I am sure we all can agree that reasonable expectations are for UCLA to compete for a championship every season, but sometimes even elite programs have seasons that act as stepping stones toward that end. This season I would give a conditional B to the job that was done with the assumption Howland finished that job by bringing back all the players on a very inexperienced squad. Yes we were maddeningly inconsistent and failed to close games properly. We need to be a more consistent 3 point shooting team. We need our ball handlers to be able to make plays down the stretch. We need Honeycutt to learn to get into a more dangerous position in the lane where his full talent can be on display. We need Smith to get in better shape so he can move those feet to not get in foul trouble and late in games to dunk that damn ball with authority. All of these things are achievable and I expect more than a few of them to happen.
If everyone stays this could and should be a championship caliber team. The reality is any advice from Howland that says these guys should go pro is just plain crappy advice. Also the coach should adapt to utilize perhaps the talent he has on hand. If Powell and De'end are ball players I definitely think some pressing and gambling on defense should be in order along with our stay at home man2man defensive style.
One thing I really like about this team that rarely seems to get mentioned is how much they like to share the ball. Perhaps this is true to a fault and hinders us late because no one can take over. Sometimes our players actually think because Stover is open that is the right pass. Personally though in all this is the part of our team that I really do appreciate. They don't seem to care who does contribute and rarely do we take bad shots unless the shot clock becomes a factor. Can a true team in today's game gain the trust of 5 players late to make fts and not turn the ball over. Or will our guards and ball handling forward learn to handle late game pressure to get us easy looks?
Here are some past season grades (based on relative expectations) and achievable individual goals that will bring us to our big prize after the jump...
Malcolm Lee: A: Has made himself a great defender. He has also gone from a dreadful shooter to someone with decent form that might make a 3. He could take 1 more leap to become a good 3-pt shooter. 40 pct with all our interior weapons is definitely a doable expectation. In 1 game (from Mich St to Florida) he even learned to not double clutch every shot attempt in the paint. I think with ways to create room he can score more slashing and from the baseline.
Tyler Honeycutt: C: The most controversial and perhaps most important player on the squad. He has the toughest assignment guarding a guard, but also must focus that effort to do a better job staying in front of his man and fighting around screens. He also turns it over too much. But on the positive he is a terrific shot blocker, rebounder and passer (at times). I think he should spend a minimal amount of time shooting 3s in the summer. I don't think he squares his feet well on the catch, but his shot is improved enough and not my biggest concern. He should be living in the paint this summer to learn how to get stronger and surer with the ball because that is where all his talent will flourish. I think he needs more confidence under man pressure with the ball and needs to be a zone breaker catching the ball near the high post. He has a limited and weak array of basket making ability with defenders around him that he should be able to shoot over. Quick, decisive and strong in the paint and he will be NBA ready.
Josh Smith C+: Uncanny ability to move out defenders with his lower body to avoid offensive fouls. A force on the offensive glass. He can lose weight and become a physical force on both ends. That combined with a few shots he can learn to make when he is outside of a foot from the basket will make him scary good. He needs to improve that jumphook with his right and he needs to learn to shoot a shot with his left. This is not hard just about every mediocre interior player we face seems to be able to do this and for some reason our interior players are not equally adept within a few feet with both hands and that is just plain unacceptable from a coaching standpoint. He also needs to learn to set a good screen. We can't be so predictable just throwing to the post. Sometimes when you have the biggest bone-jarring pick you need to use it to allow your playmakers to attack. He should be screening the junk out of defenders both on and off the ball without drawing lazy moving screen fouls. The easiest jump to the next level if he can condition himself and improve his skills just a little
Reeves Nelson B+: The desire was much more consistent. The inside ability was similar, but he did gain confidence. I think his free throw shooting improved during the season. I think he has become mostly unselfish and a decent passer from the interior. I hate to say it because I don't want him to fall in love with it like the prince, but I think he will be a decent shooter from 15. 3s should be off limit, but 10-15 footers should be ok when you have a giant body like Smith in the middle. Ball reversals to him with Honeycutt allowing Honeycutt to rebound again on the offensive glass would add another thing teams would have to worry about. Also a little jump shot in the lane would help avoid those charges he always gets. I do love the aggression and his ability to run, but in college the big man with the strong drive usually gets penalized against the player that slides over and flops. Increased discretion and perhaps our guards becoming equally adept on the fastbreak push would suit us nicely.
Zeke Jones B+(1st half)/INC (2nd half): It started so promising, so at the end I hope the injuries were the problem. Jones is as important as anyone when it comes to those possessions late and putting games away. He has the ability to bail us out of bad possessions and that flat out went away in the 2nd half. He also was our best shooter pre-injury and this is vital. His defense is pretty mediocre and he gets beat off the dribble too much. Increased focus and effort playing man2man. I think when he comes back with a vengeance we will be in business.
Jerime Anderson B: Went from worthless to a contributor. However I refuse to go overboard and say he is good. I think it showed how limiting Zeke's injury was when even in my mind I wanted to say how Anderson would do at times instead. That being said maybe Anderson just scratched the surface. His ballhandling was much improved and he might be the best driver from in front when he had a seam. I am not sold on his defense. I think he is slow going over, under, through screens. It needs to be a mission for him especially when Smith is there. His next step is not as obvious because I no longer know what his potential. At a minimum a more consistent shot as well would be huge for what would be a really solid guard off the bench.
Tyler Lamb: C-: Defensively seems to have the right spirit and toughness. Offensively seemed a little lost and lacked confidence. Upside seems intact, so he could improve immensely or just a little if he can't find the minutes. He certainly will be pushed by newcomes De'end and Powell. I think Lamb should think combo guard because we can't have enough good ballhandling and shooting. Anything he can improve on to fill what could be vital minutes at any moment will be great.
Anthony Stover B-: A competent defender rolled in a truly terrible offensive player right now. The defense was a pleasant surprise by the end of the season. He will get smarter and stronger in that department. Offensively I am not so sure how much better he can get. Catching the ball is a must. Our team likes to share the ball and Stover if he is open must be able to catch, pass and score adequately.
Brendon Lane D: He showed a few glimpses sporadically, but he is quickly becoming James Keefe. Sometimes I think he is a square peg in a round hole. It feels like he has the ability to shoot, but is hesitant or unwilling. I do think one of the toughest things to do is battle inside then have the presence to step outside and shoot the ball. I feel like we have enough strength and weight inside and Lane should spend less time worrying about the bulk and more time becoming a threat away from the basket. Again with Nelson, Smith and the Wears he needs to find a role to help this team. I firmly believe that 1st you figure out how to become a terrific player and then you add the strength to compliment your game. It feels like Keefe and now Lane have sacrificed who they were to fit a role that does not quite fit. Also defensively he has tunnel vision he either too worried about just his man or just plain clueless. I suppose that is part of the drawback to playing a stay at home man2man with guards and a small forward that don't sometimes even slow down a dribble penetration. Now with the Wears coming in I am not sure where the minutes are going to come from. Might he redshirt?
Ben Howland B: Huge improvement from a debacle of a season, but maddenly inconsistent team. Lee really bailed our defensive philosophy out by becoming so terrific, but I question our ability to play straight up man2man with Anderson, Honeycutt and Jones. If they improve then my worries about mixing defenses in the grand scheme are unfounded. That being said it's our offense that seems to have the real issues. At times we look terrific and others we stagnate. Coach or players? Do we adapt in the course of play adequately? If a team limits what we are trying to do why do we not seem to have another plan of attack? Is it our players failing to recognize or the coach failing to figure it out? I feel like our inconsistency stems more from our ability to play offense. When we are rolling on that side attacking the paint effectively we seem to take the offensive fight out of the opposition (the arizona game comes to mind). chicken or the egg with this I suppose, but the bottom line is we will not win a title unless we have a top notch offense to match a top notch defense. Howland needs to figure out how to get it done on both sides of the ball. I am talking about at minimum top 5 in offense on kenpom. Statistically we are much further away on that side of the ball at the moment. And I will refer to that site where the last 6 national champions finished the season either 1 or 2 in adjusted offensive efficiency. And yes they all had top defenses, but the offensive rating has either been an unlikely anomaly or a predictor. The talent is stockpiled can we keep it for next season and get the most out of it?
Wear twins: Do they make us the most feared front line? Supposedly can add shooting, size, rebounding, scoring? I'll take hard working and fundamentally sound any day. I hope they have some skill and confidence to get the job done.
De'end and Powell: I can't help but hope we try some pressure defense. I have only seem some tape and De'end seems the more likely early contributor. He seemed unselfish and able to pass the basketball. With our apparent lack of an elite point guard I am hoping a good guard among these 2 will emerge that can help us especially at the end of games.
Remember teams can win a title without an elite point guard. Hopefully our team of guards can step up to be a solid college backcourt with the experience and confidence to both finish teams off and win close games. And since we will be doing the former a lot more then we only need to win a couple close ones. The optimist in me can't wait to look back on this season as the one that put us back into the national title picture. The pessimist in me sees 2 of the wrong defections and trouble in Westwood. Will we end up that contender next season or just lucky to make the tourney?