The game was interesting because, for probably the first time this year, UCLA was faced with a team that had a few real athletes, which presented some greater challenges on both ends for the Bruins than they’ve faced this year. Long Beach State also elected to play a great deal of zone defense, which marked the first time UCLA has had to face a consistent zone this year. The combination of those two factors led the Bruins into their worst shooting performance of the year, with UCLA hitting just 40% of its shots on the night. That the Bruins were able to win was a testament to, first, the significant growth in Norman Powell’s game over the last year and, second, the excellent length that UCLA has inside on defense.
We’ll start with Powell. As we’ve said all along, if you had to pinpoint one player who benefitted greatly from the change in coaches after the 2012-13 season, it was Powell. He made real strides as a player last year, but this year, asked to shoulder the load as a primary scoring threat, he looks up to the task. He’s clearly improved his stroke, looking much smoother, and he clearly has the green light to shoot whenever he’s open (he’s averaging nearly five attempts from three per game after averaging fewer than two last year). Against Long Beach State, Powell was absolutely critical. Virtually every time LBSU cut the lead into single digits, Powell had a response, either driving in off the wing for a slam or hitting a big three. He was about the only player who was efficient offensively, hitting eight of 14 and four of seven from three, and defensively he did a good job of limiting Tyler Lamb when matched up in man. Through four games against admittedly average-to-poor competition, Powell is shooting 50% from three, which is just such a huge switch for him from the last two years. If he can keep up that shooting clip through the remainder of the non-conference season, it’s going to open up significantly more driving opportunities, which is where he really excels.
Defensively, UCLA was able to limit Long Beach, especially in the second half, thanks to the length of the Bruins’ interior defenders. Kevon Looney, Thomas Welsh, Wanaah Bail, and Tony Parker all did a very nice job of disrupting any drives into the lane by Long Beach guards, especially when UCLA was in a zone and was able to collapse multiple defenders into the paint. The Bruins got a bit lucky that Long Beach shot poorly from three, but the interior defense, at this stage, looks to be the strength of the team on that side of the floor. Many of Long Beach State’s forays into the lane turned into turnovers or missed shots thanks in large part to UCLA’s length.
The defense certainly wasn’t great, though. UCLA allowed Long Beach State many open looks from three, as the guards almost universally did a poor job of closing out on shooters. It’s actually going to be interesting — with the personnel UCLA has, there’s the potential for a decent zone defense, given the length of Looney, Bail, Welsh, and Parker, but to have a good defense, it’s going to require consistent effort and awareness from the guards. So far we haven’t seen that, especially from Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford. If they can improve in that respect, it would go a long way toward making this a decent defensive team.
Bryce didn’t shoot it particularly well, hitting 4 of 15 shots. He also seemed to be forcing the issue a bit more than he was through the first three games, which is probably a testament to the higher level of athleticism on Long Beach State. He took a few really contested, tough looks, and seemed to be stymied a bit when LBSU went to the zone in the second half. Especially in transition and near-transition opportunities, though, he was effective in slicing through the Long Beach defense, finding open shooters. Powell was the recipient of a few good passes from Bryce, especially on those corner threes that Powell hit with abundance. It does seem as though getting the ball to Powell in the corner was a real focus for UCLA, and it’ll be interesting to see if teams going forward recognize it and try to take that away.
Looney didn’t play his best game, but he still showed flashes of why he can be a difference maker for UCLA this year, even stealing an inbounds at one point thanks to his incredible length. He blocked a couple of shots and was a big part of why UCLA’s interior defense was so stout. He looked to have the green light on that one trail three pointer he took, so it’ll be interesting to see if that’s something he can hit with frequency going forward. The bigs in general didn’t get the ball a ton in real post-up opportunities, which was in large part due to the struggles the guards had against the Long Beach defense, so none of them looked particularly effective on that end.
Parker and Welsh both struggled with fouls. For Welsh, it’s obviously simply a matter of him being a young player and not having adjusted to the speed of the game yet. He’s being caught reaching, or going over the back of players that are a little too quick, so he’ll probably improve in that regard as the season goes along. For Parker, though, the fouls had to be a bit disconcerting. Heading into the Bahamas, UCLA will need Parker to play significant minutes (probably in the 28+ range) because Welsh and Bail probably aren’t completely ready for the high-level competition they’re going to face. That Parker got four fouls against the first team UCLA faced with some decent athletes has to be a worry.
Bail showed some good energy when he came in, and actually looked like he had a decent idea of what he was supposed to do in the zone on a few possessions, which was a good thing to see. He has really good athleticism, and seemed to cause Long Beach some issues with his length and energy. Allen still has a ways to go to be a trusted contributor at this level. He was left open from three and shot it four times, which is probably too much. He’s another guy with a little bit of length, so he has some value in a zone defense, and he showed some good effort. But his overall feel on the offensive end seems to be a bit lacking, and he has shown a tendency to throw the ball away on passes that have to travel more than eight feet or so.
UCLA now heads on the road for the first time this year to take on Oklahoma this week for the first game in the Bahamas. After taking care of the initial slate of mid-majors at home, the Bruins will face a tough group of opponents, likely no matter which side of the bracket they end up on (losers or winners). It should give us our first real look at how UCLA will deal with good opponents in the early season, and give us a firm understanding of where the team will need to improve going forward.