Aug. 31, 2009
By Mark Patton, Santa Barbara News-Press
The basketball sprang loose - and far downcourt, Justin Joyner's head shot up, like a predator sensing new prey.
Paul Roemer lunged over the end-line to save the ball under his own basket, then twisted it midair to find a teammate.
And there was Joyner, that familiar bounce to his step, dashing straight for him. Roemer's old De La Salle High School running mate. His old UCSB running mate.
After a year lost to a broken right wrist, J.J. was back at the Thunderdome, as though he'd never been gone.
"It's amazing," Joyner would say only a few moments later, still panting from the play that ended Thursday's pickup session. "It's amazing that it doesn't feel like it's been so long.
"I mean, it's just good to be back and competing at full speed again."
Joyner caught Roemer's pass in full stride, ripping it away from the bigger man that was riding his right hip. He drew the defender in the air with a leaping pump fake, and then avoided the block with a swooping, left-handed, up-and-under shot that spun into the hoop for the game-winning basket.
It brought Joyner another step closer in his comeback as point guard and leader of the Gauchos.
"Left hand," he said, beaming as he replayed the shot. "I don't think I make that shot two years ago."
It was a tough season last year, Joyner admitted. Worst of his life, basketball-wise, he said.
But maybe the best, too.
"I feel I'm better now than I was my first two years here, that's the main thing," he said. "I don't know if I'll ever be back to normal wrist-wise.
"But with the year off, and even playing my first two years here with the bad wrist, it's been helping me with my left hand to become a little more ambidextrous around the rim and with dribbling the ball.
"It's really helped my game, in a way. I look at the positive side of everything that happens, you know?"
Having Joyner back is the biggest positive for a team that went from a record-setting, 23-9 season with him in 2008 to a 16-15 result without him last spring.
But Joyner used last season as more than just a time to heal his right wrist and develop his left. It was also an opportunity to bond with two impact, redshirt transfers: Guard Orlando Johnson from Loyola Marymount and forward Jon Pastorek from San Diego State.
"We'd joke about how our scout team was better than our actual first team," Joyner said. "It probably wasn't the case, but it was still fun to play with those guys.
"I got a year to learn how they play, and play with them, so I think that was a big help for me and for them."
Johnson, who set the freshman scoring and rebounding records at LMU, was recently ranked among the top 10 mid-major transfers by FoxSports.com.
When asked what the 6-foot-5 guard does best, Joyner replied, "What doesn't he do well? That's probably the question."
"He can get by his man, go to the rim, finish tough, and he can shoot," he continued. "He can do everything, really. If there's one thing that he needs to work on it's probably, defensively, just staying solid. He's strong enough and quick enough to defend, but there are times when he gambles.
"But he can do everything. The sky's the limit for that kid."
Pastorek, a 6-foot-10 forward, has dealt with his own injury issues. But he looked to be putting his back problems behind him as he spun free for shots and putbacks during Thursday's session.
"He was playing really well during the spring, and then he got mono - got really sick," Joyner said. "He's just getting back into it. He's going to be a huge factor.
"He's 6-10, he can shoot it, finish with both hands, pass it. The coaches talk about how good of a passer he is, and he really is. He's phenomenal that way. He's going to be fun to play with."
"You gonna call that?" Phippen barked.
"Huh?" Devenny replied.
Phippen repeated himself, and then so did Devenny.
"You hit me in the side of the face," Phippen finally declared.
"These games get pretty intense," Joyner pointed out. "You see guys kicking balls all over creation, it's pretty funny."
James Nunnally, in fact, reacted to Joyner's game-winner by taking the ball out of the basket and heaving it across court.
"That's how it should be," Joyner continued. "If you're not trying to tear each other's heads off, then there's a problem.
"You can't be nice on the court, even if these guys are your teammates. 'You're not on my team right now - we're trying to compete.' That's how it is. That's how it should be."
The Gauchos gather nearly every day, even though each Monday, Wednesday and Friday includes a rigorous, three-hour conditioning session.
"It's hard to play during those days, but we do," Joyner said. "We're real talented,
as much talent as we've had since I've been here, and they're very eager to play, never sitting out games.
"I think it's something that's been lacking the last couple of years. Some guys were lacking the passion to play basketball all the time, whereas now, everybody just wants to play."
But one Gaucho has been conspicuous by his absence. The knee injury that Jesse Byrd suffered last year did not respond well to midseason surgery, leaving him hobbled this summer.
"That's tough, definitely, because he's such a force and such a good player and person," Joyner said. "You really hate to see that happen to a guy like him. Hopefully, he'll be able to play with us.
"But we need Jesse back. He's such a beast, too, and he'd push the other guys. Guys would be fighting for spots, and practices would be better."
Joyner is known for pushing hard. To make a point last year, he refused to take Greg Somogyi for a pickup game, even though the 7-foot-3 freshman was the last pick remaining.
Somogyi took it as a personal challenge.
"He's gotten a lot better," Joyner said of the Hungarian Gaucho. "I think the biggest concern with him was confidence and strength, and he's gotten much stronger and a whole lot more confident.
"He knows the level where he can compete, and I think that's big for him."
The other returning freshmen have also been making their marks in the pickup games, he said.
On Nunnally: "He surprises me with how easy he makes the game look offensively. If he can just match that defensively, then he'd be another guy, like OJ, who'd be an all-league player for three years in a row."
On Will Brew, who started at point guard in his absence last year: "Will is phenomenal defensively, and in how he competes. He brings it every day and plays as hard as he can every day, and that's amazing. Everyone's fighting for spots. I can't wait until practice starts."
The sessions have also given highly recruited freshmen such as Brew's brother, Chris, and Devenny the chance to show their stuff. Three walk-ons have also been taking apart, including Simi Valley High's Brad Lewis, a 3-point whiz who won Ventura County Player of the Year honors.
"He can really shoot it, and he's pretty good, too," guard James Powell said. "We have a lot of young talent out here, now we just have to put it together on the court."
Powell, Byrd and Roemer are the only seniors, which foreshadows a powerhouse team in two years.
But a season in the shadows convinced Joyner that nothing is guaranteed beyond today.
"You want to focus on now," Joyner said. "Besides, one of the best friends I've ever had is Paul Roemer, and he's a senior. I'd hurt so bad if he didn't get to The Dance, you know?
"So that's kind of my emphasis this year - helping my best friend get to the tournament."
Hand in hand, whether it's the right or the left.
Basketball fans, new this year, donations to The Gaucho Fund - regardless of the sport it supports - will be part of the "One Donation is Gold" system. This allows donors to purchase priority/premium seating and parking at UCSB games across several sports in addition to other benefits.
If you donate to men's basketball, you will have the opportunity to purchase tickets in the Gold Zone (priority/premium seats) at Harder Stadium for men's soccer, which includes priority parking and cushioned chair-backed seating. No longer will separate donations need to be made to secure priority seating to different UCSB sports. One donation, one fund: The Gaucho Fund.
Season tickets for the 2009 men's soccer season are on sale for only five bucks a game. Fans who purchase 2009 season tickets will be guaranteed the opportunity to buy tickets for the 2010 Men's NCAA College Cup hosted by UCSB at Meredith Field at Harder Stadium Dec. 10-12, 2010. To accompany the successful "Soccer Town, USA" slogan as part of the College Cup bid, a discounted family valued offer is also available where a family of five can catch games for only $2.50 per game! Family Plan package also includes three free youth t-shirts and memberships to the new UCSB kids club: GKids. Fans can easily buy tickets online or by calling 805-893-UCSB. To purchase your tickets click here..
About the Gaucho Fund (G-Fund for short): The program was launched as part of the Dare to Be Great strategic plan and is UCSB Athletics' annual giving program to provide vital funding support for scholarships, academic success and leadership development for Gaucho student-athletes. The Gaucho Fund is the anchor to the Dare to Be Great campaign. For more information on Dare to Be Great, please click here.