less athletics, and that's really commit to a diet and a workout regimen where he was going to get his body in great shape. I think he got here last year at close to 14% body fat and for him to come back at 6% shows a real determination and discipline that is hard to come by at any level.

GOAZCATS.com: And how has he continued to develop as a leader?

James Whitford: He's good in that area. I think he's naturally a magnet; people are attracted to MoMo, he's got a great personality, and the natural charisma of a leader. To his credit, he's backed up his words with action. I don't think he would get a lot of credibility if he came back at 14% body fat. To do what he's done off the court puts him in position to have a voice on the team.

GOAZCATS.com: From what you've seen of him in workouts, how has he changed his game since the spring?

James Whitford: His speed is better because his body fat is low. I have total respect for what MoMo did in the summertime. I've been coaching for almost 20 years and what MoMo did doesn't happen very often. Because he's lighter, he's going to be quicker. Because he's quicker, he's going to be a better point guard.

GOAZCATS.com: How has his shooting been?

James Whitford: His shooting is coming along; he's going to be improved in that area. I don't think he's going to be Chauncey Billups but he's going to be a better shooter than he was a year ago by a significant margin.

GOAZCATS.com: When we talked about Kevin Parrom in the spring, you said he needed to gain strength and it sounds like he has.

James Whitford: He has. He's gained 20 pounds of muscle and it shows on the floor. He's a stronger, more powerful player. When you look at last year's statistics, Kevin had a huge impact when he was healthy.

If you look at our team's win-loss record and our ability to defend when Kevin was there, he really helped us when he was healthy and we really missed him when he was out. He's coming back 20 pounds stronger and better, and I don't think there's any question he's going to have a real impact on this year's team.

GOAZCATS.com: What do you think we'll see him do this year that he couldn't do last year?

James Whitford: I think his finishing around the basket when he drives; you can see his ability to use his shoulders to create space around the basket. He's a better shooter than he was a year ago, too. I'd say he's all around improved.

GOAZCATS.com: What are the things he still has to pick up on?

James Whitford: Kevin missed so much time last year that he doesn't have the full advantage of being a sophomore in terms of understanding our system, style of play, terminology and making the right reads, both offense and defense. He's certainly not a freshman but in some respects, he doesn't have the full advantage of being a sophomore, either. I think getting up to speed in that area is going to be the biggest thing for him.

GOAZCATS.com: With Solomon Hill, we talked in the spring about how he needed to decrease his body fat percentage to become a better athlete. Are you happy with where he's at now?

James Whitford: He's been on a little bit of a rollercoaster. He's made strides but he's taken steps backwards and steps forward. He hasn't been as successful as MoMo. He works hard at it but he's had some bad stretches too. That's an area where he's made nominal progress but he has a ways to go to get to the weight and the body fat that we want him at.

GOAZCATS.com: Can he get there before the season?

James Whitford: Yeah he can, no question. It's being able to absolutely commit himself and have the self-discipline to do it as much as he needed to.

GOAZCATS.com: How important is it that he gets there?

James Whitford: For him in particular it's important because he's blessed with great size and great skill, but he wasn't blessed with great speed. He's got to manufacture as much of that on his own as he can and getting his body fat down will help him. He's got good quickness but not great quickness so getting his body fat down will really help him.

GOAZCATS.com: How has his game changed since last year?

James Whitford: To Solomon's credit, he works really hard; I don't want to paint any different picture. He's a great kid, he's very coachable, he works his tail off, he's just had a difficult time getting his weight and body fat to where we want it. But he's a better shooter than he was a year ago, he's a smarter player and I think he has a much better understanding of our expectations for him. He has one hurdle that he needs to clear for him to have the year and career that he wants to.

GOAZCATS.com: Beyond the weight, what else do you want to see from him?

James Whitford: He always needs to work on his shooting. He wasn't a three-point shooter in high school and he's worked hard on that. He's a better three-point shooter than he was a year ago and he's going to shoot more this year and he'll shoot at a better percentage than he did a year ago. But that's secondary to getting his weight and body fat to where we want it. That's 90% of the deal for Solomon.

GOAZCATS.com: In your opinion is he a pure three this year?

James Whitford: I'd say he's a perimeter player. We used him as a perimeter four-man at times last year and this year there will be times we do the same. But he handles the ball like a point guard and he can really pass no matter what position we play him at. He's also very versatile and he's going to play the same way.

He'll take smaller guys into the post and he'll try to drive by bigger guys on the perimeter. He's got a unique skill set and is an excellent handler for a bigger guy. We'll always try to take advantage of that no matter what position he plays.

GOAZCATS.com: In the spring, you said Derrick Williams wasn't doing any post workouts and that you had him focus on his shooting. How has his perimeter game improved?

James Whitford: It's good; he's gotten a lot better in that area. Derrick is a great player and he's fun to watch in workouts. He's so gifted off the dribble and has a great first step and he's worked really hard at it all year. His body is the best it's ever been; his body fat is low and he looks great. I'm confident that Derrick is going to have a great sophomore year.

GOAZCATS.com: Is there any concern with his focus not being on what made him such a good player last year?

James Whitford: No, because he still does some post workouts and certainly has this fall. He's done perimeter workouts and post, but it's a big part of sports; you try to help people get better at their strengths but the main thing is helping people get better at their weaknesses. Continuing to make him better in that area is the best thing for him and the best thing for our team.

GOAZCATS.com: He was very good as a freshman, but how much better can he be as a sophomore?

James Whitford: He had a great freshman year, but the difference for him this year is he's going to be the marked man from day one. He's going to have to deal with double teams and a lot of stuff that he hasn't dealt with before.

The challenge for him is going to be, can he read those situations the right way, can he draw a double team and kick it out and re-duck in and catch the ball around the basket? He hasn't been in a lot of those situations before and he'll have to learn the mental part of being the marked man.

If he can answer that part of it, he'll be great, but that's going to be the adjustment for him, no question, because he's going to deal with that from day one.

GOAZCATS.com: Is the NBA a conversation you guys have had with him at this point?

James Whitford: No. I think the NBA is the goal of every player who comes to Arizona, and it should be. Derrick had a great freshman year so maybe that goal is easier to visualize for him but we don't talk about that.

We want everyone here to be a pro and we want Derrick to be a pro. If Derrick can put himself in position to be a first round pick then no one is going to be happier than us and we'll wish him the very best but that's not a discussion we'll have between now and April.

Right now it's about Arizona basketball and making him the best player he can be. Hopefully we can put him and all of our players in position for that.

* Follow Josh Gershon on Twitter.

Josh Gershon


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