BOULDER – When Spencer Dinwiddie went down and ultimately out at Washington in mid-January, the unspoken decree on the Colorado men’s basketball team was spoken nonetheless by coach Tad Boyle: Compensation for Dinwiddie’s departure wouldn’t be a one-Buff job.
It hasn’t been either – although one Buff has settled himself and his game, expanded (or perhaps rediscovered) his skill set, and begun to contribute more to his team in more ways than he might have thought possible.
The silver lining – and you cringe at even suggesting there might be one – in Dinwiddie going down is Askia Booker making the most of his opportunity to step up.
Oh, “Ski” Booker hasn’t been alone. CU’s pair of X-men – forward Xavier Johnson and guard Xavier Talton – have contributed at their positions. Post Josh Scott, the Buffs’ double-double machine, has kept that switch in the ON position. Guard Eli Stalzer has revved up his game, and Boyle’s four available first-year players – redshirt freshman Wesley Gordon and true frosh Jaron Hopkins, Dustin Thomas and George King – have blended well.
But Booker, maybe because he and Dinwiddie were advertised as the Pac-12 Conference’s premier backcourt, has had to become a whole player in the absence of his position’s other half. He’s done it, too.
Sometimes a shoot first, think later, seldom share “two” guard, Booker has reversed those tendencies. Since Dinwiddie’s injury seven games ago, a headier Booker leads the Buffs in scoring (17.0 points) and assists (5.1 a game; 6.0 in the last six). Tying his career high with seven assists in CU’s 91-65 rout of Washington last weekend, Booker surpassed last season’s assist total – 72-71 – with seven regular-season games and the Pac-12 Tournament remaining.
One reason for the climb in Booker’s assists: he’s handling the ball more – Booker estimates “65 to 75 percent more” – in Dinwiddie’s absence. Another reason, according to Boyle: “He’s making better decisions.” But that doesn’t mean every decision is sound, as evidenced by his 25 turnovers in the seven games since Dinwiddie’s been gone.
“I guess they’re good turnovers if you want to look at it that way . . . he’s trying to make plays,” Boyle said, citing many of Booker’s miscues born from “holding onto the ball too long or over penetrating . . . he’s still got a few too many turnovers; some he can take out of his game and when he does that he becomes one of the most efficient guards in our league.
“He’s been playing extremely well and he’s taken on that facilitator role. It doesn’t matter what position you play – you don’t have to be a point guard to do that. The ball is in hands a lot and he’s making good decisions for the most part.”
IF BOYLE AND HIS PLAYERS have seen Booker’s game become more complete and evolve over the past three weeks, Talton noted, “I think he had it in him all the time. It’s just different with Spencer being out; he has to take more of a leadership role and I think he’s really come into that.”
Booker doesn’t disagree. In the immediate aftermath of his knee injury, Dinwiddie texted several teammates and advised them how their roles must expand. But he met face-to-face with Booker, telling him his ball-handling responsibilities would increase and his court sense would have to match that. Said Booker: “I’m just trying to pick up that role and make the right decisions – when to attack, when to get my teammates shots. If Josh or Xavier Johnson needs the ball, get it to them. I’m trying to find that balance and I think I’ve been playing pretty well lately – except for my turnovers. If I can hold that down, I think I’ll be just fine.”
Recent box scores offer proof, but they aren’t needed to verify to Booker that he has become a more complete player. He can feel it. “Without a doubt,” he said. “I don’t think many people thought I had this side in me. They probably just thought I was a wired kid that was able to shoot and score in spurts.
“But now, I think I’ve shown I can defend a little more, whether it’s guarding their best player or not. I can distribute the ball pretty well, I can push it in transition and I can score in transition . . . I’m just trying to balance everything out. I know my team is going to be more dependent on me. I’ve got to stay healthy and in shape.”
Counting the game in Seattle in which Dinwiddie was injured, the Buffs are 4-4 without him and freshman wing Tre’Shaun Fletcher, who returned to practice Monday and will travel (but not play) on this week’s trip to Los Angeles. Boyle said there is no set timeline for Fletcher’s return. The Buffs (18-6, 7-4) play at UCLA on Thursday night (7 p.m. MT, ESPN2) and at USC on Sunday (6 p.m. MT, ESPNU).
In CU’s most recent four wins – three of them during a three-game home stand – Booker averaged 19.1 points and 6.1 assists. In the four defeats, including the 69-56 loss to UCLA at the Coors Events Center (CU’s only home loss this season), Booker averaged 10.2 points and 3 assists – totals that included going scoreless with one assist at Washington. He also had three turnovers in Seattle.
In the last two wins of CU’s three at home – vs. Washington State and UW – Booker shot a combined 16-of-26 from the field (5-of-7 3-pointers) for 26 and 20 points, respectively, and totaled 9 rebounds, 12 assists and 3 steals (all vs. WSU). His and the Buffs’ goal is to package that momentum and take it to his hometown – L.A. – for this week’s games.
“You always want to have the same energy you’ve had when you’ve won three in a row,” said Booker, who played at Price High School and should have an entourage at the revamped Pauley Pavilion. “You don’t want to change anything up. You’ll change your game plan just because it’s a different team, but your energy, your focus both stay the same. And it is tougher to play on the road. That’s a great team we’re about to play on Thursday . . . very talented. But we know what to expect because we have played them before.
“It’s just like Washington – we’d played them before, we knew what to expect and we were prepared. Starting (Tuesday) coach will prepare us very well and just the momentum – hopefully we can carry it, but we haven’t done so well on the road this year so far (1-3 Pac-12). I think this is going to be a good test for us.”
THE BUFFS’ LEAST EFFICIENT road games were at Washington (71-54 loss) and Arizona State (72-51 loss). CU lost at then-No. 1 Arizona (69-57) but Boyle believes his team was more competitive than that 12-point deficit showed. “We competed our tails off at Arizona, got socked in the mouth out of the gate, but after that played pretty hard,” he said. ASU, he noted, played as well against CU as the Buffs did in overwhelming the Huskies last Sunday: “We socked them in the mouth when they came in here. Sometimes you run into a team that’s playing pretty good that night – making shots, playing with a lot of confidence.
“So I don’t put too much stock into (the thought) that we’re a totally different team on the road . . . we still have five road games to pick up some wins and prove ourselves. I look at it as an opportunity to get better, to improve our results and performance.”
Winning three games at home, said Boyle, did boost the Buffs’ confidence and put them “more at ease than they have been in quite some time, certainly since Spencer and ‘Fletch’ went down with their injuries. I think you take something from that, but that’s not going to help us win in Pauley on Thursday night. We’re going to have to defend, play well . . . we’ll have to win; they’re not going to beat themselves. They’re a good team, a well-coached team. We’re not going to go in and catch them sleeping.”
In its win at the Coors Events Center, UCLA (18-5, 7-3) got 14 points and 13 rebounds from 6-5 sophomore guard Jordan Adams, whom Boyle said “beasted us.” This time, Boyle wants a “bigger body” on Adams – maybe the 6-7 Johnson, or Hopkins or King, both 6-5. That presumably would leave the 6-9 Gordon – if his sprained ankle allows it – matched up with 6-9 sophomore guard/forward Kyle Anderson, who is averaging 15.1 points and a team-high 8.7 rebounds.
While Anderson was limited to six points in Boulder, the Bruins did most of their damage on Buffs turnovers – 17 that led to 20 UCLA points – and second-chance points – 20 to CU’s one. But the Bruins visited Boulder the game after the Buffs lost Dinwiddie for the season and Booker believes the Buffs have changed for the better.
“That was a very winnable game,” he said. “I don’t think we competed like we could; we didn’t have a lot of energy. But then we’re not the same team we were when we first lost Spencer . . . they came in here and took care of business. I want to get back at UCLA for what they did to us here. That’s first on my list – then seeing family and friends is second.”