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Flies like Coop

Trevor Ariza's defense, athleticism and dunking have won over Lakers teammates and inspired comparisons to Michael Cooper

December 09, 2008|Mike Bresnahan | Bresnahan is a Times staff writer.

Funny thing, how it's all come around for Trevor Ariza.

A little more than a year ago, the occupants of the Lakers' locker room were in a quiet state of distress.

Brian Cook and Maurice Evans had just been traded to Orlando, causing concern among some Lakers who felt their second-unit chemistry would be affected.

They obviously didn't know Ariza. Then again, who really did?

Ariza excelled at Westchester High and had a solid one-season run at UCLA, though he was playing limited minutes in his fourth NBA season after Orlando signed All-Star forward Rashard Lewis.

A year ago Ariza was averaging a nondescript 3.3 points and 2.2 rebounds when the Lakers acquired him, hoping he would become a defensive stopper at small forward.

To say he has delivered is akin to saying the Lakers (17-2) are off to a decent start.

Ariza, 23, has been a burst of energy as a reserve, leading the team with 1.95 steals a game and averaging 9.6 points and 5.2 rebounds in 24.2 minutes.

"He's something refreshing," longtime Lakers official Bill Bertka said. "He's a lot like Michael Cooper was athletically."

Ariza's penchant for creating turnovers is often punctuated with an authoritative dunk, leading to early-season recognition around the league.

"He plays the passing lanes extremely well," Philadelphia 76ers Coach Maurice Cheeks said. "Getting into the open court is another one of his assets. He's a good complement to what they have, particularly with their second team. He's one of the reasons why their second team is so good."

On offense, however, Ariza carried a reputation as an inconsistent contributor.

A rangy 6 feet 8 and 210 pounds, Ariza had an innate ability to get open with his planting and cutting skills, but his lack of an outside shooting touch hurt him. Defenders learned to lag off him, taking away his ability to slash to the hoop and daring him to shoot from the perimeter.

Over the summer, he added an extra dimension to his game, piling up long hours in nearly empty gyms.

He concentrated on holding the follow-through of his shot a little longer and added confidence via twice-daily visits to the court -- 90 minutes in the morning and two hours at night.

Ariza went with his cousin, his personal chef and Tony Bland, a former Westchester High standout who played college basketball at Syracuse and San Diego State. It was an unlikely quartet, but it allowed Ariza to shoot with more assurance.

He is shooting 50.4% from the field this season and has already made eight three-pointers after making only nine in his entire career before this season.

Ariza also felt compelled to improve after missing the last 44 games of the regular season and all but 45 minutes of last season's playoffs because of a broken right foot.

His defense could have helped against Boston, whose small forward Paul Pierce hammered the Lakers on the way to becoming the Finals most valuable player.

The lack of playing time frustrated Ariza, who had simply missed too much time because of the injury and was otherwise a liability on offense.

"It definitely helped me work on things that I wasn't really [good] at doing -- shooting the ball and trying to feel more confident on the court," he said. "I devoted all my [off-season] time to shooting. It was a seven-day-a-week thing."

Ariza is not a starter this season because Coach Phil Jackson thinks Vladimir Radmanovic's three-point touch (a commendable 48% from behind the arc) forces opposing defenses to spread the court.

Jackson recently acknowledged that Ariza was "capable of playing heavier-type minutes than just bench minutes," but a reserve role is fine with Ariza, who has overcome longer odds to get to where he is now.

As a high school star at Westchester, he helped take the Comets to two state titles before averaging 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds in one season at UCLA that showed promise but wasn't enough for many NBA talent evaluators.

Ariza entered the 2004 draft and was eventually taken 44th overall by New York. It was in the second round, the nebulous, non-guaranteed-money part of the draft.

"I believed in myself, my family believed in me. I don't regret it," Ariza said of leaving UCLA early. "It's not guaranteed money going to school -- there's no money in that either -- but the main objective for people who go to school and play basketball is to eventually get to the NBA. I was just chasing my dream."

Ariza made enough of an impression in New York to stick with the Knicks and eventually played for three coaches there (Lenny Wilkens, Herb Williams and Larry Brown) before being traded to Orlando during the 2005-06 season.

He averaged 8.9 points a game in 2006-07 before losing playing time to Lewis. Then came the trade.

Lakers officials were quietly eager to acquire Ariza, but Andrew Bynum was close friends with Evans, and Luke Walton was tight with Cook.

"Mo was my best friend," Bynum said sadly the day the trade was announced.

Things have, uh, changed a bit.

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