First, let's do some qualifying just to lend perspective: CSUN is bad. In many pre-season polls they were picked to finish toward the bottom of the Big West Conference and, seriously, D-2 Cal State L.A. (the team UCLA played in its second exhibition) was better.
So, you might have to take much of the praise with a grain of salt. But, at the very least, we know UCLA is good enough to demolish a bad D-1 team, so there's that.
The defense was the biggest concern coming out of the exhibition games, and it was clearly improved Friday. CSUN shot 29% from the field, and not all of that was because they couldn't shoot. They did have some open, non-contested shots, but they also had to take some hurried, ill-advised shots because of UCLA's defense. The Bruins were better at staying in front of the ball, with only a couple of times when a Matador went around a Bruin like a well, Matador. Perhaps what's vastly improved defensively from last season is the help defense; it's now almost a contest among UCLA's bigs to see who will slide over first and either take a charge or block a shot. UCLA also came out doubling the post, and there's probably nothing scarier than the 6-10, 330-pound Josh Smith running and screaming at you when you catch the ball on the block. Doubling the post was very effective and caused a few turnovers. UCLA forced a whopping total of 27 turnovers, had 17 steals (yes, 17) and 12 blocks. Those are some great defensive stats.
Lazeric Jones was a big part of the improved defensive effort, and the improved performance overall. He provided solid defensive pressure, and didn't gamble like he had a few times in the exhibitions. At one point, pressuring the CSUN ball-handler up the court, he forced a carry, right in front of the UCLA bench, and Howland reached out and low-fived him, obviously pleased with the defensive effort. There were subtle things, too, like pushing through screens aggressively, and providing nice help defense without reaching. Jones also really shined offensively, doing just about everything flawlessly. He shot 6-for-7, and 2-for-2 from three (to total 15 points), hit his one free throw, and dished out four assists against just one turnover. He started the game on fire; with CSUN leaving him open, he calmly knocked down every good look he had. What was most impressive on that early shooting streak was the mid-range pull-ups in semi-transition, under control and poised. On one mid-range he penetrated with good quickness, and then stepped back to create space and hit the 12-footer. His passing, too, was exceptional, making the smart, easy pass, not trying to be flashy, and efficiently finding the open man. What was particularly impressive was how he remained poised and playing within himself; he started off on fire shooting the ball, but then didn't force his shot the remainder of the way. Of course, again, this was against a bad CSUN team, but it was probably the best point guard performance by a Bruin in a year. He was the best player on the court.
Competing with him for that title was Reeves Nelson. We've been critical at times of Nelson in the past, mostly with what we perceived as a lack of effort defensively and a penchant for playing sloppily on offense. But, in my opinion, this was Nelson's best all-around game as a Bruin, merely because he showed an enormous amount of development and maturity. He finished as UCLA's high scorer, with 17 points, and had four rebounds, which isn't close to either one of his all-time game highs, but he did so many of the little things right in this game. Most importantly, he played perhaps the best defense we've seen him play, making a real effort to stay in front of the ball and not gamble on the perimeter, and holding his position in the post, while also calmly taking two charges. He was matched up against CSUN's best player for much of the game, Lenny Daniel, and Daniel went 0-for-4, scored 1 point and had five turnovers. Even though it was a rushed shot at the end of the shot clock, Nelson also hit the first three-pointer of his career (the first one he's attempted, so he's shooting 100% from three as a Bruin). Being leaner and quicker, Nelson is definitely a force in transition, not only getting out on the break to finish, but in passing the ball. He was credited with only one assist on the night, but he had many nice passes that led to the assist. His one credited assist was a nice scoop pass against the zone inside to Josh Smith. He also had probably the most athletic play of his career, when he made a spectacular catch of a too-high alley oop from Tyler Lamb with one hand and slammed it in. Now, we know we can't expect Nelson to play this way every game (he didn't commit a turnover, the only Bruin not to among UCLA's nine-man rotation); he almost assuredly will make some mistakes this season. But this was a very encouraging sign, and a definitely stop forward for Nelson.
UCLA's other big headliner, Tyler Honeycutt, didn't have a good game, however. He started off fine, making a couple of very nice assists, and actually playing well despite having not scored in the first 5 minutes or so. But then his game broke down, and the street ball element took over. He committed 7 turnovers, five in the first half, and he was very creative in the many ways he committed them. In one sequence, he was very sloppy with the ball, holding it with one hand, when his defender stole it from him, and then on the next possession he made a lazy pass, and Howland quickly yanked him. In one sequence in the second half, the ref could take his pick among violations when Honeycutt had the ball in one sequence, traveling twice while getting whistled for a three-second call. And it just wasn't the turnovers. He got backdoored and taken off the dribble on defense, and a couple of times he caught the ball at the high post against the zone and, with his back to the basket, jumped and tried to spin and shoot in the air. He got bailed on one of those attempts with a foul, but it was a bit strange and highly undisciplined. It's a good sign that Honeycutt still scored 16 points and pulled down 6 rebounds -- that he can get those kind of numbers on clearly one of his worst performances. And it's not as if the sloppiness and lack of discipline are unfixable – hopefully.
Malcolm Lee had a solid game, with 8 points, 4 boards, and 4 assists against 3 turnovers. He played some very exceptional defense – on one play, staying in front of his man by moving his feet incredibly well, and then going up quickly to get the block on the shot. In the first half, he hit a couple of nice, under-control mid-ranges. Where he's struggling is in shooting the three – going 0-for-3 in this one and, if you combine the exhibition games, he's 2-for-11 so far this season.
Josh Smith played just 20 minutes, with Howland subbing him liberally, and he finished with 9 points and 7 rebounds. It's clear at times just how he's truly on another level in terms of talent – when he easily goes up over everyone else to get an offensive rebound, and then goes back up for the put-back and defenders look like gnats that he can just swat away. When he catches the ball in the block it's advisable for defenders to just get out of his way.
The supporting cast of Jerime Anderson, Brendan Lane, Tyler Lamb and Anthony Stover was solid, collectively providing good play in the considerable minutes they provided off the bench. Lamb and Lane, in fact, played 21 minutes each. Lane led all rebounders with 8 boards and Lamb tied for the lead in assists with 4. Lane had one of the most memorable plays of the night, when he ripped the ball away from a Matador who had just made a defensive rebound, and then Lane went back up and threw it down one-handed. Lamb made a couple of very pretty passes, and played good defense. Anderson struggled a bit offensively, turning it over in transition a couple of times, but also was good defensively, being very good at anticipating passes and stepping into lanes, getting four steals on the night. Stover led the team with four blocks, and played very good post defense. It's a testament to what a redshirt year can do for a developing big man, and to the coaching staff (and the kid) in regard to how far Stover has already come. It's exciting to consider how much better he'll get over the next four years.
There were a few things we could nitpick. Probably the biggest failure in this game was the inability to get Smith a touch in the post. Every time he toched it something good happened – either he scored or assisted. When other opponents actually defend UCLA's perimeter players better and don't allow them so many open looks, UCLA is going to have to get Smith the ball if it wants to consistently score. For whatever reason, UCLA didn't rebound nearly as well as you would have though, edging CSUN, 39-38. They allowed far too many offensive rebounds by Northridge (18), which gave the Matadors too many second chances. It's a bit of a by-product of the running mentality, where you have players releasing before the rebound is even secured. UCLA had a huge amount of turnovers (22), but that might be a bit misleading, because if you took away most of Honeycutt's sloppy ones and the ones committed by the walk-ons in garbage time, UCLA probably would have committed about 14. Howland also had to manage UCLA's bigs because of foul trouble – with Smith, Stover and Nelson all having two fouls about midway through the first half. The offense seemed to look out of sync against the zone a bit (like they always have under Howland), and were a bit awkward in breaking the ¾ press CSUN attempted a few times.
There were many positive little nuances, too. Of course, they shot the ball well, shooting 72% in the first half (finishing at 57%). The collective ability – and desire -- to pull up and hit the mid-range jumper is especially encouraging, since they'll probably get many of those looks in semi-transition. As we've said, this UCLA team has a chance to be an elite shot-blocking squad, which will definitely be beneficial when the issue of on-ball defense arises. And the team did many things better defensively, particularly hedging screens. Getting 19 assists on 29 baskets is a very good percentage, and shows that this team likes to pass and is good at it.
So, it was good season opener for the Bruins, with the exceptional games of both Jones and Nelson boding particularly well for the rest of the season.