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September 7, 2009

Longhorns' Bradley hooked on playing defense

This is the fifth story in our series on freshmen who must make a big impact next season for their teams to challenge for league titles and get to the NCAA tournament.

ALSO: Derrick Favors | Zeke Marshall | Wally Judge | Michael Snaer

The trait that sets Texas freshman guard Avery Bradley apart from his peers becomes evident when he discusses his goals for the upcoming season.

Most freshmen would talk about how many points they plan to score or how many assists they plan to dish out. Bradley doesn't mention offense at all.

"I want to be a dominant defensive player, like one of the most dominant defensive players in college basketball," said Bradley, a 6-foot-3 guard who played at Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep. "I want to hold the best player on the opposite team [in check] and play hard defense the whole game."

That attitude doesn't surprise anyone who has seen Bradley, a five-star prospect considered the best perimeter defender in the 2009 recruiting class.

But it's his theory on defense that might produce some puzzled reactions.

"I don't think you can really become good at defense," said Bradley, the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2009 class. "It's just something that people are born with. I was born with the ability to play good defense."

He may have been born with outstanding speed and an exceptional wingspan, but plenty of other freshmen across the country boast similar gifts. Bradley's emergence as an elite perimeter defender came from his work ethic as much as from any natural ability.

"His makeup is all systems go, 100 percent of the time," said Garry Ward, who coached Bradley on the AAU circuit with the Northwest Panthers. "The same way Gary Payton played great defense and Dennis Johnson played great defense, Avery Bradley plays great defense. He doesn't know anything else. He just knows when he's on the floor, he's going to compete offensively and defensively.

"You see a lot of great, athletic players where you wonder as a coach or as a sportswriter or as a fan why that player can do anything he wants offensively, so why can't he do it defensively? Because they don't want to. Avery Bradley wants to. That's the difference. He wants to guard. He wants to compete."

While it's a bit presumptuous to mention Bradley alongside such legendary defensive stalwarts as Payton and Johnson, he has enough of a résumé to indicate his mission to become one of college basketball's most dominant defenders is a reachable goal rather than an idle boast.

His arrival could help Texas make the leap from a second-round NCAA tournament team to a legitimate Final Four contender. Dexter Pittman and Damion James give Texas a formidable frontcourt duo. The arrival of Bradley should help ease the Longhorns' backcourt concerns.

The biggest dilemma facing Texas in the preseason is how Longhorns coach Rick Barnes will arrange his backcourt. Barnes can choose from plenty of options. Here's a look at the Longhorns' backcourt candidates along with their 2008-09 statistics. The list doesn't include 6-7 freshman swingmen Jordan Hamilton and Shawn Williams.

Dogus Balbay, 6-0/Jr.
Key stats
: 3.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.1 apg
The buzz: Balbay emerged as the Longhorns' starting point guard down the stretch last season and ranked second on the team in assists, though he doesn't provide much scoring.

Avery Bradley, 6-3/Fr.
Key stats
: He's a freshman
The buzz: Bradley, the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class, is an outstanding mid-range scorer and perimeter defender who starred last year for the Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep team that won the RivalsHigh national championship.

J'Covan Brown, 6-2/Fr.
Key stats
: He's a freshman
The buzz: Brown, the No. 54 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class, recently was cleared by the NCAA after sitting out last season. Brown, from Port Arthur, Texas, is a good outside shooter who can defend either guard position.

Jai Lucas, 5-10/Jr.
Key stats
: Sat out as transfer last season
The buzz: Lucas started each of Florida's 36 games and averaged 8.5 points per game two years ago before deciding to transfer to Texas.

Justin Mason, 6-2/Sr.
Key stats
: 6.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.0 apg
The buzz: Mason has been a starter each of his three years at Texas and has earned a reputation as the "glue guy" who does all the little things. He led the Longhorns in assists and ranked second in steals last season.

Varez Ward, 6-2/Soph.
Key stats
: 4.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.6 apg
The buzz: Ward showed he may be ready for an expanded role with his strong performances off the bench in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments.

"I like the depth on our roster," Bradley said. "Anybody that's going to get in the game is going to bring their all. Everyone's good on our team."

Although Bradley spent most of his teen years in Tacoma, Wash., he actually grew up a Texas fan. His family moved to Arlington, Texas, when he was in fourth grade before heading to the Pacific Northwest a few years later. He would move once more before starting his college career.

After playing most of his high school career on a Bellarmine (Wash.) Prep team that also featured five-star prospect and incoming Washington freshman Abdul Gaddy, Bradley moved to Findlay Prep for his senior year.

Bradley said he believes moving away from his family for his senior year helped prepare him for the college experience, particularly since he's attending a college so far from his hometown.

"It was really difficult, but me and my family decided that was the best move for me to stay focused and get to the level where I'm at now," Bradley said. "I'm a lot calmer. I'm a lot more mature on and off the court. The whole living arrangements [at Findlay] just got me ready for the college life and just being away from home.

"It was a little tough at the beginning, but I got used to it. Now it's nothing. Being here at Texas, I'm not homesick at all. Being around my teammates, they just make me feel comfortable. It's going to make things a lot easier for me."

The move also benefited Bradley as a basketball player. Findlay Prep played a national schedule and went 33-0 to win the RivalsHigh national championship last season. Bradley averaged a team-high 19.1 points to go along with 4.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game.

Bradley managed to adjust to his new surroundings in part because his teammates were going through similar circumstances. Findlay attracts players from all over the world. By the end of the season, its eight-man roster included three Americans, two Canadians, two Puerto Ricans and a Nigerian.

"We always think our guys go away [to college] as sophomores because they've been through the things they're going to do in college with us," Findlay coach Michael Peck said. "They have a little bit of a head start."

Bradley followed up his championship season at Findlay by scoring 15 points in the McDonald's All-American Game and tallying 21 points for the USA Junior National Team in the Nike Hoops Summit.

"We have never recruited a guy who has improved as much as Avery Bradley from the time he committed to us," Texas coach Rick Barnes said this summer.

Of course, those statistics don't provide an accurate measure of Bradley's worth because they don't reflect his defense, the aspect of his game in which he's a cut above his classmates. Jerry Meyer, the national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said Bradley's combination of leaping ability, lateral quickness and long arms makes him "without a doubt" the best perimeter defender in this class.

Meyer uses Bradley's performance a year ago in the Reebok Summer Championships as an example of his defensive prowess. Bradley's team was facing a squad that featured five-star prospect and incoming Florida freshman Kenny Boynton as well as Brandon Knight, the No. 1 prospect in the 2010 recruiting class. Whenever either player heated up, Bradley would start guarding him. Inevitably, that player would cool off.

"Avery is a scorer, but he's not your typical scorer," Meyer said. "He brings his pride and ego to every aspect of his game, not just his scoring. A lot of guys, all they care about are their points, and that's where their reputation sits. I love a prideful player and Avery plays with a lot of pride, but he puts that pride into every aspect of his game."

That pride is evident from the old-school facets of Bradley's game. Not only is he an exceptional defender, but he also has developed a mid-range shot. While so many other college players specialize in driving to the basket or firing away from 3-point range, Bradley has found other ways to score. Meyer said he believes Bradley is the best mid-range scorer of any player in this freshman class.

"It's a high-percentage shot," Bradley said. "It's easier than the '3,' and it's just something I worked on."

The biggest question surrounding Bradley isn't whether he can come in and contribute immediately. That much is a given. But will he make his mark at point guard or at shooting guard? Bradley could step right in and replace the departed A.J. Abrams as a shooting guard. Then again, Texas spent the entire 2008-09 season trying to solve its point guard problems. Florida transfer Jai Lucas and returning players Dogus Balbay and Varez Ward can play the point. Freshman J'Covan Brown also can play either guard spot. Bradley isn't as polished a point guard, but he could have the greatest upside.

"The next big challenge for him is to try to be a point guard, and it will be interesting to see what happens there," Meyer said. "He doesn't have to be a point guard to be a successful player and to make money as an NBA player, but if he becomes a point guard, he's a true two-position player and his value really skyrockets.

"He can defend the point guard right now, but he's not a point guard offensively."

Bradley already is trying to improve that part of his game. Bradley is willing to play either guard position, and he has spent the summer brushing up on his point-guard skills. He knows his increased versatility could help Texas make a deep postseason run.

"I feel like I'm a work in progress right now at getting to the point of feeling that both [guard positions] are natural," Bradley said. "I set out to do whatever my teammates need me to do for us to be able to win a game."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

ALSO: Derrick Favors | Zeke Marshall | Wally Judge | Michael Snaer

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