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Learning on the fly

Freshman center Morgan is sure of two things after his first five days of Ben Howland-style Bruins practice.

October 23, 2008|Diane Pucin | Pucin is a Times staff writer.

J'mison Morgan isn't the most acclaimed of UCLA's much-admired five-man freshman basketball class.

That would be guard Jrue Holiday, who was the Gatorade National High School player of the year last season.

Morgan isn't the most highly acclaimed center recruit at UCLA in the last two years. That would be Kevin Love, the Gatorade player of the year two years ago who spent one almost-magical season at UCLA, failing only in not leading the Bruins to a 12th national championship.

But Morgan might be the most useful UCLA basketball recruit in Coach Ben Howland's tenure, and after five days of all-out, Howland-style practice, Morgan has learned a couple of lessons.

"It's very physical," Morgan said. "You're banging all the time."

And, paying attention matters.

"Coach Howland expects us to know all the plays a lot faster than I was used to," Morgan said. "He just tells you how to run it once and you've got to do it right. Or he gets mad."

Morgan was the late addition to this freshman class, changing his mind about going to Louisiana State last spring after John Brady was fired and former Stanford coach Trent Johnson was hired.

With the early departures of Pacific 10 Conference player of the year Love and three-year starting forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Howland needed a post player with height and bulk. So even though Morgan rejected Howland once, the 6-foot-10, 248-pound star from Dallas South Oak Cliff High was welcomed.

Morgan's father, Ron, who played two years in college at North Texas and professionally for six years overseas, said he was in favor of his son going to UCLA from the start -- even when J'mison originally signed with LSU.

Ron, who works for the American Red Cross in Dallas as a coordinator in the blood donor department, said he gave J'mison a challenge when UCLA first contacted him.

"Even though I had never been to UCLA, I followed basketball history," Ron said. "Coach Wooden, I read how he coached Kareem and Bill Walton. I asked J'mison if he wanted to be part of something, go to a place where there was a long legacy of good post men. Did he want to go and fight and play well and maybe come out of it with something very special? But you've got to do it. You can't talk about it."

At UCLA's basketball media day last week, two days before full practices began, Morgan was the verbal star, making fun of his own Texas drawl and earning the honor as the Bruin with the best sense of humor by point guard Darren Collison.

Morgan was more subdued Wednesday.

He said it takes some getting used to, feeling the purposeful elbows and hip checks sent his way by senior Alfred Aboya. He said he appreciates that the veterans -- Aboya, Collison, Josh Shipp, James Keefe -- help the freshmen by giving helpful hints.

"In the middle of a play they'll tell me, 'You gotta screen right here,' or, 'Get to the boards,' " Morgan said. "They also tell me nothing that coach says is personal. It's just done to get me ready for game situations."

Although Morgan said he has missed home, his mother, Bianca, said she expected to be hearing from her second-oldest son more often. "He doesn't call me every day," Bianca said. "I take that as a good sign, that he's adjusting."

J'mison's father expects no less.

Ron Morgan was also a star at South Oak Cliff, and he played for the first North Texas team to play in the NCAA tournament. Morgan left school after his junior year when he got a tryout for the Boston Celtics, an effort that failed.

Morgan was married to Bianca, his high school sweetheart, and he was already the father of two -- the couple has five children now, three other sons and a daughter.

"College should be tough," Ron Morgan said. "School should be tough, basketball should be tough. So I expect Coach Howland to be tough on my son. He'll appreciate it later."

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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