The game against Shanghai Jiao Tong University Monday most closely resembled an AAU game. This game, against the pro team, the Sharks, looked more like an average UCLA exhibition game.
As was probably intended, the game Monday had very little structure, but Coach Ben Howland coached against the Sharks more like a true game, calling offensive sets and obviously trying to get the team more under control and disciplined.
It succeeded, to a degree.
Remember, too, this is a huge work in progress for the Bruins. We're not used to seeing them in August, so they're particularly more raw, unsettled, inconsistent and incohesive than even when we first see them in the standard exhibition games in the beginning of November.
UCLA built a 12-16 point lead by the end of the first quarter, and then held that lead for most of the game, up until the last few minutes.
If you were going to generalize overall about how the team looks -- without Shabazz Muhammad -- it's pretty easy. In this game, it looked a great deal like last year's team with a few minor changes. Travis Wear and David Wear were on the floor quite a bit and their same selves; Josh Smith was on the court sparingly and his same self; Tyler Lamb looks like he's just about his same self, able to go on a bad streak of turning the ball over and making poor decisions, and then going on a streak where he is the primary force of the game; What's different: Norman Powell looks improved, better defensively and more confident offensively, especially in taking his outside shot, but he was on the bench for a long stretch in this game; Then, subtract Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones and add a fairly innocuous Larry Drew; add a streaky and inconsistent Kyle Anderson, and then easily the biggest addition, at least on this trip -- Jordan Adams.
This level of competition is ideal for Adams. The lack of athleticism from the Sharks dramatically helped him, the Sharks ran quite a bit of zone, which made Adams the primary zone buster, and because the Shark guards and wings aren't necessarily quick or great ball handlers his long reach creates turnovers and easy baskets on the other end. Probably his best play in this game was in semi-transition when he's driving to the basket and finds a couple of Sharks in his way, and rather than force it, he took a quick step-back in the lane and hit an easy 5-footer. Against this competition, he's more than just a good outside shooter; when given a little space, which he created with a head fake or a jab step, he could take the ball to the basket in this game and sneakily finish or get fouled. You want Adams fouled because he's close to automatic at the line. The big question: Will he be able to do it when he plays against decent athletic opposition? Defensively, besides getting the steals, he struggled to stay in front of his man a number of times, which isn't a good sign.
Anderson was having a fairly poor game and then had a mini-surge in the second half where he put together some good minutes. He started to realize that the Sharks can't rebound, so he hit the boards more aggressively and got some easy putbacks. Trailing on the break, Lamb found him, and Anderson then lofted an alley-oop to Travis Wear for a slam. On the next possession, the shot clock was winding down and he hit a 22-footer. But earlier, he was out of control a number of times. He has a habit in these last two games that look very AAU-esque of driving into the lane without anywhere to go and then jumping to pass. He also had a number of moments where he struggled defensively to keep his man in front of him -- when he was actually matched up against one of the Sharks' post players. Again, not a great sign defensively.
Drew was in just about every minute of the game until the very last few minutes, and was mostly inconsequential. He's persistent on defense, fighting through and around screens with energy. But there isn't much else he brought to the table in this game.
In fact, it was interesting that the team on the floor in the last several minutes of the game, when UCLA blew up its lead from 15 or so to 30, seemed to be better without him. Anderson, Lamb, Powell and Adams were the functioning perimeter players on offense and there seemed to be a better connection with them playing together.
To Lamb's credit, after he had some really poor minutes, he was the main catalyst to UCLA blowing open the game. He had a couple of steals, hit a big three that stretched the lead to 80-61 and then found Anderson trailing on that one break. Before that, though, he was playing particularly out of control; it might be dangerous to match Lamb with a more running style, because when he gets on the break his discipline and decision-making breaks down considerably.
Offensively the team was marginally successful. It wasn't as careless in transition as it was Monday, and it looked a little more structured in the half-court offense. The Sharks played some man, too, and in typical UCLA fashion it looked better against the man, able to execute Howland's sets. It had a few good possessions against the zone, with some good ball movement and high-low action, but much of the time it broke down to the team just rotating the ball around the perimeter until Adams look a three-pointer.
Defensively it wasn't a good performance. It looked very much like last season in its team-wide inability to stay in front of dribble-drivers, and really struggled in being able to defend a simple pick-and-roll. Smith looked strikingly familiar getting lost against it, allowing the post to roll to the basket unguarded for easy baskets. Take into consideration, too, the team looked fatigued by the second half. It came out with some energy initially, but then fell off the cliff, which will happen when you're only utilizing eight players and playing two games on successive days. The Sharks were a much-better shooting team than Jiao Tong, and they just needed a little space to hit their shots, which they found as UCLA tired.
UCLA won this game for one reason primarily: The Bruins got just about every rebound. The Sharks can't rebound, and to compound their inability they'd rotate back quickly after every shot to try to prevent UCLA's break. Even on UCLA's offensive end, the Bruins got a huge amount of offensive rebounds and subsequent putbacks.
From a team perspective, a positive takeaway is that UCLA has a chance to get some baskets in semi-transition. The break has a great deal of work ahead of it, and it will get better when it gets one of the best break finishers around in Muhammad. But many times, even with the Sharks having gotten back after a missed shot, UCLA pushed the ball and then executed a nice secondary break, either with a trailer coming through the lane or a shooter spotting up, primarily Adams. Lamb and Powell, too, look very comfortable taking that shot with space on the secondary break. It's what UCLA had been doing quite a bit of work on in practice this summer and it looks like it could be productive.
Howland, though, clearly has a great deal of work to do. More than likely, a large part of the dynamic of the team is going to change with Muhammad getting 30 minutes per game. Wtihout him, in China, the Wears were on the floor as much as they were last season, especially without Anthony Stover. We're skeptical, though, that, even with a healthy Tony Parker at his disposal, Howland is going to opt for Parker over one of the Wears to provide back-up minutes at the five. In fact, we sense that if Smith doesn't make strides in the next couple of months, the Wears could be taking minutes from Smith at the five. And Anderson could clearly be a big contributor if he settles in and refines his game.
And then, as we anticipated, it's pretty clear the biggest question for this team is going to be defensively.
The China trip definitely was a success -- providing a unique look at the team in August, and to help provide the plan for the work Howland needs to get done between now and November.
UCLA head coach Ben Howland
on the level and style of basketball in China, versus the United States
"Our system is set up to where players who are developing for the professional level go to school. They are learning and they are student-athletes. A lot is demanded of them, both educationally and basketball-wise. I think that it helps them in many ways. I know that here [in China], kids join professional teams at a very young age and probably don't have as much education as they would have if they went to the university system like we do. I think it's very helpful for our players. I think it's good for developing basketball players and people that will be successful beyond basketball."
on UCLA's expectations for the coming season
"I think that we have a very good recruiting class that's coming into our program – three of the players were here with us in China. We have a very good group of returning players who learned a lot from last year. We have very high expectations to be successful going into this season. Our number one expectation is to try and win the Pac-12. Winning the Pac-12 automatically gets you a berth to the NCAA Tournament."
junior forward Travis Wear
overall impressions on the team's weeklong trip to China
"This whole trip has been a great experience. I have never been to China, but to come out here and experience the culture – the way that we have been embraced has been awesome. The hospitality that we have been shown has been excellent. I would really enjoy to see one of these teams come out to UCLA, and we could show them the same kind of hospitality that you showed us. As far as this game goes, the Shanghai Sharks are a good team. We know that they are missing some players. But, they gave us a fight and it was an awesome experience being able to enjoy this camaraderie and the way that this community embraced us.
freshman guard Kyle Anderson
on his performance Tuesday night
"I thought that I had a pretty good and complete all-around game. It just came along with the team game. It was about getting guys involved and defensive rebounds and doing things to allow the team to win."
on playing a more competitive team in China
"It was pretty cool. They had a different style of play, kind of an NBA style of play. They were very well-disciplined and well-coached, you could tell. They were staying on their feet, not falling for shot fakes, coming into jump stops, just the fundamentals and the basics. They cut it to 10 points, and that's when we got it together. We kept our composure and went on a great run. Basketball is a game of runs."
on what he has learned in his first three college games (all exhibitions)
"I definitely learned that you have to play hard. There are no possessions off in college. Every time you are out there, you have to give your all. It all comes with being well-conditioned. You've just got to play hard every second that you're out there."
on how the games in China will help going forward this season
"I think this helped me out a lot. I had no clue that this is how it was. I had a clue, but I guess I wasn't that well-prepared for it. But I think this got me pretty well-prepared."
junior guard Tyler Lamb
on fighting through a closer third quarter and getting the victory
"Our guys pulled it together and everybody kept their composure. I think that is really great for what is to come. They brought it back down to eight or 10 early in the second half. They were kind of sticking around. For us to have brought that lead back up is really good for us.
on responding to Shanghai trimming UCLA's lead in the third quarter
"Every team goes through adversity during a game. I mean, their crowd was into it and they started knocking down some shots. But we know how we are capable of playing so we went out there and executed. We just focused on making defensive stops and getting some easy baskets. We went in there and got a couple stops and that led to easy layups and open threes."
on what this team gained from its trip to China
"I think we know a little bit more of how we can play together and what we are capable of when we play a whole team effort on defense. We have multiple weapons – we can go inside and we have really good guard play. I think we are just trying to become a complete team. These three games helped us to see where we stand. I think we can go into practice for the real season and we'll be all right.
on the advantage of playing these exhibition games
"[During practice at UCLA] We practice against the same guys each day, so you know their moves and their go-to moves. But when you come out and play against teams like this, they don't know what to expect and you don't know what to expect. We just have to execute. I think we did a pretty good job of executing."
on looking ahead to the season and returning to Pauley Pavilion
"We can't wait to get back into Pauley. It's on everybody's mind. It's a really big deal for us to get back in Pauley and play in front of our UCLA fans and in front of our classmates. A lot of people couldn't make it to the games last year, but just to be able to come back and be able to play in Pauley, which is a historic place, is just great."