A slow start for the Bruins wasn't exactly surprising, given that they had blown out their previous three opponents and they knew Pepperdine wasn't very good. This UCLA team still has a long way to go in terms of learning how to play with focus and intensity for forty minutes. For the first eighteen minutes of the game, the Bruins played lackluster defense – both in the half court and transition – took some questionable shots and were very careless with the ball. It also didn't help when they lost Malcolm Lee to a sprained ankle early in the game.
The good news, though, was how the Bruins responded when they did get down. Granted, Pepperdine isn't very good and being down late in the half against them isn't the same as being down to, say, Washington or Arizona. But once the Bruins decided to take care of the ball, and began playing with more energy on defense, the talent gap was obvious and the game wasn't in doubt the rest of the way.
In addition to the loss of Lee, another factor that hurt the Bruins in the first half was the foul trouble of Josh Smith. He sat out much of the first half with two fouls and ended up only playing 15 minutes in the game. But a stretch in the second half where he dominated the paint showed just how much he was missed in the first half when the Bruins struggled. Smith changes the game with his presence in the paint at both ends of the court. And early in the game he was even doing a good job defensively away from the basket, hedging well against a couple screens and forcing a couple Pepperdine turnovers.
Smith is going to probably have some foul trouble issues going forward, as he adapts to the college game and continues to work on his conditioning and weight. But if the Bruins are going to do anything meaningful in the conference and the post season, Smith needs to be a focal point on offense. The Bruins aren't going to beat good teams consistently by shooting jump shots and getting easy baskets in transition. They need to develop Smith, as he is by far their best low-post player and he has a chance by February/March to be a game changer. His size, great hands, feel for the game and passing ability are unique. He will no doubt have growing pains and he isn't going to be a dominant scorer right away. But the Bruins would be well served by learning how to feed him as often as possible. Post-entry passes are something of a lost art in college basketball and that's an area that all of the Bruins need to focus on going forward.
Speaking of focus and passing, those are two areas where Tyler Honeycutt needs to improve. While he's easily the most talented player on the team, Honeycutt has struggled with both his focus and passing so far this season. He's been way too careless with the ball, committing a team-high 12 turnovers so far this year. And the vast majority of them have been either from carelessness or attempting high-risk passes. Honeycutt actually has very good vision and he can be a good passer when he's focused. But there have been too many instances in the first few games where he's not valuing the ball and making poor decisions. His focus defensively has been shaky at times, too, as he doesn't always get in a stance and plays too upright. Honeycutt did, however, play a good game once he got his first-half turnovers out of the way. He filled the stat sheet with 16 points, four rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block. There aren't many players in college basketball with Honeycutt's versatility and skill set. Like the Bruin team as a whole, Tyler is a work in progress and he's still learning how to compete for forty minutes a night. Like Smith, Honeycutt has a chance to be a dominant player by the end of the season if he can improve his focus and approach to the game.
Like most of the Bruins, Reeves Nelson struggled in the first half as he took a few questionable shots and did a poor job defensively, especially in transition as he jogged back numerous times. If he can learn to run to the defensive end of the court as quickly as he does to the offensive end, Nelson will take a big step forward as a player. He did do a good job taking a charge on one possession, but overall his effort level wasn't good in the first half. On one particular play, he stood and watched as Keion Bell got a loose ball and had all day to set up for a three in the corner.
In the second half, though, Nelson had a very nice block as he recovered off a screen and his energy level picked up considerably. He began to gobble up defensive rebounds and he attacked the basket on offense. Nelson is at this best when he's playing around the basket, whether it's in transition or the halfcourt offense. While he's previously been somewhat of a black hole on the low block, he made a couple nice passes out of the post in this game. When he's playing with energy and purpose, Nelson can be a very effective player for the Bruins. If he can learn to play hard all the time – especially when things aren't going well for him – Nelson will see his game go to a different level.
While Brendan Lane's numbers weren't anything special – seven points, four boards, three assists and a steal – he actually played a very solid game. He was the most consistent Bruin at the defensive end, even in the first half when most of them were struggling. He had the best play of the first half when he not only bumped a cutter, he ended up getting a charge on the play. He's one of the better defenders in terms of knowing his assignment and he plays very good team defense. He also knocked down the only two three-pointers he attempted. He ended up playing 26 minutes as he spent a good deal of time at center while Smith sat with foul trouble. Given the amount of time that he missed in the off season, Lane has been a pleasant surprise so far. It's a shame that he missed all that development time, though, as you can see he'd be much farther along right now if he hadn't missed all those months in the off season. But with his ability to knock down shots, and play the four or five, Lane could be a very important piece for the Bruins this season.
Lazeric Jones struggled early in the game, with a couple questionable shots and decisions. But he picked up his play late in the first half and played a very solid game from there on out. He's probably never going to be a great distributor, as he doesn't have great vision and he's not a real good passer. But on a young team that will be prone to losing its focus, Jones looks to be a steadying influence. He's generally played solid defense and he only has two turnovers so far in 52 minutes. So if he's not going to be a dynamic playmaker, at least it looks like he can take care of the ball and potentially provide some leadership. He's knocking down open shots when he gets them and he's taking good shots overall. He's not going to be a great on-the-ball defender, but he's done fairly well in that area. Jones doesn't have a great skill set and he's not a big-time athlete. But if he can continue to hit the open shot, play solid defense and take care of the ball, the Bruins have enough talent at the other positions to contend for the Pac-10 title.
With Malcolm Lee injured, Jerime Anderson ended up playing some minutes at shooting guard, in addition to backing up Jones at the point. Anderson had a fairly mediocre performance against Pepperdine, as he missed a couple free throws and only took three shots in 22 minutes. Anderson did play decent defense in the second half, as he was a little more active in defending the ball. Staying in front of the ball, and not turning it over on offense, are two areas where Anderson needs to improve. While he's definitely improved from last year, you can see Anderson is still struggling to regain his confidence after a disastrous sophomore year. But he's a nice complement to Jones and he also has the size and athleticism to play some minutes at the two.
Tyler Lamb had a rough night shooting the ball, as he went 1-10 from the field, but he played a pretty good game otherwise. His defense was solid and he had four assists with one turnover. Through the first two games, he leads the team with eight assists so far and only two turnovers. He's been one of the more consistent defenders on the team and he's played with surprising poise for a freshman.
While it's difficult to draw too many conclusions from four easy wins over two exhibition opponents and two bad D-1 teams, it is safe to say that this Bruin team is more athletic and more talented than last year's squad. There are questions about just how good a defensive team they will be and also concerns about leadership on the court. But it's encouraging to see them win easily against the teams they should dominate and also to see the potential for growth. The Bruins have a number of players that can be much better by the second half of Pac-10 play and, hopefully, the NCAA tournament. They have a long way to go to reach that potential, but at least the possibility for growth is there. This team has upside and it will be interesting to see just how much of that potential is realized this year.