Bill Hass on the ACC: From Gym to Garage, Virginia's Landesberg Always Works to Improve
Jan. 13, 2010
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - You've heard basketball players called "gym rats" - guys who spend countless hours in the gym away from formal practice, working on their game, honing their skills.
That term applies to Virginia sophomore Sylven Landesberg, who often can be found hoisting extra shots or working to improve his ballhandling. The New York native said that he can remember his father taking him to the gym to play basketball when he was little.
And when Landesberg wasn't a gym rat, he became a "garage rat," all the while learning a valuable lesson.
"I used to live in an apartment and we had a huge garage for all the people who lived in the building," he said. "If I couldn't get to the gym, (my father) would take me into the garage and I would dribble up and down at full speed.
"It was always having that work ethic that he helped put into my head. Nothing is given to you; you have to work for everything you want."
That attribute remains one of Landesberg's strongest assets. Just ask anyone who knows him, like Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt.
"He's one of the hardest-working kids I've ever had a chance to recruit," said Hewitt. "His work ethic said to me that he was going to be a great player."
It's the nature of ACC basketball that coaches who lose a recruit often find themselves finding ways to defend him. Landesberg, who picked Virginia over Georgia Tech and St. John's, and his Cavalier teammates face the Yellow Jackets Wednesday night in Charlottesville, Va., and are home again Saturday against Miami.
After a stellar career at Holy Cross High School in New York, the 6-6 Landesberg entered the ACC known as a slasher and penetrator, someone who could get to the rim and also draw fouls by attracting a defensive crowd in the paint. He didn't disappoint, averaging 16.6 points a game to earn ACC Rookie of the Year honors.
Overall, though, the Cavaliers struggled going 4-12 in the league and 10-18 overall. They changed coaches, hiring Tony Bennett, who brought with him a different style of play. So far that has translated into a 9-4 overall record that includes a road victory in their first ACC game.
"I think every game, every practice we're getting more comfortable with the coach and his system," Landesberg said. "We're learning and getting better every day. Early in the season we had our bumps and bruises, we lost some games we could have pulled out. But we learned from those games and I think we got better; we continue to grow."
Virginia's players quickly learned that Bennett's top priority is defense.
"He wants everything done the right way," Landesberg said. "He's real strict on that end. We had to mature and be open-minded to his views."
Landesberg didn't regard himself as a top defender, but said he has improved under Bennett's tutelage.
"I think I've come a long way," he said. "Coach Bennett has taught me little things I can do on the ball that help make it tougher on my man to score, and how to help off the ball and be a good team defender. I think I'm becoming pretty decent at both ends of the court."
On the offensive end, Landesberg's scoring is up slightly to 17 points, but he is shooting a higher percentage (.453 this year, up from .436 last season). He has added a more accurate mid-range jump shot that he can extend to the 3-point line, where he has connected on seven of 17 attempts for 41.2 percent (up from 31.3 percent last season).
"Last year I didn't feel too comfortable from the outside," he said. "I felt more comfortable attacking the rim. I understand where my strength is, getting to the basket, but I also feel comfortable being able to shoot the ball from the outside, from mid-range, from 3-point range, I just feel more comfortable all around."
Bennett has stressed to Landesberg that he can look for his shot and attack the rim, but because of the number of people he draws to him, he should try to find an open teammate. His 34 assists lead the team, one ahead of Sammy Zeglinski and three in front of Calvin Baker. Landesberg also helps on the boards with a 5.4 rebounding mark, second on the team.
As he expands his game, however, the core remains intact - taking the ball to the basket. Although that shows up on film, seeing him do it in practice and in games has given Bennett a new appreciation for Landesberg's skill.
"He has a knack - you don't quite always know how - but the next thing you know he's either drawing a foul or he's in the paint, whether he's using floaters or off-balance stuff," Bennett said. "He's always in that paint and has a solid feel for the game.
"When I first saw him I thought `how does he get into the lane so much?' He has some good hesitation moves, he's pretty clever with the ball and he finds his way in and can usually draw a crowd."
To Landesberg, it's simply a matter of desire.
"When I have the ball," he said, "in the back of my mind I'm thinking, `I'm going to be able to go wherever I want to go.' Maybe one play he might stop me, but he's not going to stop me the whole game. I'm going to be able to get to that spot on the court where I want to get and make something out of it."
That determination goes back to his New York roots, playing in parks and tournaments all over the city against the best players around, like Erving Walker of Florida and Lance Stephenson of Cincinnati.
"It's kind of hard to shoot outside," Landesberg explained, "so you really had to force yourself to get to the basket. Everybody growing up in New York had that ability to be able to get to the basket, being crafty with what they have.
"I played pretty much against everybody who has a name in New York. We all grew up playing against each other, in tournaments. There would be days when you had three or four different games in different parks all over the city. You could be playing one person twice in different places. It was a lot of fun growing up and playing against great competition all the time."
Landesberg brought those skills with him to the college game, but had to learn about the effort and intensity required in ACC play.
"You can't take any plays off," he said. "You take one play off on the offensive end you could get a turnover and the other team could score off of that. On the defensive end if you take a play off your man could score, your man could set a screen for a layup. You've got to be alert all the time, and that was something I had to get used to."
As Landesberg continues to expand his game, he will cause more headaches for opposing coaches.
"He's probably added a foot or two to his jump shot and now he's shooting the 3-point shot better and that just makes him even more dangerous," Hewitt said. "Last year I thought you could play him with a little bit of a cushion; now, you can't do that anymore. If you back off him, he'll knock down the 3. He's always been a terrific penetrator and scorer off the dribble and he's an outstanding free throw shooter."
Bennett believes Landesberg will continue to add to his game.
"I want Sylven to continue to try and impact his team, being a leader, being a real complete player," Bennett said. "I think that's the challenge for every guy like him, to be as complete as possible on both ends of the floor.
"(I want him to) continue to improve defensively on and off the ball, rebound the basketball, use his passing and creating ability for his teammates, be aggressive when it's there, just continue to use his feel (for the game)."
In the long run, Landesberg said, Virginia's success this season will depend on its defense.
"I think we're a better team than everybody thinks we are and we'll be able to make a lot of noise," he said. "There're games we play pretty well on the defensive end and there're games where we give up too many easy buckets. We need to keep going with (good defense) and I think we'll be all right."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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