Cal State Los Angeles Review

UCLA looks better defensively in their exhibition win against Cal State L.A., 84-59, shows improved three-point shooting, and a couple of players step up, but the big takeaway concern from this game was the quality of the point guard play...

As expected, UCLA blew out Cal State Los Angeles Tuesday, 84-59, in its second exhibition game.

With it, we got some more insights into this UCLA team.

After the first exhibition game, we thought that staying in front of the ball defensively – and other defensive issues – were the main takeaway.

Ben Howland, in his post-game interview, reiterated that concern. Despite Howland's noted concern, it appeared the Bruins did a better job defensively in many aspects against Cal State L.A.

Probably the main takeaway concern from this exhibition game was the play at the point guard position, and whether it will be high quality enough to take UCLA where it desires to go.

In my opinion, after watching the two exhibition games, I'd have to say no.

Neither Lazeric Jones nor Jerime Anderson look like they are talented enough to be the answer at point guard – at least if UCLA wants to be a team to really compete for the Pac-10 championship, and make some noise in the NCAA Tournament. Every other position looks as if there's enough talent there among the first- and second-stringers, but it looks like Jones and Anderson are really only back-up quality talents at the UCLA level.

Hopefully the two continue to develop throughout the season and prove me wrong.

Jones is decently quick, not greatly, and defensively played a little better on-ball defense against CSLA. On the other hand, CSLA didn't have a point guard that could really provide UCLA's point guards a challenge. The CSLA point guard, Ryan Wetherell, isn't particularly quick, so it was a much easier task staying in front of him. Just to put it in perspective, too, Wetherell is a former walk-on at USC, so that's the level of talent we're talking about. Despite the on-ball aspect of his defense, Jones looked a little uncertain in many other defensive aspects, a couple of times getting lost on the perimeter, and losing his man. In one sequence, coming off a pick, Jones lost his man, left him open for to easily catch and knock down a three. Of course, as we've said, Jones is new to this whole thing, so it more than likely is going to take him some time to get down some of the defensive principles. Offensively he was a mixed bag. He shot 3-for-7, and the three shots he made were actually pretty and in rhythm. The other four he missed were ill-advised and poorly attempted. He also over-penetrated a couple of times with nowhere to go, which is the #1 cardinal rule of penetration: Know where you're going and what you're doing when you're penetrating (I guess that could be good words at advice outside of basketball, too). He finished with 4 assists and 3 turnovers, and there were a couple of nice moments of awareness when he found the open player. Jones rotated the ball one extra pass to find Honeycutt for an open three against the zone on one possession. But overall, Jones doesn't have a great point guard feel, and looks to be at a bit of a deficit in functioning quickly and without hesitation in Howland's offense. Again, hopefully this is just the early stages of Jones' learning curve. To his credit, it's clear that Jones is a hustler, getting on the floor for a loose ball and never really losing his defensive energy.

Anderson was probably about as good as Jones in this one. He has, on his side, the two years of experience in Howland's system, so he clearly has a better approach on the offensive side than Jones. Anderson, too, is a more natural passer and creator for others. On a couple of offensive possessions, with the ball moving fairly well, Anderson was left wide open from three and calmly knocked them down. He has a greater feel on the break than Jones, even though Anderson isn't very speedy bringing the ball up the court. Defensively, Anderson looked like he was putting in good effort and generally played good on-ball D.

But neither of them are exceptional. It makes you truly realize just how big of a miss it was in recruiting that UCLA couldn't bring in an elite point guard in the 2010 class because, if he were truly elite, he'd be able to step in next season and probably start right away.

Probably the thing to hope for this season is that the UCLA point guards 1) play adequate defense and 2) get the ball to the team's scorers without making too many turnovers or mistakes.

What was probably the best takeaway of the game was the play of Brendan Lane and Tyler Lamb. It was easily Lane's best performance as a Bruin, finishing with 14 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists (against 3 turnovers). He had 12 points and 3 of those assists in the first half, and then tailed off in the second half, getting a bit sloppy and, actually, looking a bit fatigued. But it was a very good game for him, not just because he shot 4 for 6, hit some nice jumpers, including a three-pointer, but he was good in transition, accepting nice dishes as he was driving the lane and throwing down strong dunks that he wouldn't have probably finished a year ago. His passing was very good, finding his low-post comrade from the high post a couple of times. Lane's defense, too, is pretty good, having the best feet among UCLA's big men, and he's one of the UCLA shot-blocking crew.

The freshman Lamb showed what he's capable of, finishing as the team's high scorer with 17 points. He did just about everything you could want out of a freshman wing in his second college game, knocking down shots—including knowing when to pull-up from the mid-range -- making nice assists, taking a charge, and playing sound defense. Lamb might not be an elite level athlete, but in terms of his skill set and court feel he is the full package. He will undoubtedly make some freshman mistakes this season, but how good he was in so many facets of the game Tuesday was very encouraging.

In fact, one of the best plays of the game was a sweet give-and-go between Lane and Lamb, with Lane dishing to a driving Lamb for a lay-in.

What's also particularly encouraging about Lane and Lamb: They combined to go 7-for-7 from the free-throw line. In other words, it will be a welcomed development when these two get fouled, which is unusual for Bruins in recent years.

It's pretty easy to analyze Honeycutt's play in just about any game. It's clear just how talented he is – finishing with 15 points, 15 rebounds and 2 blocks in this one. But he has a degree of street ball in him that he seemingly wants to retain, which, really is holding back his development. Whenever he has a negative play it's because he's trying to make the extra-flashy one-handed pass, tries to dribble through three defenders or takes a quick, ill-advised shot. Whenever he's under control, he's consistently exceptional. It's encouraging that he hit a couple of three-pointers because the threes he attempted against Westmont and then the first couple he attempted in this one weren't good shots. Perhaps the best aspect of Honeycutt's game against CSLA was a perceived increase in defensive intensity. He did allow the probably D-1 level Chris Robinson to go around him a couple of times, but it appeared that the effort was there.

Malcolm Lee has looked a little out-of-sync offensively in the two exhibition games. To put it bluntly, it still looks like Lee has quite a bit of development in front of him – that he's gotten better, more under control – but hasn't advanced as much as you might have expected or hoped. His outside shot looks exactly the same, pretty inconsistent (He went 1 for 4 from three). He sometimes gets himself in trouble in transition and in the halfcourt by over-handling the ball.

Josh Smith played just 20 minutes, with Howland trying to manage his sprained thumb. This game was intended to get him out on the court in a game to get him comfortable for the season-opener Friday without putting him at too much risk to further injure the thumb. It pretty much worked, even though you would have liked to have seen Smith get more touches in the block (but he probably couldn't have done much with more "touches" with the injured thumb). He's just so big, looking quite a bit larger than CSLA's Chris Hoffman, who is listed at 6-9 and 270 pounds. Smith's three assists were probably the most encouraging aspect of his game Tuesday, with a particularly pretty one where, in the post, he found a cutting Lee for a basket. He did get into foul trouble, mostly because of careless reaching fouls, and we all know that, with UCLA so thin on its frontline, Smith staying out of foul trouble is a key to the season. His post man defense was very impressive, but we probably can't take much from it because Hoffman isn't by any means a basketball player.

Also, can UCLA maybe fork out a little more money and buy Smith an XXXXXL jersey that fits him? His jersey is far too tight on him and he's constantly distracted by pulling on it to try to loosen it up. He's actually sometimes running down the court in transition pulling on his jersey.

We cited the play of Lane and Lamb as perhaps the best developments of the CSLA game, and that's not to slight Anthony Stover in any way, because he had an exceptional outing himself. It's just that this is the second game in a row Stover played well so it wasn't a revelation. He finished with 8 points, 3 rebounds and 2 blocks in 20 minutes, but he even had more of an impact than that stat line suggests. He did so many little things, like a very effective hedge that disrupted the ball handler into a turnover. What was particularly encouraging was Stover's comfort level around the basket offensively. All through high school and even last season at UCLA when he redshirted, it was pretty widely accepted that he was a project offensively and, of course, he still is. But the project is coming along pretty well, with Stove making a nice move to his left and finishing with a left-handed mini-jump hook. In one sequence, in semi-transition, Stover cut through the lane and caught a pass from Lamb for a big dunk and a foul.

As I said, the team was better defensively. The score was a bit deceiving since CSLA was raining in three-pointers in the second half (they hit 7 of 14 second-half three pointers), especially against UCLA's walk-on bench. In the first half, with UCLA looking focused defensively, CSLA shot 27%, and it actually looked like a well-coached D-1 defense dominating a D-2 team, which is how it didn't look against Westmont. There were still some issues staying in front of the ball, and some guys getting lost on defense, but it was a considerably better defensive performance than against Westmont. I think some of it has to do with this game not being all about transition scoring, because when UCLA got wound up trying to get out and run all the time against Westmont the quality of its defense suffered.

The one truly elite defensive element of this team is its shot-blocking ability. They are definitely the Bruin shot-blocking crew. When any opponent even comes close to the paint with the dribble, the help defense looks like it's smelling blood in the water. Stover, of course, with that 7-7 wing span, is phenomenal at it. You almost want someone to get around their defender on the perimeter so they can go into the paint and attempt to shoot over him. Honeycutt, of course, is an excellent shot blocker, and Lane and Smith are very good, too. The problem, actually, might be too many guys rotating over looking for the block. UCLA finished this game with 9 blocks, and a number of other shots that were altered, particularly because of the presence of Stover or Smith in the middle. With UCLA having an issue of being able to stay in front of their man on the perimeter, and with UCLA's shot-blocking penchant, it's probably not too much of a leap to expect UCLA to be among the nation's best shot-blocking teams.

It was a bit worrisome when, about 8 minutes into the second half, CSLA was basically beating the Bruins in the second half. At one point, they were up 18-13 if you just consider just second-half scoring. CSLA did it mostly through an improved defensive effort, forcing quite a few UCLA turnovers and then making their three-pointers.

UCLA had 14 turnovers in the second-half, mostly from lazy or forced passes.

It was very encouraging that the Bruins got on track shooting threes. UCLA went 3-for-21 against Westmont and then 2-for-10 in the first half against CSLA, which makes for a frightening 16% three-point shooting rate. The 6-for-9 UCLA shot in the second half from beyond the arc made for a collective "Whew." What could very well be a key component of UCLA's offense is Jones and/or Anderson being able to knock down an open three since opposing defenses are going to key on everyone else and sag off of them. If opposing defenses, then, have to honor their shot it opens up so much for the other Bruins. So Anderson going 2-for-4 and Jones 1-for-2 is encouraging.

There were some interesting player combinations. Anderson and Jones were on the court quite a bit together, and Honeycutt played some at the four spot. It probably only happened because of UCLA's lack of depth, especially without Reeves Nelson and Matt Carlino. But lack of depth might be a recurring theme so we could see some more unusual personnel moves to compensate throughout the season.

We have to reiterate again, though, that when there was a lineup of Lee, Anderson, Lamb, Lane and Stover, the team might not have its best talent on the court but it plays so much more fundamentally sound.

As we alluded to, UCLA wasn't nearly as effective in transition as it was against Westmont. CSLA obviously watched the UCLA/Westmont tape and rotated back defenders to take away UCLA's break. It was a good thing for the Bruins, getting them to work on their halfcourt and not rely on transition scoring.

Ready or not, here come the games that count…

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