UW coach gets candid about past recruiting mistakes and recent successes. He likens freshman phenom Markelle Fultz to former UW standout Isaiah Thomas and explains why Donaven Dorsey transferred.
Lorenzo Romar turns 58 on November 13 – the day Washington plays its regular-season opener. It’s his 15th season with the Huskies – one more than his mentor Marv Harshman.
These are interesting times for Romar.
He’s the only coach of a major conference men’s basketball team who has missed the NCAA tournament the past five years and remains at his current school.
Despite the lack of postseason success on the court, Romar is thriving recently in recruiting.
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Last year, he compiled a massive eight-man recruiting class ranked second in the Pac-12 and eighth nationally by ESPN.com that included preps-to-pros stars Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray.
This year, the Huskies landed standout point guard Markelle Fultz, who is seventh nationally on ESPN’s list.
And next year’s class of pledged recruits is led by Michael Porter Jr. and Jaylen Nowell, ranked fourth and 45th by ESPN.
Had a chance to sit down with Romar last week for an extensive interview before the Huskies departed for a 12-day, five-game exhibition tour that includes stops in Australia and New Zealand.
Here’s a look at UW’s schedule.
Tuesday, Aug. 2 – arrive in Melbourne (after crossing international date line)
Wednesday, Aug. 3 – tour Queen Victoria market, game vs. Dandenong Rangers
Thursday, Aug. 4 – visit Royal Melbourne Zoo, game vs. Frankston Blues
Friday, Aug. 5 – fly to Christchurch, New Zealand
Sunday, Aug. 7 – game vs. Mainland Eagles
Monday, Aug. 8 – fly to Sydney, game vs. Sydney University Lions
Tuesday, Aug. 9 – tour Sydney Opera House
Wednesday, Aug. 10 – Amazing Race Sydney, game vs. Sydney Comets
Thursday, Aug. 11 – depart Sydney for Washington
Romar began the conversation talking about redshirt freshman Sam Timmins, the big New Zealand forward who makes his UW debut this week Down Under.
Then we talked for awhile about Fultz before Romar gave a quick update on each of the Huskies.
Romar explained why junior Donaven Dorsey transferred (he’s headed to Montana) before the conversation turned to UW’s recruiting philosophy.
Here’s a transcript of the Q&A.
(Thoughts on Timmins.) “He’s done a fantastic job with (strength and conditioning coach Daniel Shapiro) in the weight room just getting himself in better shape and tightening up his body. He looks great right now. High basketball IQ. Very high basketball IQ. He’s not skilled in the sense of a Dirk Nowitzki where he’s beating guys off the dribble and that tppe of things, but skilled to where he can catch the ball in the post and if you make a mistake defensively he’s going to drop it off to somebody for a great shot. He can step outside and knock a shot down. But then he had good strength around the rim. He’s 265 pounds. He has good strength because of his girth and he has good footwork.”
(He talked about getting comfortable as a playmaker.) “He’s our best passing big man.”
(And he said he needs to work on being selfish and being aggressive.) “I think what he’s talking about is just taking advantage of his size. Because he is skilled, sometimes he can drift out to that perimeter a little too much at times. As opposed to where when he goes down on the block, he’s a force to be reckoned with. So his perimeter game needs to compliment his inside game. When he talks about being more aggressive, it’s about going out there and getting on the block and establishing his position.”
(What’s his shooting range?) “He can shoot it from the three, but I’d say from 18 feet out I feel pretty confident that it will go in. He can make a 3 though.”
(Timmins also says redshirting really helped him.) “I knew what he wanted to do. I knew the intent early. This was not a suggestion of his. This was the pro team that he was with. We talked about it and thought you know what, (redshirting) would probably be a good idea. As opposed to playing another year in New Zealand, how about you come with us and learn our system. If we would have said we need you to play, he would have said no I’m not going to play and I’ll just stay in New Zealand. The agreement was for him to come here and learn. And to get in shape. He had to get in condition because the pro league – there league doesn’t start in January. So that’s what he did and I think it was very beneficial for him.”
(Other than reshaping his body, what did Timmins learn as a redshirt freshman?) “He was able to learn about our pace. He got here I January so his development consisted of pre-game (drills) and practice. Being on the scout team he could work on whatever he wanted to work on. We’re going to make you this guy today. So today you’re going to be a facilitator. The next day we’re going to you every time. So he was able to work that way. But in terms of really getting down and learning what we’re doing conceptually, he missed training camp. And when he joined us – and this is another reason why it would have been tough for him to play in January – he wasn’t in great condition. And we’re in league. Now you’re in league games. And if it’s a guy that was a transfer and became eligible in January who played a year or two in college, that’s a different story. But he had not played so he was kind of learning on the fly. Right now we’re doing more of what we’re going to be doing in the fall and he’s picking things up.”
(Almost everyone who enters college basketball for the first time talk about the pace of the game and how much faster the game is at this level. Have you seen Timmins struggling with that?) “Well, it’s two-fold. The college pace is going to be quicker and then we take it up another notch because we’re so up-tempo. We really push it. When I first watched Sam on film, my first question was can he run with us at the pace that we establish? Physically he’s fine. But he’s going to have to develop and be a little more athletic and be a little quicker to be able to do that with us. And we have so much confidence in Coach Shapiro and in Sam’s work ethic. We felt like he’ll get there. And sure enough, we watch him out here now. I wouldn’t say that guy doesn’t fit in and he’s too slow. He’s slower than the other quick-twitch guys – the Maliks and those guys – but he’s fast enough.”
(Right or wrong, he gets the Jon Brockman comparisons.) “Him and Jon Brockman aren’t similar at all. It’s hard when someone says well who does he compare to? Then when you say someone, then that must be exact. Everything that person does that must be what he’s like. But Sam is not like Brock. He’s more like Aron Baynes was when Aron Baynes was at Washington State. Aron Baynes with a little more Marc Gasol’s skill. He’s not Marc Gasol and Baynes wasn’t the quickest guy in the world, but he was effective.”
(So Timmins won’t be UW’s career leading rebounder. Let me take that back. He may do that, but he won’t do it like Brockman.) “He might, but he’s not a swashbuckler like Jon Brockman was. You get the image of a ship and just going at everybody. That’s how Brockman was. Jumping through this. Jumping through that. He’s not quite like that. But in terms of his skill set, he’s more advanced then most bigs.”
(What do you want to accomplish with the Australian trip?) “We want to experiment with some things. Some things offensively and defensively. It’ll be important to give this group a chance to build an identity more than anything. With the new guys coming in Markelle (Fultz), Sam and Matthew Atewe who sat out last year. Hopefully, when we’re done coming into to the fall we would have already established who we are as opposed to trying to obtain that later.”
(We’ve had this conversation before. Some of your teams in the past struggled with finding an identity early and guys searched for roles. But you’re thinking this group will sort those things out earlier than later?) “Hopefully that will be the case. Walking in to the first practice, I would like for our guys to be able to look at each other and say ‘Do you know what we’re about?’ And it doesn’t even need to be said. You know what we’re about. What’s accepted and what’s not accepted. What’s expected. All of that stuff.”
(Last year at this time I remember you wanting to drill into such a large incoming class about how hard you have to play at this level. Especially in practice. Are you saying the same things this year or is it a different message?) “It’s a different message now. It’s an interesting phenomenon. You watch Jim Harrick who I worked for and a lot of other people have said it, but the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores. And it’s so evident. You look at our guys that are returners from freshman year to this year – even Malik who was in the first year of our program – the game has slowed down for them. They’re not in such hurry. They’re where they’re supposed to be defensively more than not. It just makes such a big difference.”
(Obviously you’ve done this before and it’s the nature of college basketball, but how do you replace your three leading scorers? You’re not going to average 40 points, but how does that happen? Do you have a sense right now where the scoring will come from?) “Guys step up. Again Justin Holiday was a 4- to 6-point a game guy and then his senior year, he’s averaging 10. Matthew Bryan-Amaning was a guy that his senior year, he’s averaging 15. Going into those guys seniors years we had similar questions. You just lost Quincy Pondexter and he was the leading scorer – first or second (in the Pac-10) – and where are you going to get that from? Guys step up. They become better. And I would think that is going to be the case this year.”
(How does Markelle look with this team?) “He is a classic kid who makes everyone else better. Already I think our guys have been impressed with him for two reasons. His talent. Seeing it up close and actually playing with him. And then the type of teammate that he is. When he’s out there playing, he’s not competing with our own team for glory or anything like that. He’s out there doing whatever he can to make us be the best. Our guys see that. He’ll feed someone and if they don’t catch the ball because they stopped running, he’ll say I’ll throw it to you. Keep running. So what does a guy do? Oh yeah, I’ll run my butt off then. I just think everyone appreciates him.”
(You’ve had a lot of talented freshmen like Isaiah Thomas, Spencer Hawes, Dejounte Murray, Marquese Chriss, Tony Wroten and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few. I hate to have you rank them, but how does Markelle stack up with those guys.) “He’s the best in terms of his talent coming in the door that we’ve ever had. Coming in the door. By the time he left, Brandon Roy was the sixth pick in the draft. Coming in the door, he’s the best player we’ve ever had.”
(Are there any comparisons to Isaiah when he arrived at UW. The one difference is Isaiah had Brockman, an established star. Markelle doesn’t have that, but there was a lot of pressure on Isaiah to perform at a high level that first year.) “Yeah there was. It’s probably very similar with Markelle. I believe with freshmen, it takes them awhile. He’s not going to be perfect. But I do think, he’s about as seasoned a freshman as you’re going to find.”
(What’s your takeaway from Markelle’s MVP-performance while leading Team USA to a gold medal?) “I was at the trials when they brought that team together at the beginning. I just watched how different guys played different roles and you could just see right then that he was a star among stars in the other star’s eyes by just the way they interacted with him. They would find him with the ball. He had instant credibility with those guys and he played that way. The last game they played against Canada that game was pretty close. He was in foul trouble and he sat out most of the third quarter until he came back in in the fourth quarter and then it was over. All of sudden he scored. He got other people going. And it was a wrap.”
(Do you build the team around Markelle because he is so good?) “He is a point guard. He’s got the ball in his hands. As young as he is – he’s a freshman – he will be making the majority of the decisions with the basketball. So there’s going to be a lot on his shoulders.”
(Being a former point guard do you talk to him in that language?) “Oh yeah. Definitely. As a point guard you’re like a CEO. You’re responsible for all of your workers, your employees. But you have to get a paycheck too. You don’t just make sure that everybody else is getting paid and you’re volunteering. As a CEO you got to make sure everyone feels like they’re worthy and feel like they’re somebody. So you got to do that, but you can’t get lost in the mists of all of that and not make sure you’re being noticed too. Especially when you’re as talented as he is. It’s a big job.”
(Would you have loved to have played in this era of point guards? I never really saw you play in all honesty. I grew up in Cleveland and we didn’t get a lot of UW basketball on TV.) “I know what it was like to guard Gus Williams and Norm Nixon and Isiah Thomas and those guys who had the green light like these guys. So I don’t know if I’d want to be in this era. Really for me, in the summers I was probably like that. But when it really came down to it that wasn’t my game. Those guys – those scorers – are high-risk takers. I wasn’t a high-risk taker. I was more conservative as a point guard.”
(Obviously, the point guard role has changed so much over the years with guys like Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook leading that so-called revolution.) “I prefer high-risk takers. If nothing is going well, I like a point guard that can go and score 30. I like that.”
(Back to your team, how is David Crisp looking?) “David is playing probably more point guard in practices than he played last year. He’s learning that. Defensively he’s gotten better.”
(Matisse Thybulle.) “He is a guy that defensively, we were just joking about this as a staff. It’s like Richard Sherman. You don’t want to go to his side. When we draw up something in practice, OK we’re going to run this. (But) where is Matisse because he’s hard to screen. He’s hard to get passes through. He’s just disruptive. Offensively, the game has slowed down for him. He is not in as much of a hurry.”
(Dominic Green.) “Dominic is really playing well right now. He’s playing pretty efficient basketball right now.”
(Efficient?) “The ball goes in the basketball without a whole lot of dribbles. He’s not dribbling around hunting for his shot and then maybe shooting a fall-away (jumper). He’s letting the game come to him while still maintaining his aggressiveness. If it’s not a great shot he’s passing it up and making the extra pass. But when he is shooting it, the ball is going in the basket.”
(Malik Dime.) “Maybe our most improved defensive player right now.”
(And this is a guy who led the team in blocks.) “But let’s just say you lead the team in blocks, but in a pick-and-roll you’re a disaster. When they’re not driving and you got to cover someone out on the perimeter and you’re a disaster. If you have to rotate and it’s a disaster. So you can be a really good shot blocker and help the defense, but you’re not an all-around good defender. He has become an all-around good defender. So when I say improved defender, he’s doing more than blocking shots. He’s getting deflections out on the perimeter. A guy like Klay Thompson I’ll never forget shot 22 free throws. We played them the last game in the season and he had only taken 22 free throws. But he led them in scoring I think. So the next year you go back and say Klay Thompson is maybe our most improved offensive player. One might say he led the team in scoring. But now he’s driving to the basket. And he’s getting fouled. He expanded his game. That’s how Malik is on defense.”
(Noah Dickerson.) “He’s just at times is a bull in a china shop in a good way. He gets the ball on the block and he’s hard to deal with. He’s working really hard. He’s becoming a better defender also. And he’s able to step out and knock that shot down with a lot of consistency right now.”
(Did he ever need surgery to repair the issue with his leg?) “No. He just needed rest.’
(Devenir Duruisseau.) “You’re going to feel him on the court. His first game and his last game where his two best games last year. China against Texas and then in the NIT. Gave really good minutes. So it’s in there. He just has to be more consistent with his finishing.”
(Is Dan Kingma on scholarship this year?) “He’s on scholarship.”
(I remember last year when Kingma was put on scholarship you made a point to say that it was exclusively for that year and would be evaluated going forward. So why another year for him?) “We had a scholarship open for this year. So we gave it to him. He’s a great student. Our guys probably respect him in terms of his work ethic as much as anyone on the team. He has the support of his peers. He’s also become pretty good at what he does on the basketball floor.”
(Obviously he didn’t play as much last year as he did as a freshman. Was that a reflection on Dan or the team being so much better and not being hit with so many injuries like you were in 2014-15?) “We had a better team. The personnel was different.”
(Matthew Atewe.) “Matthew right now today has really improved. He’s now in really good shape. He’s not injured anymore. You talk about a guy who really sat out for two years. One year being injured where he could do nothing. And then the second year – last year – where he had to redshirt. So he’s really improved.”
(Most UW fans have never seen him or have any idea what his game is like.) “He can give you – kind of like the guy in Toronto (Bismack) Biyombo. He’s physical. He’s going to be relentless on the boards. He’s fearless.”
(And your freshmen. Let’s start with Harold Baruti. But he’s not Harold anymore.) “It’s Bitumba. Bitumba Baruti.”
(Again for folks who have never seen him play, how would you describe him? You’ve had him for month on the court.) “Just a few days. We know what he’s capable of, but he’s not able to do what he really does because he’s not had the luxury to be around us like some of these other guys that have been here since June. He just got here. Boy right now he’s just kind of running around and not sure what’s going on.”
(I’m sure. Especially with the way you guys play defense and all the switching.) “There’s that and the pace in all. But he is arguably the most athletic guy on our team. That includes Matisse.”
(Now stop it. C’mon now.) “You have to see it. When you see it you’ll go my bad.”
(Who am I forgetting?) “Carlos.”
(Of course, Carlos Johnson.) “Carlos is a tough kid. So willing to do the right thing. I mean, if he messes up it bothers him. But what I like about him is he’s mentally tough. It doesn’t bother him to where he puts his head down and pouts or sulks or feels sorry for himself. He puts his chinstrap on a little tighter and says I’m going to figure this out. I love that about him.”
(And your freshmen all have five years to play four seasons?) “Yes.”
(Any early thoughts of Carlos or Bitumba redshirting?) “No. Any of the redshirt stuff … “
(Not to cut you off, but the only reason I ask is because of Sam.) “Oh I see. I got you. But no, there was no prior agreement. That makes sense.”
(With some guys coming in, they want to redshirt.) “Andrew (Andrews) was in that category too. Coming in the door, we knew he was going to redshirt.”
(Will the starting lineup you use for the first game in Australia be the one that you’ll start the season with?) “I can’t say that for sure. I definitely can’t say that for sure. Our last game is the 10th of August. Then you’re talking about almost three months before your first game. A lot can happen. Guys learn your system better. Guys start to get more confident. So it will be hard to predict.”
(Do you know who you’re starting for the first game in Australia?) “No.”
(Oh and I would be remissed if I didn’t ask about Donaven Dorsey. I thought last year was a crucial time for him in that he needed to establish a role with so many freshman coming in. And that didn’t happen.) “I was a kid and one time and you want to play. You want to have an opportunity to play. I think Donaven gave it two years and wanted to be in a situation where he knew walking in the door that he’d probably get substantial minutes and we just couldn’t promise him that here. Especially with the new guys coming in and what we have coming in next year and that type of thing. Obviously, I can’t comment on that. But I think he just saw that and just thought I’m just going to going to try to go to a situation where I know I’m probably going to be in there a little more. And you hate to see that. You hate to see that.”
(I know you hate to see that, but to me that happens. Especially in college basketball.) “Oh I understand. I hate it, but I understand it.”
(You’re 58 in November and obviously as people we like to get better as we get older. But are you a better recruiter now than you’ve ever been?) “I don’t know. I’ll tell you it’s crazy, but the way kids are now when they feel there’s an opportunity we’ve been very fortunate. Guys have gone on and played at the next level. I think that appeals to kids. I also think that when they say how is this happening and they start looking at our style of play, I think that’s attractive to kids. I think the philosophy that we’ve taken on also has helped us. Identifying guys early. You want to come? Well, I don’t know. OK, next. How about you? Do you want to come? Aahhh, OK. You want to come, OK come on. That whole do you want to come and well I’m not sure and we’ll wait until you make your mind up – we can’t afford to do that anymore. We got burned by doing that. The kids or the families their side of it is, well if you want us like you say you do then you’ll wait. Well, that doesn’t work. We’ve waited before and at the last minute the rug was pulled from under us. Yeah, we do want you like we say but we will take someone else to make sure we have someone that’s worthy of our program and will help us become better.”
(To bring in a kid like Markelle who if you believe the rankings will be a top three pick in next year’s NBA draft – how did that happen this late in your career? You’re going into Year 15 and you’ve never recruited a kid quite like this.) “Markelle is very unique. Guys like that don’t come around very often. No. 1 with talent set. And then No. 2, he’s his own man. His mom she’s her own person. They weren’t interested in prestige as much as they were interested in what would be the best fit. We lost one kid because people around him said you need to get your name out there and go to the highest market. Markelle and his family felt like if I do what I’m supposed to, it’s going to be out there anyway. Then coach (Raphael Chillious) gets all the credit for this. From start to finish he was the one who presented him to me and we went and watched him. (Chillious) is from that area and we were able to follow up and gain their trust. That was a very unique situation.”
(If you secure everyone for 2016 that’s committed to UW, you will have in my opinion the best three-year stretch of recruiting in your career. I’m not as familiar with your time as a UCLA assistant, but here at Washington I can’t think of a better three-year period.) “The stretch we had with Brockman and Martell Webster and those guys followed up with Quincy Pondexter and Spencer (Hawes), I thought that was a pretty good stretch. Follow that up with the winningest group. Not the most heralded with Darnell Gant, Justin Holiday and Matthew (Bryan-Amaning) and Venoy (Overton). Those guys won more games than anyone. But I would say on paper, this current stretch is the best we’ve done. On paper.”
(Now it seems the last step is to translate all that talent on paper into winning.) “And that will happen. It usually does.”
(As successful as it’s been getting them through the door, does it ring a little hollow if you don’t translate that into wins on the court and specifically in the NCAA tournament?) “We’ve never had a (good) group coming in in consecutive years when we didn’t win. In the 14 years we’ve been here, that’s never happened. If our recruiting classes were pretty good, then we were pretty good.”
(The difference now is they’re coming through the door and they’re leaving after one year. Whereas those other years, you had good recruiting classes playing with another good recruiting class. Now Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss will never play with Markelle Fultz. And Fultz isn’t likely to play with the guys coming in next year.) “Dejounte nor Marquese thought they would be leaving after a year. That was a tough one to prepare for. There’s no secret Markelle Fultz everyone is talking about he has a chance to be a high draft choice. You know in recruiting you talk about those things. You know going in the door. This is another reason when you talk about recruiting strategy, in year’s past I would always try to I call it cookie-cutter recruiting. A point guard and a backup. A wing and a backup. This kind of big and that kind of big. But now we’re just taking the best player because at the end of the year, someone may want to transfer. Someone may be good enough to go to the NBA and we’re just not going to be standing with our pants down again.”
(That’s fascinating and I would love to explore that more on a different day. For my last question, I’d like to ask about you coaching freshmen. I’ve known you for some time and there’s this thing called the Romar Way, which in a nutshell explains how kids get better over time in your system. But the way you’ve got this set up now with your best players being freshmen who aren’t likely to stay very long, it doesn’t seem you can wait to develop them. At the most, you might have a kid two years before they transfer.) “What we’ve been able to do is go through a few years where we had to reshuffle the deck totally. Then we got the good group of freshmen coming in. And now we’ve recruited to where we can become old all the time. What happened last year with so many new young players had to happen because of what had not happen a few years before. We had to start somewhere. So we started with that young group. So now these guys that are still here are older. So yeah, you can bring in freshman. And even if they leave early you will always have that corps veteran group. That’s how we’re recruiting. To try and have both.”