Hoop Season Preview: The Team

The team is, once again, on the youthful side, and there is a big hole where Malcolm Lee used to be, but the roster is now comprised of good-character players, which is a big factor, and frontcourt loaded...

Okay, so we're coming off a pretty good year.

We don't mean UCLA's basketball team. We mean BRO in being able to predict the basketball season.

Last year the season preview achieved new heights in projecting the season. In the Season Prediction, we predicted the first 27 games of the season correctly. While the team went 19-8, we were 27-0.

This is not just a shameful plug, or an irrelevant tooting of our own horn. It's to assert to you, my Bruin friends, that in being able to accurately predict the season and analyze the team so dead-on before the season, it goes a long way to adjusting your expectations so you have an enjoyable UCLA basketball experience every year.

Without this preview, you might go off half-cocked and feel UCLA is going to win the National Championship every year. So, we've come to believe that these season previews serve a bigger purpose and we take the responsibility reverently.

Let's get to the all-important evaluation of what the expectations should be for the 2011-2012 Bruins.

Remember those expectations you had for last season? Dust those off. UCLA should be just about as good as they were last season in terms of its won-loss record. But this team is certainly different in terms of its dynamic, chemistry and personnel, so while it might end up in about the same place it did last season it's going to take a completely different route in getting there.

Last year the team was particularly young going into the season, and that gave it an opportunity to mature and improve, which it definitely did. This year's team is probably just as "young," if you look at it in terms of its overall experience on the court. There are two seniors, and both play the same position and could possibly not bring their experience to the court at the same time (but we'll get to that later). UCLA's 11 available scholarship players are made up of 2 seniors, 3 juniors, 5 sophomores and 1 freshman. But because two of those players – a senior and a junior – are JC transfers, you're not benefitting from their usual amount of D-1 experience. Only one junior has had extensive playing experience. Two of the sophomores didn't even play last season, and two other sophomores averaged 8 and 12 minutes per game as freshmen. Only one player on the team has had two years of playing 25 minutes or more per game.

On one hand, it makes for a vast amount of inexperience. But, on the other hand, like with last year's team, it also provides a huge amount of potential for improvement.

The dynamic and chemistry in the program, too, has continued to improve. The roster is filled with good-character players, who have a good work ethic and attitude. While this sounds like platitudes, we can't emphasize enough how big of a factor these kinds of elements are in determining the outcome of the season. The disaster that was the 2009-2010 was greatly attributable to a poisonous environment in the program. There were just far too many bad apples. Head Coach Ben Howland definitely learned a valuable lesson that season, and in just a short time he's transformed the mental make-up of his program to one predominantly comprised of good citizens.

GUARDS AND WINGS

Much has been made of UCLA's backcourt heading into this season, and how it could be what holds back the team from ultimately being a top-tier national contender. We have to admit, we think that's generally an accurate appraisal.

And while you don't want to keep re-visiting it, it has to be mentioned that the tragic departure of Malcolm Lee is, well, just that – tragic. The fact that Lee entered the NBA Draft last spring and was taken low – in the second round – would be tragic enough. But the fact that everyone in the world was aware that the NBA would be shut down due to the lockout this season and that Lee wouldn't even be playing now makes the tragedy compound. And then the ultimate in tragedy: Just about any way you look at this year's Bruin team most of what it's missing is exactly what Lee brought to the court. We could laundry-list it, but it would tear out your heart.

Suffice it to say: UCLA this season will probably reside somewhere in the 20-25 national rankings, once it gets its legs underneath it; but with Lee it very well might have been a top 10 national team.

Not to be overly dramatic, but the Ghost of Malcolm Lee is destined to haunt this season.

So, we'll start the team analysis at the vacancy Lee left – the two-guard position. Inexperienced sophomore Tyler Lamb is now the most likely candidate to take most of the minutes at the position, and Lamb, while he has some tremendous upside, has a long way to go to get there. All of it was on display Sunday night at UCLA's exhibition in Ontario against Cal State San Bernardino. Lamb was wound up, which you probably will see at the beginning of this season, and at times a bit out of control. He is going to be asked to be UCLA's designated defensive stopper, inheriting the role from the likes of Arron Afflalo, Russell Westbrook and the Ghost. There's a legitimate question of whether he's up for it. As of right now, he's clearly not, lacking the experience necessary to be highly effective at guarding the opposing team's best perimeter player. Physically and athletically, the jury is still out whether he'll be able to defend on the level of his predecessors. Effort-wise, he's trying to walk in the shoes of three guys who were poster boys for defensive effort. Them are some big shoes to fill. And we're talking whether down the line, say, by the time he's really grown into the role, if he really will be as good a defender as those other guys. Right now we know he isn't and it's unfair to Lamb to expect him to be. And we think it might even be unfair to expect him to be anytime this season – or even reach his own potential as a defender this season. For those other three guys it wasn't, really, until their second full season of playing they became superior defenders. Sunday night he struggled some to keep dribble drivers in front of him. Every game is going to be a learning experience for him. What is the most promising is that he clearly has the desire to fill that defensive stopper role, and will clearly put in the effort and get after it this season. In the off-season he got in excellent shape to prepare himself for playing extended minutes guarding the opposing team's best player. Offensively, Lamb brings some things to the table that really will lend itself well to this year's UCLA team. He probably is the best post feeder on the team, and this is a team with some posts that need to be fed. Not only is he good at it, he wants to do it. That might even be the bigger key; Lamb is very willing to defer his own scoring to the team's needs, unlike some UCLA perimeter players in the recent past. Lamb is also a smart player with good instincts, who functions well within Howland's offensive sets. When Lamb is supposed to be on a mark, he's usually there, in the proper position. You might not think this is a big issue, but with this offense it's all in the details. If just a couple of guys aren't where they're supposed to be, the entire offensive set is pretty much useless. So, Lamb is a very important cog. As a scorer, anything he can give the team this season will probably be considered gravy. He scored 5 points in 35 minutes against Cal State San Bernardino, on 1 for 6 shooting. He'll probably shoot better than that on the season, but we don't expect him to take more than, say, 8 or 9 shots per game this season. If he can make 45% of those, and shoot 35% from three, he will be able to be a reliable third or fourth option on the perimeter. His shooting stroke has definitely improved with the great amount of work he put in during the off-season. What will be key is his shot selection -- not taking ill-advised, off-balance shots out of the flow of the offense when he might get wound up and force things.

If we're talking about the shooting guard position, though, we're going to go out on a limb and make an educated guess: Lazeric Jones is going to be playing some shooting guard. In fact, we wouldn't be surprised if he's playing as many minutes at the two-guard spot by the end of the season as he plays at point guard. Why we think this isn't that big of a stretch. First, he and Jerime Anderson did play alongside each other some last season and were very effective. Secondly, Jones is probably the best outside shooter on the team. Thirdly, Jones is not a true point guard in terms of feel or vision, and Anderson is. Fourthly, getting back to the experience issue, you'd really like to get the experience of both Jones and Anderson on the court. Fifthly (?), Anderson can fairly adequately guard most of the shooting guards UCLA is going to be seeing. The one concern here with Anderson getting the majority of the minutes at the point guard spot is his occasional inability to bring up the ball securely – so if you still have Jones on the court, he can bring up the ball and Anderson can run the point in the half-court set. It seems to make a great deal of sense, right? We'll see if it comes to fruition, since we still believe that Anderson is a bit in the doghouse, not just in the fallout of the laptop issue, but still residual from his sophomore season when he was such a disappointment.

Jones will at least start the season getting a majority of the minutes at the point guard position and could very well get most of the minutes there throughout the year. If he does, we believe UCLA's offense is going to be held back in terms of its execution and effectiveness, both in transition and in the half-court. It's not the fault of Jones, he just isn't a natural point guard. That's not to say he won't occasionally make a nice pass, but he doesn't have the natural feel of a point guard to optimize UCLA's offense. Here's a great example that we saw Sunday night. UCLA was executing a halfcourt set, with its off-ball screens and ball rotation. Josh Smith was about to set up on the weakside block as a result of some screens, and the ball was being rotated to Jones on the weakside wing. Jones caught the ball a moment before Smith was posted up, but it was clear he was getting there. Jones, instead of having the feel of a point guard and, say, buying a moment of time with a look away, since he didn't see Smith there immediately, he quickly rotated the ball back to the other side of the court. A split second later, Smith was posted up and had sealed off his defender, but the post feed was now gone. All of that work, all of that precise movement and timing, all for naught. These are the little types of things that make a huge difference – and make a point guard a point guard. Sometimes Jones does them, but many times he doesn't, and it wastes a great deal of offensive opportunity for UCLA.

Freshman Norman Powell has some considerable upside, probably being the best all-around athlete on the team. In the exhibition, he looked like he was still getting acclimated, on both sides of the court. Offensively, it was obviously great to see him calmly knock down the three-pointer from the corner, and do it with a smooth release. Apparently they have been working hard with him on the mechanics of his shot, trying to get him more to stroke it than fling it. Offensively, though, it will be interesting to see if he gets enough leeway and feels confident enough to drive the basket, which he was very good at doing in high school and AAU ball, since he has a good first step and then can really elevate to the rim. Defensively, he has a chance to be very good because of his athleticism, but the question is going to be how badly does he want to be a good defender. If he's smart, he'll recognize those Bruins before him that saw the light of buying into Howland's defensive philosophy and how it's paid off in playing at the next level. Hopefully he won't go down the road of the too-cool-for-defense school, which we've also seen at UCLA in recent years. If he does buy in, he will have a chance to get a good amount of playing time this season since the backcourt is thin and Howland just doesn't have that many options.

JC transfer De'End Parker truly has a niche on this team. He is the only true small forward on the squad, which he could really exploit if he, too, buys in. Howland wants to use David Wear at the three spot, merely because Wear is a more refined player, can shoot and plays hard, but Wear would definitely be out of position and a liability on defense. That opens a door of opportunity for Parker. If he can, first, show that he can defend the position well that will immediately give Howland confidence in him as an option. If he, then, at the very least, proves to Howland that he's not going to make mistakes on offense then he'll have even more of a chance to see more minutes. The key for Parker is that he doesn't try to do too much. His shot isn't great, and Howland knows that, therefore Parker shouldn't take shots that Howland doesn't want him to take. If Parker takes a shot, watch to see if Howland is grimacing. On Sunday at the exhibition, when Jones fouled out, Howland called for a quick coaches' huddle away from the bench. It was clearly to gather opinions on whom they should go with – and Howland tapped Parker. He responded, playing hard on defense, and while he did allow some penetration, he looked fairly comfortable. And on the offensive side, he looked comfortable with the ball in his hands, which he's good doing, since he did play some point guard at the JC. This is really a big key to the season – whether Parker can win over Howland's confidence. Because, if not, Howland is going to be playing David Wear at the three, and that opens up UCLA to some big hurt defensively that ripples out across the entire defense and team.

BIGS

The focal point of the team is going to be Josh Smith. It makes logical sense, and it was very apparent in Sunday's exhibition. The halfcourt sets Howland has already installed are clearly designed to get Smith a touch. When CSSB made its run in the second half, it wasn't just because of a breakdown defensively for UCLA, but the Bruins forgetting to get Smith touches. In that game, as we wrote in the review, Smith scored 26 points and he still had the same issue he had last season – going up soft around the basket. By the end of last season it seemed like he had made a vast improvement on that front, but if Sunday is any indication he's going to have to review those pages in his development manual. Smith doesn't look much slimmer than last season, maybe slightly, and to be candid that's in the 375-pound range. He does appear to have much better stamina, playing 27 minutes on Sunday without seemingly any real fatigue setting in. He probably won't ever be asked to play more than 33 minutes or so in a game, and that would probably be his top end anyway given his penchant for fouling. The body issue is, then, less about stamina and more about his effectiveness and mobility if he were, indeed, lighter. But that was something that Smith should have more seriously addressed in the off-season; now that the season's here you can't really expect him to lose weight. You can expect Smith, overall, to be improved on just about every front from his freshman season, being better offensively around the basket, being better defensively in the post. It took Howland about 2/3s of the season to realize that a 380-pound center shouldn't be out 25 feet from the basket hedging screens, so Smith will "plug" now and be more effective doing so, like he was toward the end of last season. The fact that Smith won't be going through the beginning-of-the-season learning curve this year like last year is probably good for a couple more wins. And what's probably good for maybe one or two more in the win column is Smith's improvement in free-throw shooting. Watching his stroke from the line Sunday, it wasn't a fluke that he hit 14 of 18 free throws. He shot 61% from the free-throw line last season, while averaging just 21 minutes per game. If he improves his free-throw shooting, say, ten percentage points, to just 71%, and averages 28 minutes per game this season, right there that's good for another 3 points per game, at least.

Reeves Nelson is naturally getting a lot of the pre-season player hype for the team since he is the returning leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 13.9 points and 9.1 rebounds per game last season. It's not too much to expect Nelson to have improved in this, his junior season, with a more refined game, a better outside shot and more focus and consistency, particularly in the defensive effort department. He made strides last year as the season progressed, with less variation in his effort level game by game. To be candid, with the departure of Tyler Honeycutt, who was the other guy who could vary greatly in his effort level, Nelson's inconsistency in this area will probably be less impactful. If now the entire team is playing hard defensively around Nelson, and if he goes through his inevitable lulls, it shouldn't be as noticeable. We're sincerely hoping that Nelson has continued to mature and has put much of the inconsistent approach and attitude behind him. Realistically, a tiger can't change his spots entirely, so you have to expect some. Here are the ways it could go: 1) Nelson gets caught up in the play-hard attitude of the rest of the team and plays harder defensively for longer periods of time than he did previously, 2) Nelson goes contrary and gets discouraged by Smith being the clear go-to guy in the post, and that's reflected in a continuing poor effort on defense, which, for a team that will depend strongly on team defense, restricts the team from being a good defensive team. It will probably be a bit of both #1 and #2, but you have to hope for mostly #1.

Howland now, though, does have something he can threaten Nelson with to get him under control – and that's the Wears. Howland loves the Wears, clearly, and I don't think he'd hesitate to play them over Nelson if Nelson goes rogue.

We touched a bit on David Wear's issue at the small forward spot, which is going to be a constant issue since Howland will want to get the Wears on the court, while he's playing Nelson 31 minutes per game and Smith probably 28. David and Travis are true fours, really not big or physical enough to guard big-bodied 5s in the post, and not nearly quick enough to guard legitimate high-major small forwards. So, it makes for a logjam at the four. The Wears are tempting for Howland to play at the three since they are decent shooters, play hard, and do their assignments. If Howland comes to the revelation sometime during this season that the Wears really can't play the three, well, on one hand it's good since it will probably boost UCLA's defense. On the other hand, it's going to create a whale of a problem with playing time. The Wears will be be able to get time at the four behind Nelson, and some time at the five with certain match-ups that are favorable. But it really is going to be one of the most interesting aspects of the season – just how Howland expects to get the Wears playing time. David played 32 minutes Sunday night, at the three, four and five, while Travis played 15 minutes, at the four and five.

Now, of course, it's all going to get even more complicated when Anthony Stover returns from his should injury. It might actually be a while, since we've heard it's more serious than UCLA is letting on. But when he does return, where is Howland going to find minutes in the post? Stover is someone you absolutely have to get on the floor because he is clearly the best post defender on the team, not only in terms of shot-blocking but in ability to defend the post and provide help.

Then there is also Brendan Lane, who could be the odd man out. Lane, who is now a junior, has shown flashes of talent over the last two seasons, but then has gone into a lack-of-confidence funk at times. With Howland having so many options in the frontcourt he really doesn't have to tolerate those funks. Lane didn't play at all in the exhibition game and for no explicable reason other than he is already doing the odd-man-out thing.

OFFENSE

It's very clear what UCLA intends to do offensively this season, get the ball inside. Smith and Nelson are going to be the bread-and-butter of the offense. It was already very evident in the sets installed for the CSSB game, with the intention of getting the bigs, particularly Smith, touches inside.

What you'll probably see less of are the more perimeter-oriented sets that Howland has utilized to get guys like Mike Roll and Tyler Honeycutt outside looks. Those two used to come around multiple screens to catch and shoot all day long. There really isn't anyone to do that with, except for possibly Lazeric Jones. He is UCLA's best outside shooting threat, and he'll probably get plenty of looks as opposing defenses collapse inside against UCLA's bigs. The Bruins can expect to see a lot of zones this season, trying to keep the ball out of the hands of the Bruin bigs and make UCLA's perimeter guys beat you. It's going to take consistent focus for UCLA's offense to get its bigs the ball down low, and not let opposing defenses dictate where UCLA gets its shots. This all, though, will open up a great opportunity for any UCLA player who can consistently hit outside jumpers, probably getting fairly wide open looks. If that isn't a guard or a wing, it could very well be one of the bigs themselves, with the Wears or Nelson looking for a kickout, like they did in the exhibition. If UCLA can do what it did against CSSB, hit 5 of 8 from three per game, that should be sufficient enough to take advantage of opposing defenses collapsing inside.

UCLA will probably be less dependent on getting transition baskets than it ever has been since Kevin Love wore a Bruin uniform. It makes for an interesting dilemma for Howland: If he knows a fast-break, run-oriented attack isn't in the best interests of his team, since he'll probably get a pretty good inside look every time down in the halfcourt, does he still want to push the ball so that recruits believe UCLA does it? He'll clearly want to try to get transition baskets when they're available, and he'll still be yelling "Push, push!" every time UCLA brings up the ball, but expect UCLA to not get many of its points in transition. First, as I said, it probably isn't playing the odds when you have a potentially dominating half-court game, and then UCLA, with its personnel, isn't really a great transition team. It's not conducive to fast breaks when you have a bunch of 6-8 to 6-10 guys trying to run down the court, and then Jones isn't great leading a break, and the best finisher is an inexperienced freshman (Powell) who might see just 15 minutes per game.

Bottom line offensively, UCLA has a frontcourt that the vast majority of college teams just can't match up against. Now, other teams might be able to score on UCLA, but they probably won't be able to keep UCLA from scoring more with the dominating frontline it's going to put on the court.

DEFENSE

As it almost always is, UCLA's defense is the key to its season. And at this point it really is an absolute unknown how good UCLA's defense can be. There are some things that aren't good indications: 1) the personnel is overall pretty inexperienced, especially playing the type of defense Howland demands, 2) the personnel isn't overly quick or athletic, and 3) Howland has personnel that is crying out for a zone, again, but he doesn't like to play one. On the other hand, defense is so much about the level of effort a player and a team is willing to put out, and this team, if Sunday's exhibition game is an indication, looks to collectively be one that is willing to put out a good defensive effort.

What UCLA has done in the last couple of years, when it really hasn't had an over-abundance of great one-on-one defensive players, is scale back its man-to-man to less of a pressuring defense and more of the type that just tries to keep the ball in front of you. Without Westbrook, or Darren Collison, UCLA hasn't had anyone who can really pressure the opposing point guard and take him out of his game and disrupt the opposition's offense. If you might have noticed, back then, with those guys, UCLA extended its defense, now it tends to start a few feet inside the three-point line. UCLA's new man D is all about staying in front of the ball and then helping over if there is dribble penetration, and then also rotating quickly to compensate for the help. In fact, it really is Howland's version of a zone. UCLA has generally been mediocre at it in recent years, but then started to get quite a bit better toward the end of last season. It's simply why the Bruins started to play so much better. Pretty much Howland has to start all over again with this year's team, and take them through the whole learning process of getting them up to speed defensively. First, it's going to start with the perimeter defenders being able to stay in front of the ball, which was a problem again in the CSSB exhibition and, from what we hear, in the Cal State Fullerton scrimmage. Jones was only passably okay last year at it, while Anderson has improved. Lamb, Powell and Parker will have the non-conference season to get seasoned. Again, we think if that doesn't happen, by the start of Pac-12 play you could very well see Jones and Anderson playing alongside each other for longer stretches, because they are far more versed in the type of on-ball defense Howland wants. Right now, Lamb has an advantage over either Parker or Powell, since he's had a year in the program, but it literally is going to be a race between those three to see who can catch on quicker. Hopefully the competition will motivate all of them to improve.

It will really be the first season in a long time that UCLA hasn't had that true lock-down perimeter defender at the two-guard spot. It really is something the Bruins have come to rely on, and it's going to send a ripple through UCLA's defense without it this season.

So, the backcourt defense will be what it will be. Perhaps the key to UCLA's defense (and its season) is going to be how the frontcourt provides help. There inevitably are going to be dribble penetrators getting into the lane, so how effective they are will depend on how good UCLA's bigs are at sliding over and cutting off the lane. The Wears will undoubtedly put in the effort; Josh Smith improved as the season went on and looked better moving his feet and anticipating when he needed to provide help in the exhibition game (and he won't be so preoccupied with hedging like he had to be for a big portion of the season like he was last year); and Stover, as we said, is perhaps the best post help defender. Nelson has never been good at it, seemingly content with watching opposing guards penetrate into the lane but, to his credit, he got better late last season. If Nelson is going to play 32 or so minutes per game a big key to whether he deserves to be listed among the candidates for Pac-12 Player of the Year is if he does show the desire to provide help defense. That kind of post-season honor shouldn't be just about whether a player leads a team in scoring and rebounding, but should also be about whether he ultimately doesn't cost his team more points by not playing defense. We want to believe that Nelson has matured enough to now know this and has bought into making an effort in providing defensive help.

One of the most-recurring topics of the season, as it's been for the last few years, is going to be: Why doesn't Howland use a zone? The personnel he has naturally lends itself to one, but Howland is a staunch man-to-man guy. As the defense struggles early on, the zone discussion is going to get louder, as it did last season. We'll see if this team can develop and improve enough defensively for Howland to stick with his man D, or if he will reluctantly give in to playing some zone, like he did in 2009-2010. We think he won't give in. He hasn't practiced any zone in practice, from what we know.

OTHER FACTORS

The key on the court will be defense. But another big key to the season is going to be the team's dynamic. There are so many bodies in the front court and just not enough minutes to go around, so it's inevitable that there is going to be some degree of disgruntlement. It's also pretty clear that Howland loves the Wears, and I don't think that's lost on the other players. It's just generally a situation that needs a great deal of management, especially with a volatile personality that is prone to ups and downs and some degree of pouting like Nelson. It definitely is a big coaching challenge for Howland and his staff. We also think that Parker and Powell could potentially move into the disgruntled category without attentive management.

If Howland, though, can bring it all together, much like he did last season, there is a very good chance the team could be harmonious and clicking by the second round of conference play. While he does have some personalities and dynamics to manage, the team, as I said, is now predominantly comprised of good-character players who are willing to put in the work and sacrifice for the good of the team, probably moreso than in any time in the last three seasons.


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