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Roll makes the most of time as a starter

UCLA junior scores 41 in two games but will resume his backup role when Shipp returns, probably today.

December 28, 2008|David Wharton

Maybe there was something more to that fist pump.

Michael Roll had just drained a three-pointer from the corner, giving UCLA a big halftime lead over Wyoming. He stood frozen to the spot, arms raised, then the pump.

Maybe he was celebrating something more than a clutch basket.

"I've got to prove that I can perform," he said. "Over the long stretch."

Given a rare chance to start in the last two games, the junior swingman has presented a fairly persuasive argument.

Persuasive as in 16 points against Mercer, followed by a game-high 25 against Wyoming on Tuesday night. Even more impressive, he made 75% of his shots from the field.

That kind of production suits a 13th-ranked UCLA team looking for more offense. But now it gets tricky.

Roll was substituting for the injured Josh Shipp, who is expected to return against Louisiana Tech this afternoon. Coach Ben Howland has stated repeatedly that Shipp -- despite recent shooting woes -- remains the starter.

In another twist, Roll and Shipp are friends.

"I want him to get better," Roll said. "I also want to keep playing."

So what happens next?

Don't expect public bickering or dissension; both players seem far too easygoing for that. As Shipp said, "For me, it's all about the team."

With his blond hair and boyish looks, Roll simply laughs when pressed on the matter. It is a characteristic laugh, a little disarming, suggestive of an inside joke.

"I'm just kind of waiting for my chance," he said.

The Bruins knew what they were getting when they recruited him from Aliso Niguel High three years ago. The 6-foot-5 Orange County native was a shooter, pure and simple, though like most young prospects he quickly learned the truth about UCLA.

"If you get beat on defense," he said, "you're not going to play for Coach Howland."

There were other adjustments. Roll learned to produce in limited minutes, earning a few starts over his first two seasons but serving mainly as an offensive boost off the bench. He hoped to increase his playing time last winter, when a nagging soreness in his left foot became searing pain.

The plantar fascia, a fibrous band of tissue in the arch of the foot, had ruptured. He sat out for a while, tried to come back, and it ruptured again.

In some ways, the injury helped. Roll was awarded a medical redshirt, which means that he remains a junior this season. The long rehabilitation not only made him stronger and faster, it made him smarter.

"You see things from the bench," he said. "You know exactly the ins and outs of the game and you just kind of see it as a whole . . . from the coach's perspective."

Speaking of the coach's perspective, Howland has noticed a difference. In practice, Roll grades out as the team's best post feeder, passing to the big men down low, and has improved on defense. Said Howland: "He's playing the best basketball of his career."

Over the last two games, the Bruins have raised their shooting percentage to above 50%, thanks mainly to point guard Darren Collison and Roll, who is making a team-high 59% of his shots from the field.

The numbers are even more dramatic from three-point range: Bruins 36%, Roll 60%.

Shipp, meanwhile, has struggled to find a rhythm, shooting 43% overall and 20% from long range.

"All my shots are right there, a lot of in-and-outs," Shipp said. "I've just got to keep shooting and I'm sure the percentages will increase."

In the meantime, Howland continues to praise the way Shipp has attacked the basket, getting to the free-throw line consistently. He believes the 6-5 senior is a better defender than Roll when UCLA faces size at the small-forward position, such as 6-7 Damion James of Texas.

Shipp also leads the team with 2.9 defensive rebounds per game. Calculated on a per-minute basis, he averages about one rebound per game better than Roll.

With the Bruins tending toward smaller, quicker players, Howland said, "that is obviously a really important stat."

The coach's sentiments are no secret to Roll, who thinks he must improve in several areas, such as creating shots off the dribble. Yet, after the Wyoming game, he wondered about another option.

The Bruins could go with a smaller lineup, keeping Roll and Shipp with Collison and freshman guard Jrue Holiday on the court at the same time.

"That's a lot of firepower," Roll said.

So far, Howland has shown no indication of leaning in that direction. The odd man out would be forward James Keefe, which the coach said would leave UCLA too small against most conference opponents. However, Howland conceded after the Wyoming game that Roll "will definitely get more minutes the way he's playing right now."

The story resumes at Pauley Pavilion today.

If Shipp returns to the starting lineup -- he has practiced with the team and was listed as probable -- Roll said he will do everything possible to continue his hot streak from the bench. If Shipp rests another game or plays limited minutes, that's even better.

"The opportunity is at hand," Roll said. "I want to take advantage of it."

Look for more of the fist pump.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

--

UCLA VS.

LOUISIANA TECH

at Pauley Pavilion, noon

TV: Prime Ticket

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